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Just what is a library? In my previous job in a school, teaching staff were forever introducing visitors to the library saying “Oh but of course it’s so much more than a library… it has laptop computers” – as if libraries and technology were matter and anti-matter, and only by some precarious accident of the space-time continuum could technology co-exist with print books in the same room.

To me, a library is both physical and virtual. It is a portal to information in all its forms. A physical space to house material for education and leisure, complimented by its cyberspace twin, so that people can access the library from wherever they are. So my library, with its physical collection and virtual services, was exactly what a library should be.

But those that make the decisions on funding have some pretty strange ideas. The main one being that community libraries will perform better than Council-run libraries because they’ll open up to new uses – such as pole dancing classes. An article in the Third Sector cites the case of a London library now run by volunteers, which offers “dancing, healthy eating picnics and film nights”. Usage has since apparently increased, so the community-led library is hailed as a success. Now I have nothing against these activities and libraries have always let out rooms or space for community activities. But let’s get one thing very clear – these activities have nothing to do with what a library is. When a library is used for these activities, it is no longer a library, it is…..wait for it… A ROOM. Having a room is great for a community but it is NO measure of how good the library is. So this argument just doesn’t hold water.

The article also comments that “one volunteer spotted a regular visitor during the winter whose feet were blue with cold. She befriended him, found out that he had been living in a shed for 12 years and helped him to get rehoused. “Things like that would not have happened if it was run by the council,” says Dunbar.”

Really? I take great exception to this. Library staff have always helped people in need in ways not part of their job description – we see the homeless, the mentally ill, the refugees and asylum seekers, the lonely and the poor, and we step in. In my role in a school, I saw far more than the teachers ever saw – bullying, abuse, self-harm… and reported child protection issues on a regular basis. Students would come to me for advice on support on issues that were happening in their lives, and being able to help them was the most important thing I did. The same goes for public libraries – we are often the face of officialdom that people feel most comfortable with, and to whom they go for help.

Of course volunteers can do an excellent job. I’ve been a volunteer myself within the library service, and have no wish to criticise the valuable contribution they make. However, giving the service over entirely to volunteers isn’t fair and isn’t right. Not only is it doing people out of a job, it is taking advantage of people who care about their communities and exploiting them.

The library service in Leicestershire employs 126 full time equivalent staff. They are supported by 168 volunteers. So your service is already being propped up by unpaid labour – you’re already getting a service that is scraping by and relying on the goodwill of individuals. In the article mentioned above, the volunteer interviewed, Kathy Dunbar, works a staggering 50 hours per week for no pay. This disgusts me – she should be getting paid for the work she is doing. It’s as simple as that. I’m sure she’s an unusual case (I certainly hope so), but the pressure put on volunteers when there are no paid staff will be great. If they don’t work for free, the library will close.

And there are other issues with reliance on volunteers:

  • Quantity. How will a small community recruit and retain enough volunteers to sustain the library long-term?
  • Quality. How will they be trained and do they have the right skills-base and attitude? (I’ll come back to this in my next post…) Who is going to pay for the DRB checks to make sure they’re suitable to have access to children (and what happens when that goes wrong?!)?
  • Equality. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it is easier to recruit volunteers in wealthier areas. What about the deprived areas, who need their libraries the most? Will they lose their access to a library? How will the principle of a library – fair and equitable access for all – be maintained in the future? I can wish all I want for a washing-up fairy, but I know it’s only the posh houses at the other end of the village that can afford one…
  • Cost. volunteers aren’t free. That’s another myth alongside my washing-up fairy. There is a cost in training them, and oh, there’s that pesky DRB check again…
  • Consistency. You can make paid staff do things they don’t to do because they have a job description and a contract and have regular appraisals, with a disciplinary system if they muck up. You can’t make a volunteer do anything. If you ask a volunteer to do children’s storytime and they’re too shy, they can refuse. If you ask them to assist the elderly gentlemen with body odour and fascist views they can tell you to sod off. If they don’t want to work one particular day because the sun is shining and they’d rather be elsewhere, there’s nothing you can do about it. Staff have rules and regulations and a code of conduct they must follow. Volunteers, at the end of the day, don’t.

So it’s just not that simple. Volunteers in libraries work best when they work alongside trained professionals. When you take the professionals away, the foundations will become weaker and the library service will eventually fall.

And that’s the master plan.

In my next post I’ll be scratching at the seedy underbelly of life in a library and the thorny issues of prejudice and discrimination.