An Example of a Volunteer Library in London

LLL visited Woodberry Down Community Library at the Robin Redmond Resource Centre, Hackney, on Tuesday 23rd September 2008.  This is an example of the Satellite Library Service and is entirely volunteer run. It is a prototype for Hackney’s service, but its success means the idea may be extended to other needy areas in the borough.

Introduction: LLL felt a visit would lift the cloud hanging over the idea of a volunteer library. We were made very welcome by Ted Rogers, Hackney’s Head of Libraries, Archives and Information, along with John Holland the Operations Manager, who is responsible for service delivery. They were well-prepared, frank and open about what had happened and how they had met and dealt with the inevitable pitfalls that occur with any new venture. There were also positive and optimistic results.

Background:  There had been a library at the Centre until 1996. Hackney Council fell on hard times and this led to its closure, together with several others in the borough. At the time, residents occupied the building for several weeks to express their strong disapproval. This severe rationalisation left 7 static libraries in the borough.  Recently, improvements have been made to the surviving libraries and 4 of them now offer 63 + hours per week.  In fact, visit figures are up 20% since 1993 and issues are also up.  But from Woodberry Down there was a low level of library membership/usership.

Catchment area:  Woodberry Down is a Municipal Estate built just after World War II, with 10,000 residents.  Sadly it is an area of deprivation and unemployment. Although Hackney is not a large borough, this section is somewhat cut off.  Its closest static libraries are in Islington and Haringey.  This helped to meet the proximity PLSS. Also transport links do not easily lead to libraries in the borough and there are few local shops.

Regeneration:  With £!bn regeneration investment available, a population increase expected and demographic changes linked to a mix of social/owned housing the Council was looking at services with fresh eyes. A survey was conducted to identify local needs and libraries came third on the list in Woodberry Down.

Developments:  The Library Development Strategy identified NEED but not the money.

Fortunately there was funding for a new library near Dalston station (3500 m2), which is partially built.  Clapton library is undergoing development/extension.  These will be stand alone libraries, but other compatible uses are envisaged for them.

WOODBERRY DOWN Community library, run by volunteers, opened in March 2007 with 4400 items in stock.

Now, how did they do that? - BY USING A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

This project does have strong political support within the council. The officers formulated the concept of a Community-led library, run by volunteers, owned by the community and only requiring low revenue expenditure.

The building - Hackney Homes (an ALMO) now owns the Robin Redmond Resource Centre, which looked ideal and meant re-establishment.

Funding - This was gained by putting in a bid which emphasised the cultural, educational, health and employment aspects of introducing such a facility. SRB funding came up with £61,000 to set up the library, plus match-funding of £10,000 p.a. from revenue, for rental and future stock.

The designated room was fitted out, £28,000 was spent on stock to provide a general collection for adults and children.  There are no ESOL items but these do exist at Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill.

Volunteer recruitment -Initially this was approached on the estate by

1.  Advertising in the local press.

2.  Leafleting.

3.  Local meetings - about a dozen attended each meeting.  People were very keen.

The staffing was planned according to the response.

Opening hours - Weekend operation was found to be impossible and, anyway, the Centre itself is closed during these days.

There are 2 sessions a day, Monday to Friday, 9.30 -1.00 p.m. and 2.00 - 5.00 p.m.

There are 2 evening sessions Tuesday and Thursday, 5.00 - 7.00 p.m.

Two people are on duty, plus the receptionist at the Centre and users are "buzzed" in.  The Centre also operates its own Health and Safety rules.

Subsequent Developments - In November 2007 the facility moved into a larger space with increased stock and extra computers.  Just as in any Hackney library, these are fully linked to all Hackney library and information services.  Hackney is part of the London Libraries Consortium and RFID is on the cards, which will help with staffing.

Members - there are 600 registered users providing a good cross-section of the community, but particularly favoured by children and members of the Turkish community.  In the CIPFA survey 76% of children gave it a good approval rating.

During 2007 / 08, there have been 24,000 visitors with 5200 issues.

This success has led to thoughts of a purpose built facility as part of the Regeneration programme, still volunteer based but more centrally based and with a higher profile.

Volunteer Staff -It is recognised that the council is not set up to accommodate volunteers.  However, one man-day per week is allotted to outreach officer posts to organise the rota, deal with questions, needs and problems. John explained the library operated with a pool of 15/20 volunteers.  Volunteer means volunteer.  THERE IS NO PAY, and seldom any expenses. Of the 2 people on duty at each session, one must be experienced.  Rotas are arranged a fortnight in advance but, of course, gaps may occur and this may lead to closure.  Widening the catchment area and use of the Hackney Voluntary Service has been included to increase options.  A volunteer’s level of commitment has to be high and is crucial to success.  Volunteer fatigue seems to be a known condition.

Potential volunteers are assessed from the points of view of their own skills, commitment, temperament, underlying skills, confidence.

A good spin-off, but unfortunate for the volunteer pool, is that some volunteers move on to permanent jobs, quite a few within the library world. As skills building and work experience provision is an integral part of the operation, this onward movement to better things will continue remorselessly.

Finally, the young woman on duty was asked by LLL why she volunteered?  Her answer is a lesson in itself. She had used the original Woodberry Down library when she had been a young girl and wanted to ensure it was there for others.

Training -This comprises a morning as well as an afternoon spent in one of the local libraries.  There are also various inset days and day release to the library service.  A great deal of learning occurs on the job. The job is more limited than the average working librarian, dealing with issues, returns, taking fines and fees.

A direct line to a range of support is provided from Stamford Hill, Stoke Newington and Shoreditch libraries.

Both John and Ted felt they had learnt a great deal while working through this process and were aware of unresolved issues that would need to be resolved!  Anyone considering volunteers has to be aware that they may feel isolated and need more support than may first be apparent. 

Professional Staff attitudes -It was made quite clear that this was not intended to take the jobs of professional, qualified staff. The Officers have accepted that no library facility would exist at all if it were not done this way and the residents of Woodberry Down would still be excluded. This way, users actually get into the library world. The project has had positive spin-offs and other employment benefits for the volunteers. 

Patricia Richardson

Minutes Secretary of Libraries for Life for London