As a result of the Brent Libraries Transformation Project, this blog has a wide number, some might say far too many, posts on public libraries. One aspect of this subject, which seems to fascinate many people, is volunteer run libraries. The Tory libraries minister, Ed Vaizey, seems especially starry eyed, despite the fact that volunteer libraries often arouse deep hostility among library campaigners.
Yet the information about them is really quite limited. The kinds of questions I am thinking of are: do they have higher or lower usage? Are they part of the overall Library Ecology? Do they maintain the same level of service? Do they save money? Do they add new things to to library services? I thought I would see if I can work out if there is any evidence about them, rather than just making assumptions. To this end I thought I would look around some examples in London.
The examples I could find in London were:
Barnet: Friern Barnet Library, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Camden: Primrose Hill Community Library, Belsize Community Library, Keats Community Library
Lewisham: Blackheath Village, Crofton Park, Grove Park, New Cross, Sydenham
Wandsworth: York Gardens Library
The only figures I could find on usage were from Lewisham, and they are fairly elderly. They seem to show a decline following the withdrawal of the Council, but Lewisham apparently no longer issues the individual library figures. [UPDATE Lewisham now appear to have restarted issuing figures here. The volunteer library figures have recovered so we hat, although they still seem quite small.]. Camden appear not to track the numbers of their Big Society outlets. Wandsworth seem to have some sort of contractual arrangement with York Gardens, so I assume the Council monitors usage in some way, but I cannot find figures available online. Friern Barnet ask people to give an address when they take a book out, so I assume they have a paper based record of how many books are borrowed, but I don't think the figures are published.
All this means it is very hard to work out whether the Big Society libraries have seen usage go up or down. If any of these libraries are tracking either visitor numbers or books borrowed, they are presumably using a different method to the methods employed when they were public libraries in the traditional sense.
Camden have definitely separated the Big Society libraries from the wider service (eg Belsize), so that you cannot borrow a Camden library book from any of the community libraries. Barnet appears to have a similar approach, and the Friern Barnet library site does not mention computers. York Gardens mentions a "small children library", and does appear to be integrated with the wider GLL network in Wandsworth.
In the case of libraries separated from the parent library service, I would think the traditional library service of periodicals, books and other printed materials must have narrower limits than the traditional public libraries, simply because of the size of the collections and substantial budgets available in a Borough Library service.
At least one community library argues that the quality of the stock has in fact gone up. However, I find it hard to see how any isolated library could match the number of books available to the Londopn Lending consortium, which has access to getting on for seven million volumes as well as ebooks and periodicals.
York Gardens reportedly has a £70,000 fund raising target from room hire. I am not sure that you can describe that as additional funding, as presumably the building could be hired out for as long as it was in Council ownership. Without published figures, it is hard to tell, but it sounds to me as if it is still getting some kind of at least in kind subsidy from the Council. For instance, there is no mention of paying any rent. There is also mention of drawing in a £5,000 grant from a bank, but overall I would guess York Gardens is a net cost to Wandsworth.
Camden have dedicated a substantial "transitional" grant to Primrose Hill Library. The total sum was reported by the CNJ as about £350k. This does not include "rent relief." Primrose Hill has reportedly attracted substantial additional funding, and seems capable of holding events that raise thousands of pounds. Keats Community Library have a fundraising target of £80k, although they seem to have difficulty meeting their targets after the initial enthusiasm.
Lewisham community libraries were reported to have benefited from substantial transitional grants during set up. Eco Computer Systems appeared to get a 25 year lease on the buildings.
Services Additional to Library Use
Many of the volunteer libraries claim to be "much more than just a library". I am really not sure what this means. It seems to be based on an old fashioned notion of libraries as just places storing books and computers, but I think that these days library services such as Brent offer a huge range of services, as you can see from the Brent Libraries Events calendar. These sort of things go beyond even my fairly broad definition of the statutory library duty, and I don't think any of the community libraries offer anything additional.
Where a community library is offering services completely additional to library services, such as Eco Computer Systems IT recycling, for example, it raises the fear that the extra activity will crowd out the library use. This has been hinted at in some of the reports. For instance, the chief executive of The Winch (associated with Belsize library in Camden) is quoted as saying: "We hope people will buy work time and it will become a ‘community lounge’. In terms of books on shelves, that will still be there and the
service will still function, but without access to Camden’s stock it
will be interesting to see how much people will use the library for
books.” That sounds to me a lot like an expectation of gradual decline.
Is all this Sustainable?
This really makes me wonder whether volunteer libraries are more than a slow motion closure programme which risks draining resources away from public libraries at a time when the cuts to local government are reducing resources in any case.
I certainly can't see any prrof for Ed Vaizey's belief that volunteer libraries are hugely successful. Quite simply, no one seems to have collected any evidence on the subject. Nor is it all clear that they are cheaper. We seem to have embarked on a big experiment without working out any kind of baseline or made any effort to find out the actual results.
There is a rare example of actual library numbers in volunteer libraries in Manchester here. Again, not a good picture for advocates of a volunteer led service.