The harsh truth about volunteers.

Please note – blog posts automatically close after 50 days.

As always I am pleased to read of any county that announces that they have “saved” their libraries, but I am increasingly seeing that this act of supposed salvation comes at a cost. That cost is losing trained and professional staff, i.e librarians.
Many County Councils are now announcing that their libraries will be “saved”
and that thanks to their glorious new restructuring it will instead be run by “skilled volunteers”
Hmmm, let’s have a look at the truth and workability of that statement shall we?

I’ve worked in the service a long time and (because I’ve worked my way up) I’ve seen pretty much every aspect of it. I’ve worked as a volunteer, and I’ve worked with them, and I’ve organised them. The truth about volunteers is a harsh one, and I apologise to any volunteers if they know that this is not them, but in my experience the points below show the truth of what happens when you rely on volunteers in the long term.
Fine (and incredibly helpful) to use them for occasional top-ups (for example during the hugely busy Summer Reading Scheme season) or for supporting outreach services, such as book deliveries for the housebound or for care homes, but not for core or essential services.
Apart from the obvious denigration of the skills of trained professionals, why can’t we use volunteers for everything?
Here are a few reasons why….

You can’t timetable them.
Volunteers want to work at a time that suits them, not you and not the service. You can’t insist that they work late evenings and weekends like paid staff. They will only work at a time that is convenient for them. Of course they do, they are volunteers and have no contract of employment with you so why should they work when you want them to work?

They cancel at a moment’s notice
That’s because they can. They are not being paid and so if the boiler man wants to come round, they cancel. Waiting on a delivery? Cancel. Daughter popped round for lunch? Cancel. Bit of a hangover? Cancel. Lovely sunny day so decided to have a day out instead? Cancel.
Of course they can do this, they aren’t being paid! You have no right to expect them to come in and no contract of employment to force them to so they have every right to ditch.

You have little or no recourse when they are bad at what they do.
I’ve worked with many volunteers and I remember a good number of ladies who were long term volunteers for the housebound. They were rude. No two ways about it, they were rude, controlling, aggressive and arrogant. We could do nothing at all about this because they were volunteers and without them several housebound people would have no contact with another living soul from one week to the next. We couldn’t sack these ladies or demand they modify their behaviour because we had no contract of employment with them (see the pattern beginning to emerge?)

You can’t insist that they undergo extensive training.
It takes a vast amount of training to deliver a successful library service at the frontline. You can’t insist that your well-meaning volunteer attend several dozen courses to be able to deliver that service because they are just volunteers and you have no legally binding contract of service with them.

You can’t insist on an apolitical standpoint.
Some volunteers may well have strong political leanings that will influence their responses and the way they deal with the public. You can not enforce an apolitical standpoint upon them because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them to ensure that they only express neutrality.

They are not protected in the event of injury or incident.
I have known a good number of librarians who have been injured during their work. This ranges from people who have put their backs out to people who were punched and one who was stabbed. These staff members were supported by their employers and were able to get well and were supported through various crises. You can’t do that with volunteers (no contract remember!) and so their only recourse will be to sue the county. Good luck with that!

They only do what they want to do.
Yes, shelving a couple of hundred books can be boring, so is heaving a load of deliveries around or doing an extensive weed or stock check – but it’s all part of the job. It’s much more enjoyable mooching around in the reference section, or looking through new books, or chatting with your friends who just happen to have dropped by. Library assistants on a contract can be instructed to do the dull stuff because they are paid to. People who have no pay and no contract don’t want to do the dull stuff – why would they? They start off agreeing to, but all too soon you are drowning in returns and the shelves are a mess with things put back incorrectly. In my experience it takes about three weeks for someone to get to the NAD method of shelving (Near As Dammit)

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Some volunteers will inevitably abuse their power. These will be the most reliable volunteers in terms of available time and they will make your libraries less pleasurable places to visit. They will be controlling and suffocating and will turn people off visiting the library. You can’t do anything about this because you have no contract of employment with them and can’t insist that they modify their behaviour.

They drift off.
In the beginning you will have lots of volunteers. Plenty of people will come forward and say that they will help out and for a while you will be overwhelmed by the lovely support your library has.
This will not last. In a year or two you will be left with a tiny core of people who are still devoted, but who are essentially running the library on their own. You will be completely reliant on the two or three people who remain loyal, and they will be working full-time equivalent hours in a desperate attempt to keep the place open. If there is one paid librarian left in the building to oversee this (and I stress the “if” there) they will be on a zero hours contract that occasionally affords them a day off, but otherwise requires them to work every late, and every anti-social day (such as Saturday and Sunday) due to the lack of available volunteers.
It will become virtually impossible to get more volunteers because in a more rural community you may have simply exhausted all available people, and in most areas people will tire of working that hard for free. Students will graduate and get jobs, and other people will find that it no longer fits with other aspects of their lives. Most will simply find it tiresome and demanding and they will gradually drift away. You can do nothing about this because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them over things like working hours, or the need to notify you a good time in advance that they no longer wish to do it.

They don’t really know what they are doing.
No offence intended to volunteers here, but the scale of work expected of them is a bit terrifying! Being a librarian is a hugely complex task that involves an incredibly broad skillset. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century and I pedal hard to keep up with all the relevant changes that impact the library service and how we deliver that to our customers. I don’t have all the answers to enquiries from members of the public, but I sure as hell know where to find them. This is because I’m a professional – not a volunteer. You can’t expect volunteers to be able to do this. Customers will soon be frustrated by not being able to ask a question and receive the correct answer, and so they will simply stop asking, and will stop using the library. Catch 22.

This is just a very small snapshot of the potential barriers to delivering a quality service only using volunteers. I have had many wonderful and supportive volunteers in my time (and I thank them and they know who they are and I was able to do a better job thanks to them) but they operated with me, and ultimately the buck stopped with me – the paid and experienced professional. I am a strong willed person who was perfectly prepared to tell a volunteer that I no longer required their services, and so I was able to work with people who stuck at it and were superb – but that meant that I went from dozens down to three who were actually reliable and trustworthy – and that was in a school where I was lucky enough to have access to well-educated and involved parents.
When I was in public libraries it was a genuine nightmare keeping reliable and effective volunteers, and it was far worse for my colleagues who were in poorer or more rural locations.

We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.
This is not just about saving jobs, it’s about communities receiving that which they are legally entitled to. If all of your health visitors or community pharmacies were run by volunteers you would not accept it – don’t accept it from your one and only community information point either. Don’t let the Powers That Be convince you that you can find out all the information you require on your own, that’s a fallacy. You can find out all the legal information that you need on the Internet – but at some point you will need a trained professional to help you. Imagine if it was accepted that solicitors could be unqualified volunteers too? Or nurses?
Yes, you can wrangle around on the Internet when you have a question about issues that affect you locally (or nationally) and then you can wade through 50,000+ pages of disorganised information hoping you’ll strike upon the right one. Or, you can visit the information and knowledge management specialist in your community (aka the librarian) and ask them and they’ll give you the right answer.
You can’t rely on a volunteer to do that. If you are tempted to volunteer, don’t. You will not be protecting your public library by volunteering, you will only be supporting a fatally flawed scheme that will eventually bring about its demise.

Running libraries on volunteers is not a cheap and effective way of saving your local library service, it is a carcinogenic scheme that will ultimately kill it.

Dawn Finch Library and Literacy Consultant
Children’s Author



60 thoughts on “The harsh truth about volunteers.

  1. […] In any case, I couldn’t do half as well as Dawn Finch who absolutely nails it in her post The harsh truth about volunteers. Go read it […]

  2. Leon says:

    Manchester: Community libraries’ run by volunteers open much less than those run by the council

  3. Frank Daniels says:

    Can we please see a list of academic libraries staffed by volunteers, or other libraries catering to special groups of people, e.g. libraries with a SW1 postcode? You know, people with special needs…

    Oh, and what happens to the profession of librarianhip, which has a Royal Charter behind it no less, when all library staff, in public libraries at any rate, are volunteers?

    I’m quite sure that I would not wish to have open heart surgery performed on me by a volunteer, or to learn, after embarking, that the captain of my cruise liner is a volunteer. The mere fact that politicians seem so at ease with the idea of volunteers in libraries shows the depth of contempt that they feel for the public, who will, of course, continue to vote for them, not exempting myself from that last remark…

  4. Graham Stanley says:

    Dawn Finch’s piece is a pretentious diatribe against volunteers. The reality for Leicestershire’s libraries is that Community Libraries are staffed by Library Service Assistants not librarians, of which there are very few in our county.

    LSAs need to be good with people of both sexes, of all ages and backgrounds. They can be trained and they can offer a reliable service and, subject to a robustly constructed volunteer programme, they can offer a good level of reliability. But obviously turnover will likely be higher than with paid staff so groups like ours will have to care for our volunteers.

    Ratby Library Group in Leicestershire has a skilled and experienced Volunteer Coordinator and we believe that having local people involved in the delivery of our library service plus other ancillary services that we shall offer to bring customers through our doors. As a library only we see a dwindling footfall and we believe we shall bring people through our doors to whom we can then introduce to a love of books.

    It’s no use Ms Finch telling the world making librarians redundant is wrong. I’ve been made redundant 5 times. We have to live according to our means. And given the drop in central government funding Leicestershire finds itself having to make some unpalatable decisions. The one relative to community-run libraries, we believe, will allow us to take our local library into the future.

    • Dawn Finch says:

      Insults aside (it’s neither “pretentious” nor a “diatribe” – at no point am I insulting, as this is simply an honest sharing of my experiences) I am in no way against local communities supporting their libraries. Good volunteers are extremely useful when they support the work of a trained librarian. It is simply the fact that we can’t expect volunteers to do all the work for free. It’s just not fair to pass the buck for libraries onto their communities and then expect them to carry the blame if it fails.
      We need to find a better way of supporting librarians and the extraordinary job that they do.
      I’m sorry that you’ve been made redundant five times, this alone shows how hard pressed librarians are. Do you have the details of the training schemes? I’ve been privately informed that they brief at best. It is a great shame that Leics allowed the service to run down so much.
      Librarians are the most valuable resource of a library and are not being taken into account.

      • shirleyswindon says:

        Given Graham Stanley’s comment, and Dawn’s recent reference to “passing the buck”, I am reminded of this letter from Doug & Maureen Harwood of Ratby (2014). It is well worth a revisit:

        Is Mr Stanley one of the volunteers who will take on the onerous costs and responsibilities described therein, including the following?

        “To make matters more difficult, by April 2015, the volunteer group will have to submit a business plan and sign a contract guaranteeing that its scheme will run for 10 years. If the plan fails within the 10 years, the volunteer group would be responsible for any operating losses or liabilities.”

        If he is amongst their number, not a bystander, nor a spokesperson for the Council or a political view, he is braver than I. My gut feeling is that it is worth fighting for a properly staffed library and that it is no insult to suggest that doing otherwise is fraught with uncertainty and risk.

  5. […] this blog post via Twitter and the author raised some very valuable points. Do read this blog The harsh truth about volunteers – it’s a very interesting take on the effects this could have to our […]

  6. Leon says:

    What strikes me as the greatest insult to both users and staff is LCC refusal to consider a staff run mutual. Now I appreciate that some campaigners have reservations about trusts but I would point to both Suffolk and York as successful models. In fact the situation in Lincs seems similar to Suffolk, and more recently Devon, with the exception that Suffolk & Devon councils actually listened to the protests and feedback of the public.

    Some commentators have made the point that it is better to have a volunteer run library than none at all. I would argue that it is far better to have a staff run trust than a patchwork of volunteer libraries. Given the support and expertise the protests have gathered together perhaps it’s time to invoke the localism act, engage with the staff, and protect all the libraries by becoming a trust.

    • That sounds an even better idea than volunteers per se. I did look up a few things to try to find out about the other proposals offered, but wasn’t able to find anything out. I did get the impression from other posts here that LCC were turning a deaf ear to other proposals, but surely if this was something which meant the library could continue with its regular, trained, staff, yet didn’t require massive investment from LCC, it would be worth listening to. Can we hear some further details about how this would work, please?

      • shirleyswindon says:

        I am astonished to note that Helen Claire Gould appears not to have looked up the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ website’s Home Page to update herself on what is currently happening there. This seems fundamental to anyone seeking a bit of knowledge. To familiarise herself with the TWO “other proposals” (links to which may be found) go here:

        Further knowledge may be sought here:
        Also, note the dispute that arose with GLL (in Greenwich) here:
        And, to get properly up to speed, it is worth reading this:

        It’s NOT just a case of looking at a plate of cupcakes and choosing the one that looks less poisonous than another. You need to be aware of all their ingredients – and take notice of what might well result from hurriedly sticking one in your mouth and swallowing. I admit to finding it galling that solutions can be bandied about which do not seem even to pay lip service to the very complex issues and consequences surrounding them.

      • Leon says:

        Helen you might be interested in the following link to Suffolk libraries which contains useful information. A simple Google search will also bring up other trust examples such as York libraries. Devon is currently exploring the option so it’s worth checking their online documentation as well.

        Shirley has raised some valid points in her comments and the trust option is not favoured by some campaigners. Unfortunately, the difficulty on insisting that libraries remain as a directly delivered council service presupposes that the council in question is both enlightened and bold enough to continue to invest in and protect libraries. LCC is failing spectacularly on both accounts.

  7. Angela says:

    As someone closely involved in the Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaign and the Market Rasen Portas Pilot (which relied heavily on volunteers with its projects and described them as ‘the Achilles heel’), the limitations of volunteers listed here really ring true to me. I predict an utterly crap library service in Lincs if the council plan goes ahead, with many causalities, from the staff immediately hit to the volunteers bailing out a ship that will sink, to the people across this poor, rural county who need proper libraries for reasons too numerous to list. The campaign in Lincs has spoken to many of the communities volunteering to take over, and not found one that does this willingly. We have devoted a blog page to record this truth, and recommend any other group facing these kinds of cuts does the same, so the inevitable council spin is challenged:

  8. Helencamden says:

    Thank you for this. I worked in Camden libraries for about 26 years and prior to that worked in Citizens Advice Bureaux, a paid organiser working with a team of volunteers and I can so endorse everything you say. In the last year or so I went to offer my help to one of Camden’s former libraries that is now community run, just to help with training volunteer staff, and was treated like something out of the gutter. I wish them well but I won’t be offering help or using it. I am sad to see former libraries morphing into community centers and nurseries.

  9. Hear hear, on all the above.

    • shirleyswindon says:

      Please note, my “hear hear” was directed to Leon’s comment.

      I appreciate what Helen Claire Gould has to say, but if she is happy to support Deeping library “whatever way” she can and “whatever the outcome” – It would seem to *encourage* LCC to have the confidence to withdraw staff and leave residents to pick up the pieces?

  10. Leon says:

    The view that volunteers are saving libraries for better times when perhaps the library can be reintegrated into the service is politically naive. The Conservative party has already indicated (and tried to enact during the past 5 years) its commitment to a permanently smaller state with less public run services. During this parliament local government funding has been cut by 40% and will continue to be reduced under Tory austerity measures. For them the cuts are as much ideologically motivated as financial.

    Labour is not too different with their austerity-lite approach and zero based review. The continually growing demand on social care and children services, Labour’s commitment to Education and the NHS will leave very little for other areas such as libraries. It will take decades not years to recover from such funding cuts if indeed libraries ever do. During that time any library cut adrift from the parent service will remain cast adrift.

    On the point of partnering with the parent service this drains a disproportionate amount of time and resources to keep volunteer libraries operating from the very staff who have seen their colleagues sacked and replaced by volunteers

    That is another harsh truth of this narrative, that by volunteering every volunteer has enabled paid staff to be made redundant. The council won’t acknowledge this, volunteers won’t acknowledge it, but it’s the truth nevertheless. Is it any wonder that there is simmering ill will.

    My own view is that despite the financial situation there is genuinely little appetite to close libraries, so call the council’s bluff. What we need is less capitulation, more agitation, and certainly a damn sight more imagination.

    • librariesmatter says:

      Leon – obviously some of the points you make are why Councils have library reviews and public consultations. The optimum library service depends on the attributes of the Council area. However I would suggest that the model you have suggested elsewhere i.e. close down smaller libraries and concentrate on improving the bigger libraries with some extra outreach activity is likely to be more appropriate for urban areas. It would be a poor strategy in a County rural situation – the service would be unbalanced with smaller communities being cut off from the Library Service.

      My suggestion above is that the library service overall can benefit from the extra resource that local communities and volunteers can bring. I don’t think your point about disproportionate amount of time for the Library Service is true after initial set up. It also is an appropriate response to the “elephant on the room” which is falling usage. A library that was cost justifiable 20 years ago may not be so today.

      The harsh reality is that librarians lose their jobs because Councils have less money. Jobs are not lost because of volunteers.

      Calling the council’s bluff as a strategy is worth a go in the right circumstances. It is easier to recommend to others than it is to adopt in one own community!

      • Leon says:

        Library matters: I agree that a consolidation of libraries is more achievable in urban than rural areas but whether urban or rural volunteer run libraries are not the answer. Having previous direct experience of volunteer libraries I stand by my comment that they require a disproportionate amount of time to keep going. It would be interesting to see what other library staff that support volunteer libraries say about this.

        Consultations are a double-edged sword as many are biased towards achieving the outcome the council wishes anyway. Where legal challenges have succeeded it is usually the consultation that has proved to be flawed so it’s no wonder campaigners set little store by them. That said, some councils such as Devon do appear to listen to the genuine concerns of users and consider other alternatives.

        I accept that falling loans need to be addressed. However, libraries are more than just loans and add social value to their communities. A fact recognised by many when the library is put under threat. Underinvestment also plays a large part in falling usage. Evidence shows that new and well-resourced libraries attract greater usage. Equally, literacy levels for young people continue to fall and you cannot challenge this trend by underinvesting either in education or libraries.

        Volunteers can make a valuable difference in supplementary roles and particularly for fund raising. A previous commentator makes precisely this point and it is disappointing that the council in that instance did not take up the idea.

        There are still too many councils that rush forward with the lazy option of closures knowing that volunteers will feel pressurised to step in. I would point to Lincolnshire and Sheffield as examples. In contrast, and as I am sure you are aware, Suffolk council threatened libraries with closures and handing over to volunteers. However, due to public protest and a more imaginative approach Suffolk libraries were able to protect all of its libraries by becoming a trust. They now use friends groups as previously outlined to support and fundraise.

        Now I chose my words with care and said that volunteers ‘enabled’ paid staff to be made redundant. Perhaps in the early days of austerity Councils would have closed libraries regardless but nowadays doing so has become politically toxic. However, what volunteers have perpetuated is the erroneous belief by councillors that communities are happy, willing or able to take libraries on. Volunteer libraries beget volunteer libraries.

        It is this perception that encourages councils to make staff redundant by relying on volunteers to take their place. However, without volunteers stepping forward and instead taking a more oppositional stance I don’t believe the majority of the councils would continue with closures but would instead find alternative solutions. So, again, I stand by my assertion that volunteers ‘enable’ paid staff to be made redundant.

        While volunteers are concerned with their local situation, and I sympathise with that, what we now have nationally is two-tier provision and a postcode lottery that benefits no one. Not staff and certainly not users.

      • I used to work for Lincolnshire County Council as an evening class teacher. The county has a lot of small communities with a lot of countryside in between, so when we were inspected by Ofsted, having done all the extra (unpaid, of course) preparation required, most of the inspectors found it too difficult to get the far-flung locations, so we didn’t even get a visit. So I can’t see how having a few larger libraries in bigger towns is going to work. Apart from anything else, a significant sector of the population relies on public transport to get around, and they are probably just the people who need public libraries, so it would most likely deprive them of the ability to visit a library even occasionally. It looks to me as if the LCC, having extinguished evening classes, have now turned their attention to library services!

        Dee, your comments about volunteers in general are true, and a workmanlike analysis and powerful argument, but I believe the FODL are doing their best to get this pernicious process stopped in its tracks. In the meantime, everybody’s doing what they can to make the best of a bad situation. Who knows what we’ll end up with at this stage? I, too, have volunteered and run things in the past, and it’s hard when you know that everyone’s relying on you and your initiative and ingenuity. But surely it’s better to have some facilities run by volunteers than nothing at all, in the event that LCC does manage to shut down these 30 libraries? I’m happy to support Deeping library whatever way
        I can whatever the outcome.

  11. Dawn Finch says:

    Ah, sorry Shirley. I hadn’t realised this would be so contentious, clearly I hit a nerve with lots of people!
    What has really saddened me is the number of private messages I’ve received from people working in public libraries who are gagged, but who agree with my post. They are saying that they are already working with volunteers and are facing all of the issues that I mentioned, and far worse – but they have been told that they are “not allowed” to talk about it. This gagging is masking the true situation in libraries and it is wrong. So much for Free Speech!

    • I can almost hear their muffled voices from an adjacent room. How can it possibly help the survival of this great national institution if staff cannot point out their experience of what is going wrong and what they think could redress the balance? ALSO, “listen up” any member of the public or others who see this forum as an opportunity to brief against their library staff – you’ll get the thumbs-down from me – let alone from all those who value what they do. It’s a cheap trick to sneer about anyone’s competence when the target doesn’t have the right of reply.

  12. Stella Jones says:

    All of these statements apply to the supposedly qualified and experienced staff of the Denbighshire Library Service. Unfortunately, they have employment contracts.

  13. Dawn, you are absolutely right. I was commenting on the nature of some of the comments, rather than on your oeuvre which I believe expresses the case against vol libraries eloquently.

  14. Although objective assessment may be good, it’s dispiriting to note a pervasive defeatism. It shows you have little hope and expect to fail; a subtle campaign of self-sabotage. I hate that. Are there no other options? I would like to help.

    • Dawn Finch says:

      I’ve simply tried to relate the exact problems that I and countless others have experienced in these situations. It is enormously dispiriting, but it’s certainly not self-sabotage. I do have very little hope of this working, and feel that people should see an honest viewpoint.
      If people volunteer in their libraries they should understand that it’s unsustainable and will eventually allow for a decline in service. Eventually this will mean extensive closure of libraries.

      • librariesmatter says:

        If people don’t volunteer then won’t the smaller libraries close? The library buildings will most likely be sold. Why is that better? The idea that Councils will somehow pull back from closures if communities
        don’t volunteer is surely over-optimistic.

        If people do volunteer and the libraries stay open then as a minimum librarians are in a position to continue to make their case and fight another day – most likely after the end of the central government grant cuts – post 2020.

        Not great I know but surely that is the reality.

        • Dawn Finch says:

          That is what people are being led to believe – and the blame will be shifted onto communities if they fail to find enough volunteers to keep their library open. When it closes (after the next election of course) the community will be blamed for not doing enough and government will be busy doing a Pontius Pilate on the whole thing. This issue is the legal responsibility of the government and local councils, not the people who live in the community. What happens in more poverty-hit areas where volunteers for anything are almost impossible to find? I’m assuming that these areas don’t deserve libraries because they are not volunteering to “save” them?
          Volunteering to deliver a full library service masks the issue (and the illegality of axing the service) and will only stave off the inevitable.
          I’m afraid that’s closer to the reality, and if people really want to save their libraries then they need to save them properly by saving the service and not just the building – and communities should not be bullied into taking responsibility for the long-term outcome of the library onto their own shoulders.

          • librariesmatter says:

            On the legal responsibility point – any citizen (with financial backing!) can seek judicial review on the points that you mention. The indications so far are that the outcome you seek would not be confirmed by the Courts.

            On the poverty hit areas point – I agree with you. One size does not fit all. But wouldn’t Councils take that into account in making their proposals.

            On the full library service point – a volunteer run library can partner with the Council’s Library Service and thus be able to draw on the Library Service’s professional resources. As Hazel Robinson points out the service received by smaller communities from traditional Council run small libraries is often not particularly good e.g. poor opening hours. The local community with some Council support might be able to provide a better service.

          • Dawn Finch says:

            Well, it’s already clear that the answer to that is – no, they don’t take that into account! Libraries in impoverished and rural areas are already the hardest hit.
            If the rot continues unchallenged then there will be no “Council Library Service” to draw on. There will possibly be centralised business managers, but there is no plan for a central pool of resources or qualified staff to draw on. In fact this has already happened with the virtual eradication of School Library Services – and this happened largely unopposed due to the inability of Councils and Government to see what this meant to schools and literacy. We seem to be noticing a national dip in literacy too.

            In the beginning those library volunteers will be all keen about their volunteer controlled library, but come back to me in five or ten years when that library is long gone….
            Oh, and to say they can offer a “better service” well…I think I’ll leave that to my fellow librarians to deal with that insult!

  15. Jayne says:

    Excellent snapshot Dawn.
    Shame is that the good ones will be lost to the service now.

  16. […] The Lincolnite : 6th AprilLibraries campaigners seek second judicial review of Lincolnshire cuts Finch : 5th AprilLibraries: The harsh truth about volunteersDawn Finch is Vice President of CILIP, a Library and Literacy consultant and children’s author […]

  17. Barbara Band says:

    Volunteers have helped out in libraries for years. School libraries across the UK have a whole ream of volunteers, aka pupil library assistants, helping in them, doing immensely valuable work but being managed by a professional librarian. Volunteers do not have the skills or experience to ensure a balanced and appropriate stock, to evaluate information resources, to find the correct information amongst the thousands of possible answers in response to a question from the public. Volunteers cannot be trusted to follow an ethical code of practise, assisting and aiding without discrimination. I’m sure many do but I am also sure that many have their own agendas and personal issues that they bring to the role. I do a lot of volunteering. All my CILIP work, all my work with the School Libraries Group and the School Library Association is volunteering. Everything I write in my blog and online comes under the remit of volunteering, all my advocacy and campaigning for libraries is volunteering. The only thing I am paid for is to be a school librarian between the hours of 8.30am to 4pm, term time only! If my school library is closed then yes, I may lose my job …. but those that will lose out the most would be the students who no longer have a library with the skills and experience of a professional librarian. You CANNOT replace that with a volunteer, no matter how well meaning they may be.

    • Dawn Finch says:

      Exactly that Barbara. We volunteer all the time and have worked with good ones, and bad ones. As you say, all of our CILIP work is essentially volunteer work (as is this blog and all of the campaigning we do) and we both know that the key to that work is the fact that we are experienced professionals who are sharing our knowledge and experience with others. Sadly that is not the case for the volunteer system in most places. I don’t want to make our heads swell, but there are not enough people with our training and experience to deliver a complete library service. That is a highly skilled job and just because we make it look easy – doesn’t mean it is!

  18. Lesley Watts says:

    Excellent piece! I am fed up of the attitude that any old volunteer can do the job of a professional librarian with no training.

  19. Sarah Pavey says:

    What I find puzzling is if the Government think libraries can be run by unqualified, untrained volunteers why do they continue to fund university courses in librarianship and library management? Ergo us professionals must still carry some value and must have some job openings!

    • Lauren says:

      The neoliberal politics of deprofessionalisation aside, given the number of LIS departments currently closing and/or merging with business schools and/or facing serious difficulties, and the lack of understanding from the funding councils about what LIS actually *is*, I’d strongly suggest it’s nothing to do with the government seeing the value of professional qualifications and more to do with the fact that these courses are currently flying under the radar.

  20. This is EXACTLY what I would have said about volunteers over many years’ experience in a Credit Union and much else. A volunteer is just that; any family crisis or professional opportunity will and must come first. The volunteer slot is not transferable, e.g. for weekend courses. Spot on! I hope a lot of people get to read this.

  21. The proverbial rock and hard place spring to mind when told by your county that your local branch library will close unless the community takes it over. So, after all the protests and demonstrations, threats of judicial reviews etc etc, what real choice is there? Do we say it’s just too bad that the children and elderly who can’t get to town can do without books and computers and the local library wasn’t really that important anyway? If so, what’s the point of retaining any libraries at all – or any library professional, come to that? If we believe the services a library provides are important, we have to do our damnedest to keep them.

    Nine libraries in Dorset faced the same or similar situations. We got together and decided to try to keep our libraries and to negotiate the best deal we could with the County, managing to get some continuing professional help (3 hours a week) and the library mangement system. We still believe this is the absolute minimum to be able to run any service at all.

    Then, let’s be frank about it anyway. Our branch in Charmouth was only ever open a few hours a week. It was run by a delightfully helpful “Manager” who had, however, no formal qualifications, knew less about IT and literature than many of the library-users and was given no encouragement or time for any peripheral activities. I’m sure this is not a unique situation in small rural branches.

    Now, Charmouth has a library open every afternoon Monday to Friday and on Saturday mornings, offering all the usual services…and more. We were lucky enough to get a Big Lottery grant for an extension and smaller grants from Dorset County Fund and others for a kitchen, furniture and equipment. The grant-funded garden has become a wildlife-friendly sensory haven. We have Wi-fi, Rhymetime, Memory Cafe, Computer Classes, Job Club, Tea & Chat, Sewing Circle, Writing Group, Book Group, Bridge, Canasta, Film Club…..and so on. None of this had been available – or allowed even when suggested – before volunteers took over. (Yes, Mr Sieghart, we’re already there!)

    Other Dorset volunteer-run libraries have similar scenarios. After two years, without exception, their book issue figures are far better than those for the County-run libraries and there is nothing but praise for the service the volunteers give.

    We are lucky enough to live in an affluent area with plenty of very well-educated retirees with energy as well as money. We know that the communities which need the facilities the most are those least likely to get the volunteer teams to sustain them. I don’t pretend that it isn’t sometimes a struggle, needs massive amounts of commitment and a good bit of money.

    You will also understand that we think this is just making the best of a bad situation forced upon us. Dorset County Council should not have put us in this position. All libraries should be publicly-funded and run by professionals.

    One of the proposals made to the County by threatened branches was that ALL Dorset libraries should remain professionally-staffed within the County umbrella, each with a Friends’ Group which would take responsibility for providing funding for the buildings and utilities and offer volunteer help for peripheral activities and longer opening hours. I still think this could work. Of course, it wasn’t even given serious consideration as the agenda was set long before Councillors were bamboozled into voting for closures.

    Although I have every sympathy for the professionals’ situation, I find one huge logical flaw in their stance.

    Local authorities are going to continue to close branches for financial reasons. If you believe in the intrinsic value of what libraries offer (and I certainly do) then you have to want to keep them, even if it is by a means of which you do not approve and by which you may be the personal loser.

    In other words, stop blaming those who are trying to retain what is valuable and come up with a positive, imaginative, viable alternative for retaining authority-run libraries and sock it to the local authorities with all CILIP’s strength behind it!

    • Annie D. says:

      You raise good points and certainly seem to be doing a brilliant job. Which is extremely lucky for the community. The council and government will also be happy that they’re getting something for nothing against all odds. They will be sure never to employ a librarian again. Thanks for that!
      While short term and for some individuals in your community, what you do is good and right, in the long term and on a bigger level, it threatens the future of any sort of standard for libraries (as not all volunteers are able to do what you do and, let’s face it, you could choose to down tools tomorrow and then what?), sets a dangerous precedent, and thus causes more damage to society.
      I know it’s heartbreaking when a pensioner cannot get their books, kids have nowhere to do homework, disabled people lose access to services. That’s precisely why I choose to spend my time on actively opposing this government instead of helping them out. But then I’m a librarian, trying to ensure I may have a paid job in the future. It’s not looking good though.

  22. Barbara Blair says:

    STAFFORDSHIE COUNTY council is doing this to our library service ad we speak. STAFFORDSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL also disbanded it’s youth service to rely on volunteers. Obviously they have been overwhelmed with people wanting to work with teenagers in the evenings and weekends. The same with the Library service. Get the Tories out!

    • Dawn Finch says:

      That is exactly what I was thinking of. There was a time when Youth Services were managed by paid people who organised volunteers and were able to sort and provide activities for teenagers. That was disbanded and replaced with projects entirely delivered by volunteers – and so now we have virtually no youth services, save for those in affluent areas.

      Let’s take it away from libraries and look at the charity shop model. I won’t name names but I know people fairly high up in a certain children’s charity. The shops were, for a while, run exclusively by volunteers, but this did not work. The shops were poorly run, became tatty and unpleasant places to visit, the staff were rude and confrontational with little or no retail experience and often helped themselves to the best items. In other words they abused their new-found power and as a result the shops were in trouble. The solution? To hire experienced business and retail management professionals to manage the shops and oversee the volunteers. They gave the helpers training (and got rid of the less useful ones) and installed and oversaw tried and tested retail procedures in stores. It was a harsh process but one that saved the high-street charity shops and generated a realistic income from the outlets. They realised that it takes a professional to run a shop properly and that there is a great deal that can’t be done by volunteers.

      In a library, of course a volunteer can issue and return books, of course they can put books back on the shelves and help with the Summer Reading Scheme, the housebound services and the one-off events and storytimes, but we know that’s just a tiny part of what a library does.

      Will they be able to manage budgets? Order stationery and stock? Process and repair items? Keep up the catalogue? Take responsibility for valuable items on inter-library loans? Take responsibility for all health and safety issues in the building? Do the banking? Handle cash and keys safely? Turn out at 3am when the alarm has gone off (again)? Take responsibility for fire and evacuation procedures? Eject people due to aggressive or violent incidents? Man the library alone up to 9pm at night, or all day on a Sunday? Open the library all day on Christmas Eve and Easter Saturday? Take responsibility for dealing with the car park, or the cleaners, or the grounds maintenance? Clean up (ahem) accidents of a human origin on library surfaces and furniture? Deal with complex IT issues and problems with technology within the library? Shovel snow in the winter? Provide emergency first aid to customers? Handle aggressive complaints on behalf of the council? Mop up the leaks and the rain puddles? Heave around large boxes of books returned via the van system?

      I could go on, and I haven’t even touched on the actual job of being a librarian! These are a tiny number of the extra duties expected in a branch library that is too far away from base to have someone from Central to come and deal with. So who will deal with these on the new system? No one. They simply won’t get done and the service will decline because (dull though they may be) all of these things still need to be done.

      • I completely agree and in Lincolnshire this isn’t underway yet but if LCC get their way 30 libraries will be handed over to volunteer groups some of whom clearly haven’t even got enough volunteers to even get started. The volunteer groups don’t even realise about all these various other jobs. I have worked with volunteers in other areas and it is very difficult to retain them. also as you say they can cancel at a moments notice because they are volunteers.

  23. It is a sad fact when volunteers perceive that anyone lobbying for vols not to replace paid staff is somehow casting aspersions on them, but from my own experience it does happen.

  24. People have been treading very lightly around this subject for far too long. Particularly odd is that volunteers seem to cease lobbying for the re-introduction of paid staff once they have the bit between their teeth and in some cases might even express hostility to anyone who does. Were these individuals involved in campaigns to save their local Service, or are they perhaps ‘blow-ins’ with a different agenda altogether? If not blow-ins but users who are placed in desperate position, I can see that the urge to take over at all costs is very human one, but that is no excuse for ignoring a bigger picture which is very dire indeed and which requires that they do not disappear behind baricades of their own construction, nor remain silent. It is in library users’ interests nationally to fight the dismantling of the professional Service tooth and claw.

  25. […] As always I am pleased to read of any county that announces that they have "saved" their libraries, but I am increasingly seeing that this act of supposed salvation comes at a cost. That cost is lo…  […]

  26. catdownunder says:

    As an “accidental volunteer” with some training in librarianship I have, sadly, to agree with this. I am a frequent visitor to our local library and, while I don’t volunteer on a regular basis, the staff will sometimes say, “Cat, have you got a moment….could you possibly…?” I can then help someone with finding what they are looking for. If I see a book that has been wrongly shelved I can slip it into the correct position as I am passing. The staff know I can do those things because of my background but they tear their hair out at well meaning volunteers, bossy volunteers and more.
    Our library is a vital social hub in our community. It needs to be treated with respect.

  27. Angela Bell says:

    I agree ! Volunteers are wonderful to help in specific ways but they cannot give a proper library service. This post tells it exactly as it is. Would you like a hospital to be run by volunteers or perhaps they could fly planes or run the councils,even volunteer to be prime minister! Think how much that would save. Libraries are not replaceable.

  28. pedronicusuk says:

    Excellent analysis, good work Dawn

  29. Doreen Shaw says:

    Agree with every bit of what has been written

  30. Adam Sheldon says:

    An eye-opening and salutary piece, Dee, which I shall circulate. One tiny thing: librarians have to pedal hard, not peddle (unless finding new sources of funding has gone further than we imagine)..

  31. Leon says:

    Excellent piece about the limitations of volunteers. While I sympathise with the very human response to save their local library the fact is ever since the first group of volunteers stepped forward they began a domino effect. Since then Councils have threatened closure as a way of blackmailing the local community to step forward knowing that some will. This has resulted in hundreds of library staff losing their jobs as a direct result of volunteers taking over.

    • Dawn Finch says:

      People have been guilt-tripped into believing that if they want a library service then they should have to work for it – but they already have!
      They’ve paid taxes for this and are legally owed this information service in the community.
      Volunteer systems also only work in more affluent areas where people are able to spare the time to volunteer. This divide will inevitably create a society where the communities that need libraries the most will no longer have them. They will be made to carry the blame for this absence and for their own information isolation – “you should have volunteered, then you might still have a library”
      That’s rather like telling people that they are only allowed health visitors if we all get a bit of training and take our turns giving it a go!

  32. Leon says:

    Reblogged this on Leon's Library Blog and commented:
    Excellent piece on the limitations of volunteers.

    • hendrixsweep says:

      What an excellent piece

      A colleague, abroad, to whom I sent the piece has commented thus:-

      Libraries are between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whilst the support of the populace is touching for volunteering it will only continue to allow councils to cut more. Also what the volunteers are allowed to do is important . charging out books etc and the more clerical tasks of Junior Assts , but I remember being told at Westminster Ref Lib. ( albeit 50 years ago) that you would need to work for c.9 months before you would be any use at all!!

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