Monday, 10 October 2011

CPD23 - Thing 22 - Is volunteering in libraries the answer to all our prayers?

Volunteering is universally considered as one of the best activities that you can ever get involved with (a potential win/win for all with a supply of willing motivated workers). It is therefore not surprising that libraries and volunteers do cross paths and that volunteering is a focus for discussion and debate within the information sector.

For instance, the issue of volunteering in libraries was considered during one of the sessions at the 2011 Umbrella Conference on New Structures, New Technologies, New Challenges - How Can We Adapt To an Age of Austerity?  which was held at the University of Hertfordshire on 12 – 13 July 2011. During this session held under the 'Libraries in the Big Society' strand, presentations were made by Mike Brook about Volunteers in Libraries, Tracey Long spoke about Using volunteers in libraries - the Dorest experience and Tracy Hager spoke about using volunteers as part of the Summer Reading Challenge.

What I sense from these presentations, is that volunteering and libraries do mix and now is an important time to consider volunteering in libraries in a consistent way. As Mike Brooks says, we should use the current economic context in 2011 as an opportunity to truly consider the use of library volunteers and look at what is benefical for both libraries and volunteers themselves.

In assessing the topic of volunteering in libraries I have two questions:
  1. Why is it good to volunteer?
  2. Is volunteering good for libraries?
before providing some general concluding thoughts.

Why is it good to volunteer?

Being a volunteer has the potential of providing a range of benefits for both the volunteer and the organisation involved.

For individuals, volunteering offers the opportunity amongst other things to:

- meet new people and make new friends
- experience new opportunities and challenges
- gives you a greater sense of well-being
- get a legup in your career (or to grindhop according to Bronogh McCrudden)

For instance, in a survey conducted by the charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV), the following benefits were apparent:
  • More than 50% of volunteers perceived health and fitness benefits
  • 62% said that volunteering reduced stress
For busineses, there are also benefits.  For instance this is indicated by a survey among 200 of Britain's top businesses, carried out by TimeBank a national campaign inspiring and connecting people to give time, which found that 73% of employers would employ candidates with volunteering experience, more readily than those without and 94% of employers believed that volunteering could enhance skills.

I am a volunteer myself (currently volunteering once a week at an Age Concern day centre for people with dementia together with my dog as a Pets As Therapy visitor) and know first hand the satisfaction and value it brings to the people and staff as well as myself from something as simple as putting a smile on someone's face and speaking to people.

Is volunteering good for libraries?

As highlighted in the introduction to Thing 22, library volunteering can be invaluable to people looking to find a professional post and to solve the universal catch-22 of needing a job but lacking practical working experience.

The benefits of being a library volunteer are also highlighted by Sally Hughes, guest blogger on the Voices for the Library blog. Sally speaks of being a volunteer at a museum library.

Where library volunteering is beneficial is when the volunteer's role is well defined (maybe as part of a defined project) and not acting as a wholesale replacement of paid staff. Examples might including chairing reading groups, helping to catalogue specific collections or supporting running events such as the Summer Reading Challenge.  

There are many examples of libraries using volunteers in successful ways, such as in Gateshead and Kent Library Services. Kent, for instance has had a formal library volunteer programme since 2008 which outsourced to Community Service Volunteers. Kent Libraries benefits from over 37,000 volunteer hours and volunteers work in 93 of Kent's 101 libraries. Gateshead has had a volunteering programme since 2002 and now benefit from help from around 100 volunteers involved in tasks like heritage guiding or digitising records.

The Public Library News website provides a factsheet on Volunteer-Run Libraries, which summarises the current list of UK public 'community libraries' and outlines the pros and cons of using volunteers to run a library service. Volunteer-run libraries are a step further than using volunteers for specific projects and tasks.

Proponents of these community run libraries see them as part of the trend to more localism in service provision (the so-called political agenda of a 'Big Society'). Specific benefits highlighted by the Community Knowledge Hub website are that volunteer-run libraries offer potential for:

  • Reduced running costs for local authorities
  • Increased community involvement in and control over local services
  • Increased take-up of library services
  • Library service innovation and diversification
  • Improved access to a range of public services 
However, as the factsheet points out only 1% of current UK public service library provision is available via 'volunteer-run' libraries and this approach is 'not for the faint-hearted'.

I wonder if such volunteer-run service provision became more widespread, could these benefits really be replicated everywhere (including in less affluent areas of the country)?

Despite the personal benefits of volunteering, there are potentially many risks in relying on volunteer-led services. For instance, like it or not, volunteers come and go due to life circumstances and volunteer management is a role in itself. In the case of libraries there would be a risk of service provision and hours diminishing.

There are many people who have publically stated that volunteers shouldn't substitute the work of library professionals and I agree with them.

For instance, Liam Godfrey, Press Officer of Surrey Libraries Action Movement has said:

"Librarians are professional people and professionally trained. You wouldn’t ask volunteers to take the place of Doctors, Teachers or Civil Engineers so why would anyone think volunteers can replace librarians just like that?"

The Women's Institute, who are actively campaigning for public libraries, also share this opinion ('WI slams government over volunteer-run libraries' - The Bookseller article ). Ruth Bond, the Chair of the WI has said:

"Whilst volunteers have an important role to play, they should not be a replacement for a trained, professional library service, and local communities have real concerns about their assumed ability to take on the running of local libraries, particularly around their ability to raise sufficient funds to keep library premises running and replenish book stocks."

Final thoughts

It is so sad that we are having this debate about library volunteers but due to the economic situation and the pressures and cuts in public library budgets, I am sure that librarians/information professionals will continue for some time to come to voice the Bethan Ruddock's question of Could we all be replaced by volunteers?

I can't really imagine the UK's public libraries being replaced totally by volunteers (and as referred to above, only 1% of UK public libraries are community led at the moment so there is a way to go yet before the current public library changes totally) but who knows what some councils might try to do to libraries faced with budget cuts by 'sleight of hand' (eg Islington Libraries: The Battle Begins - 7 October 2011).
 I also believe that library volunteering should remain a personal choice compared to people faced with the threat of library closures and being forced to "volunteer" with a gun to their heads. As Liam Godfrey states "This is not volunteering, it is blackmail: taking advantage of people’s desire to nurture and protect their local community, and not wanting to lose one of the key hubs of their communities".

I also share the views of Sally Hughes (a library volunteer, herself, remember) who imagines a library closure scenario and considers volunteering:

"if my local library were to close I don’t think I would be the first person at the doors to be a new unpaid employee because without the guidance of the professionals it wouldn’t be half of what it was".

For me that says it all and why volunteering in libraries is not always the answer to our prayers either for organisations or personally.....

1 comment:

Janice said...

"Volunteer-run libraries and community libraries are being strongly encouraged in the UK." The list of libraries is long. This is scary to me. This is clearly an attempt to bypass the professional librarian. I believe in volunteering but volunteering to work with an organization is different from taking over the management of the organization.