Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Volunteers in libraries

are apparently keeping libraries open in some places - for now.
Our local library uses volunteers. I am not one of them. The staff would, I think, like me to be one but I can't make myself available at a regular time anywhere. My work isn't like that. It comes and goes and can pile up overnight or during a disaster - or fall to a manageable level at other times. 
There are other people who volunteer and I do not doubt that some of them do a good job.  But, I was sent a link to a blog post about volunteers in libraries. It was written by a librarian, a trained librarian. 
I know she wants to keep her job and of course she is going to say things about the way professional staff can do the job better. Unfortunately for those who would like libraries to rely more on volunteers what she had to say is true.
"Volunteering" here is now part of the job-seeking process. There are queues of people looking for work who say they want to volunteer so that they can put it on their CVs. It is not the best of reasons for wanting volunteer and it often doesn't work out well. Places like the library are expected to take people on to give the "experience" - even people who admit they "don't read much". It does not work well.
You can't rely on volunteers. They are likely to ring up at the last moment and tell you they won't be there - if they bother to tell you at all. 
In libraries they need to be shown how to do apparently simple jobs - like tidying the shelves. No, please  you do need to be shown how to "shelve" the returns! And no, it is not an exciting job but it is one that needs to be done. 
As someone with some training in librarianship I will often prowl along the shelves and return books to their correct locations. It is habit. But volunteers often don't understand how to do it or how much it matters that the job is done properly. 
Our local library will pair a volunteer with a staff member to do a stock check or weed out books for the annual book sale. That may make the job go a little faster but it is not particularly exciting. 
Many of these essential jobs in libraries are not exciting. They are not exciting but they do matter. They have to be done properly and carefully. "Messy" and "library" are two words which do not go together. 
I don't mind at all if, on prowling into the library, someone says, "Cat, would you mind showing this person where to find....?" or "Cat, do you know of any books about.... for children?" or "Cat, can you remember the name/author....?"
Questions like that make me feel welcome at the library - when the staff ask. They are not questions volunteers should be asking - except for themselves. They are not librarians.
"Volunteer" and "library" are words that should only go together with extreme caution. And libraries are such valuable information and social resources that they need to be staffed by well trained professionals. They save the community money.

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