Umbrella 2011 : Using volunteers in libraries – the Dorset experience (E4)

Using volunteers in Libraries – the Dorset experience
Tracy Long, Dorset

Tracy first gave us a useful introduction to Dorset for those of us who are geographically challenged!  It is the  smallest of shire counties, mostly rural with small towns along the coastline.  It has a population of 400,000 with many older people. There are 34 libraries, which is quite high per head of population and these are centred in market towns and some villages.  They have very varied opening times from 45 hours a week to just 6 hours a week.  Dorset also have 259 library volunteers, contributing 8500 hours per year.

The volunteer hours add value, and improves the services they can offer, providing things that they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources available.   This includes:

•Home Library Service – ran in partnership with WRVS
•Summer Reading Challenge volunteers
•Friends of Libraries Groups
•Community Supported library opening hours

Home Library service
This is a partnership with WRVS with whom they have a Service Level Agreement.  Their demographics mean this service is particularly important to Dorset.  All of the administration of the volunteers has been outsourced to the WRVS as a paid contract.  They deal with the entire administrative side including the CRB checking process however the volunteers themselves still describe themselves as being library volunteers.

Summer Reading challenge

This tends to attract young volunteers aged 16-25.  They have used volunteers from a scheme called Reading Partners who usually work in schools to help with reading but in the holidays they are available to work in libraries.  There was some initial resistance from staff however they are now generally positive with a feeling that the volunteers offer a better service than the limited number of reading and learning librarians are able to provide.

Friends of Libraries Groups

Tracy pointed out that it is easy to overlook these groups as being volunteers but their activities extend what the libraries can offer.  They support with time and also cash.  This money helps provide furniture and equipment.  Initially they wanted to provide books and stock, but the librarians felt that was part of core responsibility so directed money towards extras like display units.
The Friends also offer support at local library activities and events such as running the refreshments or helping with IT courses.  They also provide social contact which can be important role for public libraries by running coffee mornings, bring a book and have a chat events.  Dorset has 13 friends groups.  A campaigning role is also beginning to emerge for these groups.

Community supported opening hours.

In 2006 Dorset had a a funding shortfall.  Initially the Council decided to close 13 out of 34 libraries.  Resistance and campaigning followed and the proposal dropped however instead they needed to reduce hours in all 34 libraries.  The final decision was made to reduce the hours.  Doing this first became key in some of the legal areas which followed…

20 of the affected communities were invited to support local library service delivery by three possible options:
–Fund additional opening hours
–Take responsibility for library building
–Extend library opening hours using volunteers

6 local parishes decided to buy extra opening hours through their council tax.

2 communities responded to the option of providing volunteer staffed opening hours.  These are very small libraries which currently have 6 hours a week with one member of staff in small rural villages in affluent communities.  Dorset have found that this characteristic is important, it’s considerably more challenging to recruit from larger towns and less affluent areas.  These communities also already had established Friends groups which provided the initial volunteers.

The volunteers are extending staffed hours, but the council is still responsible for the library service.  The volunteers are providing the council’s library service for an extra 6 hours over a number of days.

Benefits of Community Staffed Libraries:

•Longer opening hours for local community
•Savings achieved
•Community engagement in local delivery
•Local advocates for library service – an unexpected bonus.
•Civic pride and ownership


But that enthusiasm needs to be channelled and library staff have to know what’s going on.  One example of volunteers’ enthusiasm running out of control would be when Dorset volunteers recently painted the library building.  Wonderful, except it was a rented building and the library did not have responsibility for it’s upkeep!


Volunteer recruitment and turnover – Worried initially whether they would be able to do it? However these concerns have been unrealised – they have only lost 1 volunteer after 18 months and that was because they were leaving the area.  They have found a high level of commitment.  These volunteers do tend to be retired professionals, especially from the people and caring professions.

Responsibilities (CRB, insurance and roles) – Be clear about roles and responsibilities.  What they will need to do to become a volunteer.  There was an initial resistance to CRB checking.  Totally unnecessary they felt so they had to set context and give an explanation.  They also needed public liability insurance.  Generally they found volunteers were most worried about the security of the building.  They didn’t want the responsibility of unlocking the building and unsetting the alarm.  Getting into the building was actually the biggest obstacle.

TUPE regulations  – This was a big risk.  Dorset had to get the county solicitor and head of HR for advice followed by 2 sets of barrister advice on it.  This relates back to the key decision that council made to reduce opening hours before there was a suggestion to involve volunteers.  Anyone involving volunteers in staffing hours needs to talk to legal professionals.

Trade Unions relations and staff views  – it is important to keep them informed and engaged.  People ask what the views of local staff are and there is lots of resistance initially.

Volunteer policy and supporting documentation – Crucial to have the written documents.  They used the County Council Vol policy as a framework.  This is very clear on how you will use volunteers and staff.

Training  – this is an important part of what you deliver to the volunteers.  This includes not just training on operational processes, but also diversity and H&S issues.

Access to LMS – This could be a big issue.  However with RFID (which Dorset has in all 34 libraries) and the volunteers do not have or need access to the LMS.  The training which would be required is too comprehensive for them to manage and there are too many data protection issues.  Anything that requires LMS access they have to pass on to paid staff on their next shift.  It works well because these are such small libraries. 

Role of Volunteers

•To help library users access and use:
–Books and other stock
–Other library services
•To help customers with using the self service equipment
•To undertake clerical duties associated with providing a library service eg shelving
•Referring library users to the Library Service as appropriate
•Liaise with local volunteer co-ordinator and library service staff as appropriate
Dorset has found it is essential to have a volunteer co-ordinator who can be available as one point of contact and Responsible for co-ordination of volunteers (e.g. rotas, holiday and sickness cover).  They also provide team supervision and support for training which stops the local staff being overburdened by queries.  This (volunteer) role has initially been taken on by the Chairman of the board of Friends.

 Next Steps?

Proposals include reduce opening hours again and use volunteers to make up hours.  Then brings into questions for TUPE where you are substituting a paid member of staff by a volunteer before making the decision to reduce hours.

The other option is for 10 libraries to become community managed where they take full responsibility.  The Library service will provide a support package including books, IT, and limited staffing support.  The choice is do we want to close 10 libraries or have a 25% reduction of professional staffing and a 55% reduction in book fund?


I found this extremely interesting as an introduction to community staffed libraries, especially the fact that this is working well, but only in very specific areas with a specific demographic.  I found it amazing that they had such low turnover of volunteers, however I do find older people are more stable volunteers myself, turnover tends to be amongst younger, job seeking people.  I was also surprised that they had found someone to take on the huge role of volunteer co-ordinating unpaid and someone who could do this reliably and well.  I do however think it is unlikely that they will find ten more individuals who are willing and able to take on this role and there may be difficulties in this area.  I thought the number of volunteer hours was also actually quite low, 8500 sounds a lot but it is spread across 34 libraries and in comparison we managed 7500 in just one library last year.


Leave a comment

Filed under Umbrella 2011, Volunteers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s