The harsh truth about volunteers.

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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

Footnote – ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.
IF YOU ARE UNDER A GAGGING ORDER AND WISH TO CONTACT ME IN CONFIDENCE, PLEASE USE THE CONTACT FORM ON www.dawnfinch.com

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