Library Friends reject volunteer idea

Published on: 29 Sep 2017

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This article is a longer version of those that appeared in the print editions of the Voice with an extended statement from the Friends of Marksbury Road Library.

USING volunteers to help run libraries could save most of the threatened branches and still save £1 million, claim the city’s Liberal Democrats.

Consultation had now closed on plans put forward by Bristol’s ruling Labour group that would lead to the closure of several South Bristol libraries.

Labour would save £1.4m by closing Marksbury Road, Wick Road, Bishopsworth and Whitchurch libraries.

Knowle library would be closed in two of the three options in the consultation, as would the Stockwood branch.

Cllr Gary Hopkins, Knowle councillor and Lib Dem leader, said volunteers would come forward if they thought it could save Knowle library.

The Lib Dem plan is to set up an independent trust to run libraries, using professional librarians to supervise the volunteers.

A trust could bring in private enterprise, grants and sponsorship, said Cllr Tim Kent. He said councils in Devon, York and Suffolk have reduced costs, protected branches and found extra income for their libraries by putting them into a charitable trust.

“Over the last few weeks hundreds of people have signed our petition to save our local library in Wick Road, from these we have many people willing to regularly donate time to help keep their library open,” said Brislington West Cllr Jos Clark.

Deputy mayor Asher Craig, who is overseeing the cuts to the wider neighbourhoods budget, has said she is willing to meet residents at Wick Road and Marksbury Road to look at the options.

Sarah Murch, secretary of the Friends of Marksburty Road library, told the Voice the Firends are not keen on going donw the voluntary route.

She said: "We’ve informed Cllr Craig and Cllr Wellington that as library users, we want Marksbury Road Library to remain open as a council-run, properly-staffed, properly-resourced library service. We haven't had any response to this, and we're not aware of any further developments or decisions that they've made regarding the library's future. 

"I understand that Cllr Craig will be meeting with representatives of Friends groups on October 9, and we’re hoping that a representative from our group will be able to attend. Our position remains unchanged: we would be deeply disappointed if the council proceeded with such drastic cuts to the city’s library services. We are still very happy to discuss genuine improvements, as long as the council are happy to accept that it’s their responsibility to provide the service.  

"We still do not understand why the council is not using their local libraries to deliver their stated aims rather than seeing them as an extra burden - for example, libraries could be central to achieving the council’s ambitions around improving children’s literacy, access to adult education and skills, reducing inequality, reducing car usage, creating resilient, well-connected and well-informed communities, and increasing access to culture and history.

"Having read the response from Cllr Tim Kent on behalf of the Liberal Democrat group, we are not convinced of the benefits of mutualisation or of replacing library staff with volunteers.

"If you look at other areas that have tried to use volunteers to deliver library services, the picture is very patchy, with any success largely confined to better-off rural areas. What is noticeable is the sheer amount of work required by volunteers, the limited training and guidance, the confusion over legal obligations, the large numbers of volunteers required and the high turnover, not to mention the costs of volunteer support. In fact, it was reported that in Oxfordshire it was estimated that transferring to volunteers was not saving any money at all, once all other costs had been included. It still seems obvious that a trained, professional staff is really the only reliable way to provide a sustainable library service. 

"The creation of a library as a mutual would also raise some serious questions. Where would responsibility lie for the maintenance and quality of services, and to whom would it be accountable? What would happen if it were to fail? Where would its income come from? Would taxpayers’ assets be given away to what would essentially be a private organisation? Would there then be a risk that the organisation could lose its delivery contract a few years down the line to a private sector for-profit competitor? The reason that the public sector exists is to provide universal access to public services for the entire population, regardless of income. Services are accountable to elected representatives and integrated. A fragmented system of mutuals, trusts and community-owned libraries is simply not an efficient or appropriate way to deliver public services.

"Our main aim is to urge councillors to find a solution to their financial difficulties that doesn’t involve cuts to our library services. I’m sure that they would not try to shift responsibility for the provision of public services onto the people who use them. We pay our council tax. All we're asking is that the council does not take away our library in an area that does not have much else."

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