Lots of library services make superb use of volunteers – especially when it comes to services for housebound people or school holiday activities. But there’s a huge difference between citizens who give some time to help augment a service and asking untrained and unsupported citizens to run it. And acknowledging this isn’t a dereliction of community spirit but an understanding that, in reality, volunteers are anything but a zero-cost option because of the extremely high levels of support they will require.
There’s a reason why librarians receive so much training, because the job of providing information services is extremely specialised – even more so in this era of new media. And the job of front-line staff, who deal with users every single day, can be extremely challenging (if often very satisfying too). Is it honestly fair to ask volunteers to intervene to stop conflict or criminality? Without a contract of employment, how do we ensure that service standards are maintained? And how do we also know that the library service will remain equally accessible to people of all ages, abilities and from different sections of our communities without that contractual agreement in place?
How do you fulfil the legal requirement that people’s personal information stays private and keep their borrowing choices confidential? And how do you ensure continuity of service when library work is just one of many competing calls on a volunteer’s time rather than a properly-recognised, paid occupation? People who have tried to run community libraries have discovered that a huge pool of volunteers is needed to make it work. And it’s a fact that some communities will be able to find more people offering to help out than others, while the areas with the fewest willing or able to contribute are often those that need their public services the most.
There is a real concern that replacing paid jobs with voluntary positions will drive the wages of frontline library staff down from their already extremely slender levels. And, actually, offering people the choice between taking on a near-impossible task or losing library provision is no choice at all. We think library volunteers are wonderful, community-spirited people. So much so that we feel very strongly that impossible things should not be asked of them. They should never be put in the unreasonable position of carrying a service that needs paid, trained professionals and committed frontline staff receiving a living wage to function properly.