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Monday, 6 April 2015

The Damage of Volunteer Libraries

Dawn Finch, who is an eminent figure in CILIP, the professional body for library professionals has posted a harsh critique of volunteers running community managed libraries.  I wouldn't agree with every point in it but I recognise the general thrust. 

One point that does not come across in the piece is the effect on a wider Council service running alongside the volunteer service.  Since this appears to be the preferred model in many authorities, it is worth pointing out.

Most "stand alone" volunteer libraries actually seem to need a lot of professional support in dealing with areas that volunteers have little or no experience in.  That does not just mean direct library stuff.  It includes facility management, various kinds of insurance, legal matters, building maintenance, trade waste contracts and so on.  There is some evidence that volunteer organisations have had unrealistic, or at least misunderstood, expectations of what they can expect.  It does not appear to be understood that a key driver for many authorities are the huge weight of funding cuts hitting areas of high and rising demand for public services.  I suspect that for most of the authorities that have gone down this route, volunteer libraries are simply a relatively easy way for the authority to jettison responsibility for the building concerned.

That sort of thing, in many authorities, is dealt with by departments other than the libraries department.

On specific library expertise, again many volunteers don't seem to understand how complicated it can be or what level of pressures the library staff may be under.  One example is the necessity of tagging books if self service technology is going to work.  Take the comments here:

"One of the important subjects discussed was the exploration of what could be shared by the Brent Library Service and Community Libraries. This is very important for us because part of our future success, I believe, will be the extent to which we are able to develop a good working relationship with the Brent library service – maybe not financial (as such), but, sharing services, contracts for outreach services, volunteers, training and being part of their lending and IT services could save us a lot of headaches (and finance) and be very significant for our operation of a community library."

There appears to be little or no understanding of how relying on various services drains financial and other resources away from Brent Council Library service, and thereby endanger the effective delivery of the Libraries Transformation Project

In other words, having volunteer libraries can actively damage a traditional Council library service rather than adding to it.

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