Volunteers: You're not actually helping...

I was reading in The Guardian the other day about the increase in volunteer-run local libraries. As someone who has worked in both community and academic libraries, it's a trend that really worries me.

Photo of The Leeds Library by Michael D Beckwith
The obvious argument in favour of volunteers is that the council may well close down libraries entirely if they have to pay staff. However, there is a (somewhat wishy-washy) law requiring a certain amount of library provision, so this is debatable. But there's no doubt that free labour is very much appreciated by councils who are feeling the squeeze. The Economist reported earlier this year that spending on public services is expected to be 22% lower in 2017 than it was in 2010 so, with the cost of social care increasing year-on-year, the money for "non-essentials" just isn't there. If that's the case, why aren't volunteers the heroes that we need?

Well, first of all, the idea of the library as a non-essential resource only makes sense if you are wealthy enough and have the social and cultural capital to be able to access internet, books, educational resources, etc. within your home. When I was working in a public library, many of our most regular borrowers did not have those luxuries. They were young people who were unable to study at home because they did not have the facilities, space or necessary quiet; recent immigrants who needed to use our computers (and staff support) to fill in Home Office forms, apply for jobs, resolve housing issues, and so on; elderly people who enjoyed the free classes and meet-ups that sometimes provided their only social contact of the week. It's easy for an MP to say, "Oh, anyone can pick up a £5 book from WH Smith", but that is a reductive argument that ignores the social function and educational value of the library as a community hub. And, as always, it's the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer from the closures.

This is where the volunteer is not always the best person to assist. Sure, most people can shelve books in roughly alphabetical order, follow the Dewey system and stamp date labels, but very little of the librarian or library assistant role is about that. As a council worker, you become the first port of call for residents on a number of issues, so you have to have the skills and knowledge to guide and advise people, to be able to search out information for them on everything from social housing to immigration support, to help them with using computers and printers, and all this often with people for whom English is not a first language. Ok, a rural library in the Cotswolds might be able to get away with volunteers stamping Agatha Christie books for a few hours a week, but that is not going to get you far in any of our urban centres.

Then there's the more technical side of librarianship: the buying and cataloguing of books. Who is going to make the decisions about what new texts need to be brought in? Who will curate the collection to keep it relevant? Who will manage the online databases to ensure that the collection is searchable and fit for purpose? Having trained librarians working alongside volunteers begins to answer these questions but is also an admission that the volunteer model has clear limits. The trained staff are also at a huge disadvantage in these positions, as the bulk of the work will inevitably fall upon them, as well as the management of the volunteers. Trying to coordinate a workforce of volunteers who may only do a few hours each a week is a full-time job in itself, another fact that is overlooked by councils.

Volunteers can only do so much. They can perhaps do enough to keep a library open, but the quality of service will suffer, the hours will reduce, and the vital services beyond access to books and computers will often be lost. A volunteer may be able to do a Storytime with the kids, but will the hugely popular Summer Reading Challenge be sustainable? They will be able to help a reader find a book, but will they be able to assist with the archiving responsibilities and the collection management aspects of the job? Ultimately, will the library become less and less relevant until visitor numbers dwindle to the point where the council can smugly close it altogether, which is probably what they wanted from the start?

I guess the question is this: is using volunteers to keep a library open helping or harming the library service and its users as a whole? Is a less-functional library better than no library, or does it simply invalidate the good work that better-funded institutions do, making it easier for the cuts to be made by councils elsewhere? The hearts of the volunteers are definitely in the right place, and there is an awful lot of good work that they do, but their presence masks the damage that the cuts are doing, damage that councillors don't notice or understand because they are not the demographic that uses or needs these spaces. If having volunteers allows councils to gloss over these losses, perhaps they're doing more harm than good.

I'd be very interested to hear alternative views on this. Are you one of the volunteers? Do you think these libraries are sufficient for future demand? Let me know below.


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