How volunteers are writing what could be the final chapter for Yorkshire’s libraries

Libraries depent increasingly on volunteers
Libraries depent increasingly on volunteers
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Campaigners, determined to preserve this “vital resource”, have been battling to save Doncaster’s under-threat libraries for years.

But the community has had to step in and now 83 per cent are run by volunteers with the help of the council.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

“It’s just devastating,” said Lynne Coppendale, of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign group. “It’s one of those services that you don’t know you need until it’s gone.”

Changes to staffing of Doncaster’s library service began to filter through as early as 2005. By 2008, there were redundancies. Then talk began of staffing them by volunteers.

“It was initially going to be about eight libraries,” said Ms Coppendale. “Then a few more were added. Some were taken out. Then they played around with the criteria a bit.

“We tried to hold them to account in many ways. It was an idealogical stance. We put forward a package to keep one member of staff in each library, but it was rejected.

“We even went so far as to go to the High Court and appealing. In the end they decided it was a lawful decision.

“Since then they’ve closed down another tranch of libraries. Now, all but four are gone.”

In Doncaster, the libraries are now supported by the local authority with books, buildings and support.

“In other areas, that isn’t the case,” said Ms Coppendale. “In many ways, in Doncaster, it could be a lot worse.”

Ms Coppendale is herself a professional librarian. Access to council-led services, run by experts with qualifications and experience, is vital she says.

“People think of libraries as just being buildings,” she said. “It’s never been just about books. It’s about so much more than that. There’s a vast amount of resource out there.

“In the past, if you want a flower-arranging class, you just pop into the local library and ask. Help with computers - just pop into the library. Now, you don’t always know if it’s going to be open - it depends on the volunteers who can staff it.

“With the best will in the world, and I think volunteers are trying with the best of intentions, they just can’t do that.”

In April, it emerged Doncaster’s libraries have seen the biggest drop in the country in the number of people borrowing books.

The figures, from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) showed the number of books borrowed at the borough’s libraries fell 47 per cent between 2012 and 2014.

Dr Lauren Smith, from national campaign group Voices for the Library, says community-led libraries, despite the ceaseless efforts of volunteers, simply cannot provide the same level of expertise as ones staffed by qualified, paid librarians.

“You have expert staff in libraries,” she said. “From access to computers, information and job applications.

“They say a community led library is better than no library at all but we just don’t know that. It’s a real worry.

“People will just stop going. We will then see a whole generation of people who don’t know what a library service looks like.

“There will be knock-on effects - with literacy, community cohesion, and the health of the high street.”

Cllr Bill Mordue, Doncaster Council cabinet member for business, skills, tourism and culture, said: “We would like to thank the volunteers for their valuable support in providing these services within their communities. Without this support we may not have been able to keep them open. If anyone else would like to volunteer at their local library then drop in and register your interest.”

But Dr Smith says even the volunteers see this as the last resort. Faced with a volunteer-led service or none at all, they feel under pressure to do what they can to help.

“The volunteers are just trying their best,” she added. “But there’s a real feeling of hopelessness.

“They feel really manipulated into doing it. It creates a really poor relationship with communities to strong-arm them into volunteering.

“It’s not a sustainable way of running a library service.”

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