The challenges facing public libraries in the Big Society: The role of volunteers, and the issues that surround their use in England

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Abstract

The use of volunteers in English public libraries is nothing new, however their use is becoming ever greater and one may argue that we are increasingly seeing a mixed economy of public library provision, in the wider arena of the Big Society. This paper presents the findings of a Delphi Study of 15 library managers undertaken as part of a Professional Doctorate exploring the challenges facing public libraries in England today, particularly focusing on volunteer use. An overview of relevant supporting literature is provided to help contextualize the research, particularly focusing on concepts such as the political background surrounding policy development, community engagement, the Big Society, and volunteering. Explanation of how the Delphi Study was conducted is given, together with a discussion of the key findings. Results show that opinions of library managers cover a broad spectrum. Although volunteer use is generally viewed by the respondents as a good thing, with potential to further enhance a service and aid community engagement, there are also a number of concerns. These concerns particularly relate to the idea of the volunteer as a replacement to paid staff rather than an enhancement to the service. Other key concerns relate to the quality of service provision, the rationale behind volunteer use, and the capacity of communities to deliver. Volunteer use in public libraries on this scale is a new phenomenon, and the longevity of such a development is largely unknown. This raises the question as to whether this is simply a large scale ideological experiment, or a move to even greater community engagement?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-203
JournalJournal of Librarianship and Information Science
Volume47
Issue number3
Early online date5 Feb 2014
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2015

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