Using volunteers to run rural libraries

When its rural branch libraries faced a major spending cut Wiltshire Council decided to take radical action, by seeking to find and train-up a large cohort of community volunteers. Even it has been surprised by the positive extent of the outcome.

The challenge
Wiltshire Council had been planning to undertake a review to consider how best it should deliver its libraries service in the future. However, it was the scale of local government funding cuts from 2011/12 that were subsequently announced which in large part framed that review. Wiltshire’s libraries had to achieve a 28% budget reduction over three financial years. This could have impacted significantly on the county’s network of libraries and especially on its smaller rural branch libraries.

The response
The Wiltshire Council libraries service review concluded that community volunteers should, in future, play a major role in running the smaller of its rural branches. This would allow it to continue running most of the network despite a much reduced budget. The new approach would be made possible by investing in new technology and so self-service check-outs were installed in the libraries.
The Council held a recruitment drive to find volunteers who were willing and able to work in certain of its smaller library branches. In all it has trained over 300 community volunteers during 2011. It has also found a network of Volunteer Co-ordinators – one for each of the affected library branches – whose role it is to ensure that rotas are arranged. Many of the co-ordinators have been found with assistance from the relevant parish or town councils.
The roles of the community volunteers are essentially to:
* Assist library users to use the self-service check-outs;
* Place returned library books back on to the shelves; and
* Help library users to log-on to the public access computers.
Wiltshire Council’s libraries service still provides and maintains the buildings and the loan stock. A County library assistant visits each of the affected branches twice a week, offering support to the volunteers and sorting out any issues that require their professional input. Where necessary, the volunteers can also turn to the Council’s central libraries’ management team for guidance or support.
Since September 2011 these changes have affected fifteen of the smaller library branches in Wiltshire. In the smallest ten cases the libraries are now run by community volunteers, save for the twice weekly visits by a County library assistant. There are then five other relatively small branches which have retained their Council librarians, but where volunteers play a significant role in the service delivery.
Durrington is a village in the Avon Valley to the north of Salisbury. Its small branch library is now run entirely by thirty-three community volunteers. The local Post Point, which offers basic postal services, has recently moved in to the same building, where it too is run by volunteers who have enabled an extension of its opening hours. ‘Story time’ sessions for children may soon be started in the library.
Cricklade is a small town in the north of the county. Its branch library is one which now combines input from community volunteers with that of salaried Council librarians. Twelve volunteers are enabling this branch to open to the public for longer hours. Council librarians open it for four sessions each week, while the volunteers open it for two further sessions each week.

Benefits and outcomes
The outcome of the review and the introduction of community volunteers has, perhaps, been a surprising one. All thirty-one of Wiltshire’s static library branches and all five of its mobile libraries have survived in operation. Moreover, the level of service is much as it was before the changes.
The council says that it has been tremendously impressed by the response from its rural communities. Originally it thought the ten smallest branches might only be able to open for three hours per week. In fact, with the number of volunteers that came forward, nine of those branches have retained their previous opening hours.
In the five other branches where community volunteers work alongside Council library assistants, opening hours have actually been extended. Council librarians are managing the core hours and volunteers are being used at other times.
Local people using the library service have, therefore, either seen no real difference in the service or, in a few cases, have seen an improvement in access.

Resources used
The set up costs for Wiltshire Libraries to introduce this approach included the installation of self-service (or RFID) check-outs in each of the library branches. It also included the creation of a half-time salaried management post to act as the overall volunteer co-ordinator. This is an operational role, whose initial tasks were to recruit and train the community volunteers. That person now monitors and oversees the approach, to ensure it is working well on a day-to-day basis.
In each of the relevant branch libraries, the Council’s Libraries Service is holding a couple of coffee mornings per year with the volunteers. These are partly an opportunity to thank them. But it is also a chance to hear what they think is working well and what not so well, including any further training needs they have. Some more training is being planned based upon the information gathered during these sessions.
The community volunteers are providing a total of 180 hours of library opening time each week. Over a month they are inputting in the region of 1,500 hours of volunteer time.

Lessons for others
Wiltshire Libraries says that financial pressures forced it to develop and introduce this approach at an “incredibly tight” pace. The work started in February 2011 and the volunteers started in September 2011. Although their introduction went very smoothly, the Council would (ideally) recommend taking more time to plan for such a changeover.
They also note that recruiting volunteers is a people-intensive task. It involved them in speaking to a lot of interested parties and potential volunteers. During the recruitment phase Wiltshire Libraries was in contact or correspondence with about 500 people at any one time.
Parish and town councils were key to that recruitment drive. They were the county’s first port of call and were supportive in getting word about that volunteers were sought. The determination of parish and town councils to retain their libraries proved very important.
Wiltshire Libraries emphasise that they do not take the input of volunteers for granted. They were particularly impressed that even through the Christmas and New Year period there were sufficient volunteers available to keep services going as planned.