Note. Long post ahead.
“I was bored before I even began” – Morrissey
In the UK the recession and budget deficit has been and will continue to have a major impact on libraries. Local authorities are making cuts to services across the board and libraries are not exempt from this.
Coupled with this is the new Coalition government’s Big Society plans which promote a new paradigm of community participation and volunteering. Libraries have been home to volunteers for many years, this new policy extends that by implicitly stating that volunteers may run libraries.
When I go up and down the country and speak to council leaders, social entrepreneurs and local activists it’s clear to me that there is a real hunger out there to do more – to take on more responsibility and have more control.
So I ask them: ‘what powers do you want? What more do you want to be able to do?’
It’s by asking those questions that you arrive at so many of this coalition’s most transformative ideas.
New powers for local communities to take over the running of parks, libraries and post offices. – David Cameron, Prime Minister
The trades union movement has been quick to condemn the plans, understanding that every time a volunteer is allowed to do something that previously a worker was paid for did, then staff cuts will follow.
Make no mistake, this plan is all about saving money, and it will cost even more jobs and lead to more service cuts.
The Government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.
We don’t want jumble sales to provide incubators for babies, we shouldn’t have volunteers taking over our libraries or museums, and where are all these people with time on their hands going to come from?
Are we going to pay an army of newly unemployed to help run services?
Public services must be based on the certainty that they are there when you need them, not when a volunteer can be found to help you. – Dave Prentis, General Secretary of the trades union Unison
It has been said that volunteers will only be used to fill in those times that there are no paid library staff (many UK libraries are already closed at least one day during the working week as a cost saving measure). But those closed times are only there as a result of previous spending cuts. Any volunteer working those during times therefore is supporting a system that entails short working weeks for paid staff.
Even if volunteers are working when paid staff are present, is the work they are doing not the work that someone should be trained and paid to do.
Already there have been strikes in the UK over usage of volunteers to replace paid library workers.
The Chartered Institute of
Library and Information
Professionals has said:
…this was not a time for poorly thought out proposals that volunteers should run public library services. Volunteers already play an important part in enriching library provision and that will increase. However the value of their contribution is dependent on a backbone of knowledgeable and skilled staff, just as the future of the service itself will be – Bob McKee, Chief Executive of CILIP
In the US there have been very many instances wheren supporters of libraries in the local community have campaigned to preserve library services facing cuts to hours and staffing. However the rise of the volunteer has also been felt in the United States, where again they have been linked to job losses. The US has had a longer history with volunteerism often to their financial advantage. However, in particular with library boards, this has not benefitted libraries and has been the cause of many censorship battles and has resulted in library professionals losing their positions for holding to librarianship principles.
In Australia, we do not have the budgetary constraints as are being felt in Europe and the US. But we do have many public library services that are underfunded. We are not currently facing the issues with volunteers that are causing tensions, but we should not be complacent.
To forestall any future problems, every Australian library should have a volunteer policy that accords with the ALIA policy on volunteers.
Use of volunteers in library and information services for specific purposes is acceptable but must never compromise the quality of service provision, nor replace paid employment in any way.
Library services can be enhanced by well supported volunteers, and providing volunteers with meaningful community roles is a legitimate function of a public library service.
ALIA affirms that volunteer workers must not replace appropriately trained and paid staff:
1. to compensate for the reduction, or withdrawal of services caused by inadequate staffing establishments, failure to fill vacant posts, or cutbacks in overall library and information services funding; or
2. to establish and maintain library services or outreach programs which would normally be established and maintained by paid library staff.
The replacement of trained, paid library staff by volunteers can only lead to a deterioration in the standard and the effectiveness of services, be wasteful of resources and be detrimental to the interests of library users
In Australia we also have the benefit of a coordinating body Friends of Libraries Australia (FOLA), who are supportive of libraries and the librarian’s role. Library volunteers should be encouraged to join and be represented by FOLA, so that our mutual interests are preserved.
If Australia’s public libraries are to make the best contribution they can to helping families and people through harder economic times, councils and state/territory governments need to improve investment in their public libraries as an inclusive people priority, even if their own funding circumstances become more difficult.
FOLA therefore urges all Friends of Libraries to discuss what is occurring in their own libraries with their library managers, and bring increased demand and funding issues to the attention of their councils – FOLA statement
Where Cameron’s Big Society idea is relevant and useful is in communities where there are limited services. In the UK, as here, there are regional areas that do not have a library, shops, post offices or banks. Community activism to provide these services for themselves is a very good thing, as relying always on the state or commercial interest is never a good policy. So where there is no library a community of volunteers setting up their own library is to be welcomed and fully supported.
Where there is an extant library it should be part of that community, in fact, it should be at the heart of it. As such, volunteers should always be welcomed, but not at the expense of staff or expertise.
So what work should volunteers be doing in a public library? From my experience as someone who has previously run public libraries working out what volunteers could do was a job in itself.
Much of the (oft considered tedious) work such as shelving, tidying etc. in my libraries was already done by people, forced on libraries, who were sentenced to do community service (that in itself was a major but different headache). The rest was done by staff, or by employing older school children in the late afternoons. This latter option was far preferable than having volunteers do it as those young people earned small sums, but also learnt valuable library skills for their future studies and we could provide them with a safe working environment, much better than a shift at McDonalds.
So in my libraries at least volunteers ended up doing book repairs mainly. It is not economically viable to repair books if paying staff to do it, but with volunteers it is. Thus in this way books were preserved for the collection and volunteers had a role, and there was no staff impact. There were of course other volunteers who were centrally organised to deliver books to the housebound and assist local heritage collections.
Many of the volunteers that libraries have are retired professionals with many skills and attributes. And many libraries are short staffed and so it is very tempting to allow these capable volunteers to do more. But we must remember Librarianship is a profession, and as such we need to protect it. We cannot continue to maintain that we are a profession if we allow non-professionals to do it.
Where I think volunteers should be used is in creating volunteer initiated projects and courses. Volunteers with the library’s help should use the library as a place to coordinate their own work and utilise their skills for the benefit of the community. Volunteers could set up and run IT training for other users. Volunteers could organise talks and classes depending on their interests and skills, or reading groups, or adult literacy classes. They could even be used to fund raise!
Then of course there is always the often overlooked voluntary skills in a library. Volunteers can be people with trade and craft skills too. Why not get them to improve, beautify and repair the library. There is a profound benefit there and it is one that does not clash with library staffing interests either. Whether it’s the craft group who create works to brighten the library or the person who can paint, restore or build things, these are valuable contributions.
Volunteers should be used to value-add services to a library rather than be used as a cheap source of labour which demeans us and them. The library as place would then be immeasurably improved by adding more volunteers and more community engagement.
This too should be the route for larger libraries. Already all state libraries have volunteer programs. Most commonly the work involves conducting visitor tours, but there is often some form of indexing, checking or data entry jobs. It is fair to say that frequently the latter voluntary tasks are tedious and repetitive work not favoured by library staff, and which do not fully reflect the volunteers skill sets.
The volunteers system should be one whereby a volunteer should propose a project (that ultimately benefits the library) and then receive library support (as in a desk, computer, ladder etc.) to complete that project. A project could be something small like creating a bibliography of the library’s holdings on a particular subject. There are always numerous items in a large library which are overlooked; getting volunteers to work on exposing collections would be a useful task.
With the growing aged population, there will be many more active retired people in the community, who have time and skills to offer. Libraries should adapt their volunteer programs to fit that growth.
The above mentioned has referred to the in-house volunteer. The vast number of volunteers however in future will actually be found online. The large numbers of people prepared to work on Wikipedia or supply corrections to the NLA’s newspaper digitisation program testify to the utility of crowdsourced volunteer programs. All these volunteers require is a clear goal and a workable online system and they can do transformative work.
Please read Rose Holley’s excellent paper Crowdsourcing: How and Why Should Libraries Do It? for more on this subject.
The online volunteer is good for large projects, but probably not so much for a local public library. However even there, there should be some opportunities if you ask volunteers to assist. I don’t know how they could help, and maybe neither do you, but maybe if you ask, a volunteer might know.
Volunteers are an opportunity to bring people to libraries to improve their services, we should not let financial pressures turn them into a potential enemy as is happening elsewhere.
• Every library needs to have a volunteer policy
• Volunteer numbers will grow
• Pressure to use volunteers as unpaid labour will grow
• Volunteers should never replace paid library staff
• Volunteers are an opportunity not a problem
• Volunteers should be encouraged to join FOLA
• Volunteers should be encouraged to devise their own projects
• Volunteers should own the work they are doing
• Volunteers should be managed in the same way as paid staff, wherever practicable
• Volunteers will mostly be found online