News and Comment

Youth volunteers can breathe new life into Britain’s public libraries

Friday 6 February 2015


National Libraries Day on Saturday is the perfect opportunity to recognise the role of young volunteers in shaping the modern library service

The long summer holidays are nearly over and in a seaside town in Lancashire, a small branch library is preparing for an event to celebrate the end of the Summer Reading Challenge. Families are beginning to wander in, keen to escape from the drizzle outside. The library manager visibly breathes a sigh of relief when three young people arrive – with their bright blue ‘Reading Activist’ t-shirts signalling they are ready for their final volunteering shift of the summer. By 2pm, the Children’s Library is full and the next two hours pass in a buzz of reading related games, crafts, stories and celebration, whilst other library users quietly get on with looking for the latest recommended books, or using one of the public computers.

This snapshot encapsulates the description in last year’s Independent Library Report, led by William Sieghart of libraries as ‘modern, safe, non-judgmental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free…’

There are no shortage of campaigns and initiatives championing libraries, and this coming Saturday is National Libraries Day, designed to encourage people to ‘use it, love it, join it!’ Last year, BBC 6 Music organised its own library celebration. When a library closure beckons, opposition is quick to mobilise.

Libraries unite a wide range of visitors: information seeking aficionados, hipsters, sound archivists, job seekers, teenagers doing homework, children looking for the latest Jacqueline Wilson book, and even those just wanting somewhere to retreat to with a copy of the paper.  But libraries are operating in a rapidly changing world, competing for limited resources, and need to adapt accordingly.

Sieghart made the case for investment in the modern library service and a key recommendation was a call for volunteers to be a more important part of the library workforce – recognising the 100% increase in people giving their time for free in libraries since 2009.

However, in these recent debates about the future of libraries, there has not been as much emphasis on how young people are a crucial part of this volunteering picture – often overcoming outdated stereotypes of libraries being stuffy and quiet, and not a place for teenagers to spend their time.

OPM spent last summer evaluating the impact of young people volunteering in libraries to support the annual Summer Reading Challenge (where children aged 4 to 11 are encouraged to read six books during the school holidays), run by the charity The Reading Agency. In 2014, 8,126 young people aged 12 to 24 volunteered in 1,740 libraries – helping to run the Challenge, devising reading related activities and talking to children about books.

The report has been published this week with a clear message that volunteering in libraries gives young people the chance to develop communication and team working skills, experience a professional workplace, work with children – and most of all have fun over the summer.  70% of volunteers in 2014 said that they loved the experience of being a volunteer.

The research team visited 20 libraries in total – from Carnegie libraries in Lancashire steeped in the legacy of their founding aspirational vision, to the most visited library in the UK in Norwich. We saw some under-used spaces and buildings in need of investment but we also saw libraries coming to life with a bustle of reading related activity and enthusiasm. Tea and biscuits lured families to stay and talk to their neighbours, and in many cases, there was a genuine sense of there being ‘something for everyone’ in the library.

Volunteers often told us they’d be spending their summer ‘bored at home’ if they hadn’t decided to volunteer, and that they were passionate about the role they could play in inspiring younger children to read.

Other stories gave an indication of how volunteering can be life changing – one 19 year old talked about how shy she had been at school, and had been struggling to engage with sixth form as a result. She volunteered for the Summer Reading Challenge three years in a row in her local library, and is now leading teams of volunteers, mentoring others, getting involved in other local community events, working part time in the library and about to return to college.

This was youth social action at its most powerful – young people making a difference in their local communities, volunteering close to their homes and changing attitudes towards libraries. At the end of the summer, 71% said they would like to continue volunteering, and over half said they would use a library more as a result.

Library staff were equally enthusiastic about young people volunteering as it enabled them to host more activities for the Summer Reading Challenge than would be possible with core staff alone, and improved the public perception of the library as a welcoming and relevant place to be.

Libraries will continue to evolve and they will undoubtedly look very different in 20 years’ time. Our research is a call to recognise the role of young volunteers. They are not a replacement for full time professional library staff, but they are a powerful way to ensure that libraries reflect the communities they serve, provide more that appeals across age ranges, and inspire new library users through their doors.