This week the National Federation of Women's Institutes published new research examining the insights that the experiences of volunteers involved in community-managed libraries hold for policy makers. Community managed libraries are not new, but they are on the increase, with 425 libraries expected to have 'significant' levels of support from volunteers by April 2013. The NFWI's report, On Permanent Loan? found that huge, and often unrealistic, demands were being placed on volunteers, who were finding themselves at the front line of library services. With 80% of WI members involved in volunteering in some capacity - well above the national average - we're naturally concerned about the level of reliance we can, and should, be placing on those who volunteer in our communities.
Volunteers have been in the news recently. The government's vision of the Big Society continues to generate debate, with ACEVO and a group of influential charities recently joining the discussion with an open letter questioning the robustness of the concept. Meanwhile, the Local Government Association is predicting that many council services will become untenable in the long term, which is likely to place a greater reliance on volunteers. The attention that these stories attracted illustrates just how strongly the public feel towards volunteering and, as we become increasingly reliant on volunteers to discharge important public services, it does raise important questions about what it means to be a volunteer and where the boundaries become blurred.
Our research on community run libraries highlights the difficulties that can be present when communities are required to step in to deliver a much-valued community amenity. The public library has developed in reaction to societal and political change over very many years, to become the egalitarian service that we see today. As a non-political, secular organisation, ensuring that this principled approach continues is of great importance to our members. At the same time, we're well aware that this is a trend that has emerged in direct response to the testing financial environment. We have seen volunteers placed in what they describe as impossible situations, feeling the need to 'do the right thing' by their community and take on the running of the service or lose it entirely. The result is that all too often the demands that are often being placed on volunteers involved in community managed libraries are stretching them to their very limits.
As Chair and Board Member of the NFWI, I know what it means to perform a voluntary role that has very many responsibilities attached to it. But there is a difference: I joined the NFWI Board with my eyes wide open, having volunteered at different levels of the organisation. I also have the benefit of support from a professional staff team. There is a patchy range of support for those volunteering in community managed libraries and all too often it seems they simply do not receive adequate help for what can be a daunting task. As the demand for volunteers grows, we must look at what can be realistically expected of our volunteers. People volunteer for a wide range of reasons; they might care passionately about a cause, it might be the sense of affirmation that they get, others might volunteer in order to gain new experiences or to meet new people.
On Permanent Loan? shows that where communities have become involved with running their library, the benefits can be tremendous. We heard of flexible services that were tailored to the needs of the community, services that had been transformed into 'community hubs' able to bring different generations of library users together. But the research also revealed significant flaws in the piecemeal and reactive way in which this service has developed. Without urgent intervention to fix this, we will continue to let down a very precious resource.