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Firstly, might I apologise to anyone who’s already a library volunteer. You do a great job in supporting the library service – and I’m saying that from experience. This post is in no way aimed at you. I don’t believe that having volunteers in libraries is a “bad thing” per se, but I’m pointing to the potential dangers of relying solely on volunteers and removing the core paid staff.

Secondly, the scenario in this post, whilst not an exaggeration as such, combines real events. All the above characters / situations are true and from my own experience, although names have been changed! And they didn’t all happen on the same day!

But let’s look at that concept of working in a library as a “nice little job” again, and leaving aside the awkwardness of a member of staff who is about to lose their job to a volunteer, pretend that this staff member is giving the volunteer a “handover” tour.

“Welcome to the library. Firstly I’ll show you the machinery you’ll be operating. This is the self-issue machine. It does breaks down regularly and you’ll have to fix it, plus the photocopier, and these are the computer terminals. How good are you with IT? Never mind, you can always try switching it on and off again if you don’t know how to fix a browser incompatibility. These are the library’s databases – are you good at searching for obscure information on different platforms? Do you know what to do if it crashes? ….. Oh well.

“Of course the main joy of the job is the people. Here are some of our regulars. Don’t mind Mr Trenchcoat there, he’s pleasant enough but if you do catch him masturbating in a corner,  it is best to confront him directly. And if any of our male customers do access porn on the internet or start chatting up 10-year-olds on Facebook, do call the police. Of course we get all age ranges in here sharing the space so you will have to be vigilant. We’ve got a hotline to Social Services if any pre-school children turn up on their own – lots of parents like to use us a free crèche while they go to work – and also there are a few children we think are being neglected, so keep a log and do report it if you see anything suspicious. Have you had any training in child protection?Some of the older children can be very difficult – have you had any training in behaviour management? We do get vandalism I’m afraid and they can be very intimidating. Some of the teenage boys are very big and scary but the girls…. Oh well.

“Oh that’s Mrs Smith, lovely lady but she will insist on tipp-exing all the rude words out of the novels! Watch her like a hawk. And Stan, he’s homeless so he comes in here to keep warm, bless him. He’s normally fine but try not to breathe too deeply if he’s close by. And then there are the groups we get who are learning IT skills and family history…. The life skills group are okay but occasionally they’ll be someone who flies off the handle and causes a disturbance. Have you had any experience in working with people with learning disabilities? Oh, that chap over there…. Always asking for inter-library loans of disturbing material which he will insist on talking about very loudly. How assertive are you, would you say? On a scale of one to ten? The cutbacks to welfare advice services mean we’re the only port of call left for some people so they can get rather upset and aggressive. We’re the public face of the government really!

“Watch out for dirty nappies left on the floor after children’s story time. And needles round the bins at the back of the car park. Be very careful and don’t pick anything up outside. Now, Mr Sutton is a bit of a worrying character. Don’t make eye contact or he’ll never leave you alone. Followed me home once, I had to call the police. Be very careful not to give anyone personal details about yourself, and wear trousers or long skirts, as some of our gentlemen do like to lie on the floor and look up your skirt from behind the shelves. Now, have you got your panic button? You must wear that at all times. You can lock yourself in the office if you need to, it has a phone line. Try not to be in the building on your own, libraries are a magnet for some strange people…. But we’re open to all, without prejudice. Don’t worry, they don’t all come in at once!”

Still want to volunteer?

That doesn’t paint a very attractive picture of a public library I know, and you’re probably thinking that it doesn’t bear much resemblance to your last visit to a public library, but that’s the point. These things are largely invisible to library users because the trained library assistants and librarians are so adept at dealing with them and take it all in their stride. Every member of library staff I know has hundreds of tales of strange or difficult – even downright dangerous – customers. I know library staff who have been stalked, even threatened with knives. But like any workface dealing with the frontline of the great British public, we do keep calm and carry on, because we have a fundamental belief in the social value of what we do.

So besides the fact that working in a library ain’t necessarily “a nice little job”, what else?

Libraries are underpinned by an ethical framework which espouses freedom of information and access for all. They are anti-censorship, and the materials in any one library have been selected to provide a well-balanced collection representing the requirements of the whole community. However, the moment you take away the librarians and the library assistants, you open the door to partisan interest. There are a lot of people out there who would love to get their propaganda into public libraries. Racist, sexist, and homophobic material, material that preaches religious intolerance, information that misinforms and tries to provoke mistrust and hatred amongst communities. Don’t underestimate how much of this is out there and how quickly it will penetrate our libraries if we let it. Library staff are bound by rules of professional conduct and a code of ethics – volunteers are not, and may deliberately or accidentally seed into collections material that is offensive, illegal or misguided.

So, how would you feel if your library did not stock books reflecting gay issues because the nice lady that runs it thinks that homosexuality is a sin?

What do you think about your leafy rural library refusing access to the children of the Travellers that have camped just up the road?

Do you want BNP meetings in your library? The volunteer may be a member and happily use the library as a political hub.

How will you ensure that every type of person can use the library space simultaneously and peaceably? What happens if the retired folk of your village don’t like letting the teenagers in?

Do you believe in equality and access for all?

I once had an argument with a Headteacher because her school library only reflected white culture, to which she responded disparagingly “well, we don’t have any of those children here” in a tone that expressed exactly her opinion of ethnic minorities. In other schools I’ve encountered similar prejudice against other minority groups.

The public library should be a service accessible to all.

There is also the problem of unbalancing a collection by only buying material that represents one point of view or one lifestyle. Not everyone wants to read aga-sagas – I’ve encountered school libraries where they are the only fiction stock (so no wonder the teens weren’t reading).

The council say they will give support for the book stock for five years. After that, it will be donations, and as any librarian knows, they can seriously affect the quality of your collection. Community-led libraries may well become glorified charity shops.

So I am concerned that libraries run by volunteers will a) be potentially scary for the volunteers and b) lead to a huge disparity in access for all. Volunteers can help libraries survive and thrive – but not without the underpinning expertise and guidance of professionally trained staff bound to uphold the ethical principles upon which the library service was built.

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