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Wandsworth residents didn’t ‘volunteer’ to run their library. They had no choice

A radio debate showed not only why people volunteer in libraries but the problems they face and, sadly, how they are being used by politicians.

York Gardens Library in Wandsworth, south London, was used by Radio Five Live (2h 44 to 2h 55) this week as an example of a Big Society project. It certainly proved to be a brilliant choice. It showed not only why people volunteer in libraries but the problems they face and, sadly, how they are being used by politicians.

First, some background. York Gardens, in the most deprived ward in Wandsworth, was scheduled for closure by the Conservative council. Locals, after losing a campaign to keep it run by the council, made the difficult decision that it would be better to help run it than to see it closed. The council spent £35,000 on "refurbishing" (in effect, reducing the library size and creating more rooms, giving some space to the local college too) and gave the volunteers £5,000 of "Big Society" funding to help them out.

Two members of staff – a manager and a children's librarian – will also be retained by the council. The good news is that the library reopened on 1 November after a few weeks of closure, with some paid staffing but now with 12 volunteers as well, and is evidently buzzing again.

The volunteers face an uphill struggle though.  For one thing, they will need 12 to 16 volunteers to keep it going – "which on an ongoing basis is going to be quite difficult" says volunteer Thea Sherer.  She also says that not only will they be expected to staff it but will need to raise £70,000 (presumably per year) in order to stay open. This will rely on charging for room hire. Knowing how much one can hire a room out for in a deprived area, I know that is not going to be easy. The £5,000 from the council she describes as a "drop in the ocean".

When asked if it's going to be a success, volunteer Sandra Munoz-Alvorez says "hmm, we'll have to wait and see", and Thea adds "let's come back in 12 months time and see".  You can hear in their voices that they realise it's going to be a hard slog, and that they are doing this because they have been forced to in order to save the library they love, not due to some sort of idealistic pro-Big Society passion. I felt for them.

Wandsworth councillor Jonathan Cook, though, is bouncing with optimism and energy. He thinks these blackmailed volunteers are "tremendous" and it is "very exciting".  He says: "It points the way perhaps to some future models for libraries working much more closely in partnership with communities", and claims that volunteers are "providing extra capacity". However the radio interviews make it clear that, in York Gardens, they're not providing "extra capacity" - they are the capacity.  Councillor Cook then goes on to say they have his "full support".  Presumably, that is, so long as they raise 14 times more money than he is willing to fund them with.

Then the report shifts to a debate between Joe Anderson, leader of Liverpool City Council, which pulled out of the Big Society pilot, and John Bird, creator of the Big Issue magazine. John thinks that the Big Society is great because it helps get volunteers into work. He does not see that the Big Society appears now to be pushing people out of work in order to be replaced by volunteers.

Finally, we have this exchange between Joe Anderson and the interviewer, who suggests that if a neighbourhood does not provide free labour to run its libraries then it doesn't deserve a library. Listen to it yourself (2h 53 to 2h 54):

Joe: "When we're closing libraries, we shouldn't be saying to volunteers and to the community in Liverpool that the only way we can run your library is through using volunteers."
Interviewer: "Well, why not?"
Joe: "Quite simply because if we don't get enough volunteers then does that mean that it closes?"
Interviewer: "Well yeah."
Joe: "Then that's it, then that means that it's not working and the Government is…"
Interviewer: "Hang on, it works if enough people volunteer."
Joe: "Well what if they don't?"
Interviewer: "It's their library, you know…"

Volunteering is not only becoming a political football, it is becoming a weapon pointed at communities throughout the country.  Best put your body armour on now, folks, it's going to be a rough ride.

Ian Anstice blogs at Public Libraries News, which keeps a running count of threatened and closed libaries.

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