What’s the truth about volunteer-led libraries?




A few years ago, public libraries run by volunteers were almost unheard of.
But more and more local authorities are turning to the idea.
And more and more local people are taking them on as the only way to ‘save’ them.

They are the single biggest change in decades to this much-valued public resource.
Yet almost nothing is known about them.

How many are there?

A possible estimate is 300* - but there are no official figures.
Many more are in the pipeline, with more transfer plans expected.

What kind of library service do they provide?

Do they work at all?

There has been almost no credible research on the subject.




With hundreds of libraries becoming ‘community-managed’ - with central government encouragement - it is high time to find out the truth, good or bad.

SUFL wants to hear from anyone with a view about these volunteer-led libraries in the UK, whether they are a volunteer, a library worker or a library user.

  • What works well and what doesn’t?
  • What are the challenges and considerations?
  • What is the impact on the library service and what do you see as the future?


The information will be used to inform SUFL’s advocacy.  A summary of the evidence will be published.  All information received will be anonymised unless specific permission has been given to identify the contributor and the names of library or library service.

Please email queries, comments and information to SpeakUp4Libraries@gmail.com



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7 thoughts on “What’s the truth about volunteer-led libraries?

  1. I don’t know much about it, but one of Hull’s branch libraries was scheduled for closure a few years ago. This, the Anlaby Park Library was, I understand, well used and was in a fairly prosperous area. Local people were strongly opposed to the closure, and in the end the branch remained open with volunteer staff. I know of a retired professional librarian who is involved with the library, but I know very little of how it operates except that I think it is a centre for other community activities. Other branches are being threatened with closure. The City Council at present has a Labour majority; some years age it was run by Liberal Democrats who planned library and other cuts (which seemed out of proportion to the money to be saved), resulting in the switch to Labour who at that time were promising to resist cuts.

  2. Armthorpe Community Library in Doncaster was faced with closure this time last year. It was taken over by a Volunteer owned company and is now running extremely successfully. It offers everything that the council run library did but with more staff the service is now quicker and more friendly. Decisions are made quicker because they are made locally without waiting weeks for a council meeting. More time is devoted to local schools and Nurseries with meeting room use on the increase.

    It’s quite simple. The council provide the building and the books and pay most of the bills. The volunteers provide the time and use the income from book fines, meeting room hire, etc to provide the day to day items such as stationery and refreshments.

    The general concensus from the public is that Armthorpe Library now offers a better service than before due to increased Volunteer levels over old staff levels and a lack of back office red tape. We have heard said that a Library needs a paid professional. Our question is WHY? If by chance we are asked a question to which we don’t know thge answer, and it hasn’t happend yet, we ring the Central Library and ask their paid professional.

    Really its a win, win situation, but feel free to visit Armthorpe Community Library and see for yourself.

    1. I think you just answered your own question there. What happens if there were no paid staff at your Central Library? Who would you turn to for help? Does the Community Library offer ever facility that the previous library offered?

  3. There has been a dramatic dip in the number of people using Sheffield’s libraries. Freedom of Information request figures (attached) obtained by Sheffield Communities Against Library Privatisation (SCALP) show the number of people checking out books at the city’s 14 volunteer run libraries has dipped massively since Sheffield council turned the service over to a model of ‘community libraries’. The figures cast a shadow over the council’s claims that the volunteer run model would protect Sheffield’s libraries and run counter to recent online claims that Sheffield’s community libraries are offering a ‘great service’

    The information was obtained under FOI after library usage figures were mysteriously removed from Sheffield City Council’s library service website when 14 libraries became volunteer run hubs. Sheffield city council has also ceased monitoring visitors to libraries with door sensors.

    Checkouts from Frecheville library plummeted from 2034 in March 2014 to a mere 938 in April 2015. At Newfield Green library checkouts plunged from 1815 in March 2014 to just 685 in April 2015. At Jordanthorpe library checkouts slid from 1109 in March 2014 to only 722 in April 2015. Significant dips were seen at all Sheffield’s volunteer run libraries.

    A spokesperson for SCALP said:

    “These figures show that moving Sheffield’s libraries from a professionally run model to a series of volunteer run sites has not maintained the great library service that the city deserves. It has had the opposite effect; the number of people borrowing books and using the library for information purposes has plummeted, proving our worst fears correct. Worryingly, many other UK local authorities are being taken in by the spin of councils like Sheffield and using the city as a model for destroying their own library services. We hope one day that the people Sheffield and the UK will have their first class library and information services restored.”


    Total Circulation
    Library Mar-14 Mar-15 Apr-14 Apr-15
    Broomhill 7,495 6,085 7,596 5,219
    Ecclesfield 2,377 1,372 1,908 1,278
    Frecheville 2,034 1,188 1,442 938
    Gleadless 3,311 1,730 3,041 1,547
    Greenhill 5,368 3,467 4,669 2,960
    Jordanthorpe 1,109 866 986 722
    Newfield Green1,815 852 1,658 685
    Park 3,878 1,429 2,918 1,055
    Stannington 4,064 2,313 3,374 2,045
    Southey 1,467 1,186 1,307 915
    Totley 5,454 4,502 5,100 3,727
    Upperthorpe 4,254 2,959 3,797 2,898
    Walkley 2,868 2,318 2,604 2,054
    Woodhouse 2,941 1,610 2,533 1,356

    All checkout measure (historic)

  4. In my library authority Community Libraries do not have access to borrowers’ details so they cannot join people, deal with queries e.g. Charges. All they can do is use the public opac to reserve books although they cannot see the status of books. Readers use self issue machines. Paid staff still do stock work and supply book stock. There is no Summer Reading Challenge, Storytime, Rhymetime. No half term activities, crafts or anything for children. No reading groups, drop in workshops, learning course, chatterbook groups. They offer the very bare bones of a library service.

  5. Sheffield Volunteer library recently visited, was locked out of using library card as fines had come to £5.00, but glitch in system means fines cannot be paid until items physically returned. 3 volunteers tried for 10 minutes to override it, with no success. Phoned nearest staffed library, the librarian took 5 seconds to sort it. That is the difference. Volunteers cannot ever replace librarians.

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