Whilst this has been knocking around in the library world for a while, volunteers running libraries seems to be the hot top in the media at the moment. It would seem that, for some, volunteers present the magic bullet that can prevent library closures and ensure communities have the library provision that they deserve. However, whilst volunteers play an important role in supporting the delivery of public library services (including advocacy which is vital), they are not a viable alternative to trained, paid staff. Keeping a library open is only marginally better than having no library at all if the service is solely provided voluntarily.
One of the prime issues with volunteers running services is the lack of skills amongst those that would be in a position to volunteer. Working in a library now requires a high degree of IT literacy. You are working with computers all day. You are expected to be able to employ appropriate search techniques on various Internet search engines (yes, ‘appropriate’ – searching is not about ‘bunging in a few words’, it is a skill to get the right results). Searching the Internet requires skill. A skill that, as I have mentioned on here before, even some journalists fail to grasp….naming no names (look it up!).
But it’s not just the point about searching the Internet that is cause for concern, other aspects of the library service require a degree of knowledge that volunteers are simply unable to provide. Take for example local studies materials. When I worked in a public library, we had a huge number of local studies materials. Maps, photographs, newspaper cuttings, countless items of interest to local history researchers and the community. The biggest problem I found with these materials was a way of making it easy for the public to find the materials they wanted. For example, we trialled different ways of making the huge number of maps we have searchable. The system that was employed at the time involved a long list of the various maps that were held. Yes, they were organised appropriately on the list to ease use, but it wasn’t the easiest way to find what you were looking for and I believed that there were alternative options worth exploring.
I decided to try out some different tools that were available on the Internet to make it easier for staff to locate materials. One of the first things I tried was a Zoho Wiki. The plan was that just by putting in simple search terms, staff would be able to locate all the materials linked to a particular area of the local community – this would make it quicker and easier for the public. Unfortunately, I never got to complete my plan (I left to start a new job elsewhere), but I think it could have worked with some tweaking.
Now, I don’t want to tar all those in the voluntary sector with the same brush, but how many volunteers are there who have the knowledge to be able to establish a wiki and adapt it for the purposes outlined? Sure, I bet there are a few people able to volunteer who could do it (like I said, I don’t want to tar all volunteers with the same brush), but are there enough to staff and man the number of libraries that are being lined up for closure across the UK unless local communities step in? Of course not. Is there a large, ready supply of tech savvy people out of work who are happy to volunteer their services to keep their library open? No. Are there dedicated members of the community frightened at the prospect of their local library closing and are prepared to do whatever they can to keep it open? Yes. But they shouldn’t be forced into keeping libraries open on the back of fear and bullying from local councils. Surely this is the Big Society being proposed not the Bullied Society?
But this isn’t about being ‘anti-volunteers’. This is the reality for community libraries:
Four years ago, Buckinghamshire County Council closed eight of its libraries. Two of these, including Little Chalfont, have kept going as volunteer-run community libraries, offering a comprehensive library service. Last November, a further 14 were told that they must become community libraries or face closure, leaving only 9 council-run libraries in the county.
Now LCCL is being held up around the country as the model of the future of our libraries, which places Brooks at the eye of the storm. Librarians from all over the country are beating a path to his door, wanting to know how this small community managed to save their library.
But be under no illusion. This was not simply a matter of a few volunteers taking over the jobs previously done by professional library staff. The original terms from Bucks County Council were that the library had to be provided at NO COST to the Council. The community had to raise enough money to pay for the rent of the existing building, charges for IT equipment, supplies such as bar codes, and a management fee to the Council. They also had to choose whether to pay the council an annual fee (£7k to rent existing stock, or to create their own stock from scratch through donations. (They chose the latter path.)
In all, their running costs amount to some £20k pa – money which is raised from a mixture of public donations, grants, library revenues (i.e. fines), and letting out the building to other community groups.
The volunteer staff, between them, have to provide not only basic librarian skills but Financial Management, Health and Safety, Staff Management, Stock Procurement, Building Maintenance, Data Protection, and a host of other managerial functions.
Jim Brooks, Chairman of the Friends of Little Chalfont Community Library, is angry that Councils are holding LCCL up as the blueprint to be used, willy nilly, elsewhere. He strongly believes that a check list of key criteria must be met in order for a community library such as theirs to be viable.
“Where communities meet these criteria, we are happy to give them all the help we can. But where they don’t, councils must understand, it’s a non-starter.”
Volunteer run libraries are not the answer to a long-term, sustainable library service. They are a stay of execution and nothing more. If a council near you is threatening to close your library unless the community has the volunteers and the will to do so, fight them all the way. This is their responsibility, not yours. The danger is that if councils force this to happen, we will result in a two tier library system. One for those in large urban areas run by paid professionals and one for those in small rural areas staffed by untrained volunteers. Now tell me, is this what David Cameron means when he calls for a ‘fairer society’?