One of the most popular Council responses to the Library duty is now to hand them over to volunteers. I have commented before that there appears to be very little assessment of whether this strategy works, so it is good to see some has finally been published on Leon's Library Blog. The research is largely based on analysis of a questionnaire sent to both volunteers engaged in managing libraries and Chief Librarians. It puts two questions in my mind. Let us take them in turn.
Do Community Managed Libraries Save Money?
Saving money in response to Central government grant cuts is one of the key drivers of local authority decisions now, yet that simple truth doesn't seem to get through. A key dilemma for Councils is that the more "support" they give to community managed libraries (CMLs), the less of a saving they make. Unless you have a belief that CMLs are ideologically superior to traditionally run public services (or indeed an outsourced library service) then financial savings are the only reasons to go for the CML approach.
The idea of volunteer libraries costing more seems quite counter intuitive, but think of the kinds of support that some organisations expect from Councils:
1) The building. In many cases this may be a significant capital asset. Local government law has safeguards against such assets being given away. I am not sure how the authorities concerned have circumvented these, but there is clearly an issue.
2) Building services: volunteers may expect ongoing support in facilities management such as paying utility bills, cleaning costs, repair etc. One special case is the business rates. A traditional local authority service would pay these. A trust or charity could avoid payment, but as the rates in England are now localised, that would be a cost via a different route.
3) Books, IT and other equipment. Many organisations appear to have been given the books and other stuff in the library at the end of the authority's occupation. Those either have to be replaced, or the authority has to diminish its book stock, damaging the traditional library service. More rarely, an authority may be expected to continue to include the CML in its own "ecology" allowing inter library loans and so on. That appraoch has various potential liabilities. Many people assume that things like books are static. Once they are there, they are there. In fact, effective library management constantly needs to replace books because of outdating, wear and tear, theft and so on. I believe the standard figures are that a paperback can be read about 24 times before needing replacement, and a hardback 100 times. Without constant reinvestment the quality of the stock will deteriorate.
4) Ongoing advice and training. This is a somewhat elastic category. Some authorities appear to give a basic one off bout of training. I have been told that others are giving regular ongoing support. This can be a significant burden on library management. Naturally volunteers with little previous experience of running a library may not know lots of things that the professional library staff take for granted. I am told that constantly giving advice in these matters is in some cases quite draining for the library staff.
Are Community Managed Libraries as Effective as a Municipal Service?
The whole CML approach is difficult to monitor because no one seems to quite understand what is being expected of a library service. The statutory duty is generally taken as defined quite narrowly. As commonly understood, it does not include community space or computers for example. In my experience, many people seem to be unaware of what services are actually offered. The research on Leon's Blog confirms this saying, that even people inside the library appear to be unaware of the extent of library services.
The research speculates that a "narrowing of service" was evidenced. In the case of stand alone libraries, I think this must be so. An authority like Brent offers access to about six million books through the London Lending Consortium. Even a standalone authority must surely have more books than a single building. However, I have seen claims (eg Highgate) that the library stock is actually improved. If so, I can only suspect that it must have been poorly managed to start with.
A second possible improvement is in opening hours. Authorities such as Merton claim that using volunteers has helped them improve opening hours. If so, this is a real boon, although unless the volunteers are trained to a similar level as paid staff I would think there is a reduction in quality of service.
The research suggests using a museum style accreditation system, which sounds like a good idea. However, there needs to be a proper definition of what the library is for. Any national standard, even non-binding ones, will tend to shift authorities towards that model, at the expense of whatever is not included.