Providing a service

Volunteers. Don'tcha hate ‘em? Coming into our libraries, tidying the shelves, being all helpful and polite—and not expecting anything in the way of remuneration. It's a scandal.

Ok, so we don't really hate volunteers. We're actually quite fond of them. Take Marek who volunteers at Blogton Library as part of his Duke of Edinburgh's Award: every Thursday after school he comes in for a couple of hours and quietly creates order out of the chaos that is the junior library.

Or Asha: since retiring from Blogton Library she's been running three Tamil readers' groups. She must be personally responsible for huge increases in literacy and confidence among ESL speakers in the Blogton area.

Then there's my grown-up daughter, who volunteers at her local library. I can personally confirm that she is intelligent, informed, obliging and well-read, and if it wasn't for her and her fellow volunteers the library would simply not exist. Seriously. There are no paid staff there at all.  

This can make life a bit difficult. There's no-one really in charge, no chain of command, so the volunteers can find themselves at odds with each other: sometimes the Sunday staff spend all day re-shelving the books, only to come in the next week and find the weekday staff have moved them all back again. Sometimes they get asked questions they can't answer: "Can you get hold of a book on American folk-guitar fingering? I've got the ISBN here . . ." And sometimes books mysteriously disappear and no-one has any idea where they've gone. But the volunteers provide a service: books to read, PCs for those who haven't got access to a computer at home, a friendly face for those who rely on their local library.

Recent debates have raised doubts about the desirability of using volunteers to run libraries: the WI, CILIP and of course the public have all expressed concern. What it comes down to is that everyone would really prefer libraries to be run by professional, properly trained staff who know all about the Data Protection Act (so they won't inadvertently leave your private contact details lying around in public), and who will know where to put their hands on minutes of council meetings and traffic orders (so you can find out what the bureaucrats are planning and where the yellow lines are going to be). That's in addition to all the book stuff.

I think where people feel short-changed is the idea that libraries can be run exactly as before, but instead of paying people (after all library staff are known for their profligate ways) we will get unpaid volunteers to do it for nothing. Why should the government take advantage like this? And can the service provided really be as good? As a commenter on The Bookseller site recently asked: "Would you be happy to be treated by volunteer doctors and have your children taught by volunteer teachers?".

On the other hand, most people would rather have some sort of library service than nothing at all.

In the meantime, if you do go into your local library and encounter a volunteer, please be nice to them. They are doing their best; and without them we really could not function.