Paved with good intentions

love-librariansI’ve come across the phrase ‘volunteer librarian’ twice recently. Firstly from a newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire and secondly in a blog from a campaigner protesting cuts in Barnet and the establishment of volunteer libraries.

The sentiments from the latter post are to be admired as is the valuable work they do with their local school. I also endorse their end statement that “You wouldn’t want a volunteer teacher. So why would you want a volunteer librarian?”. And in fact most people don’t. What they want is paid and qualified staff delivering services.

The one unfortunate element of the above post is the authors claim to be a ‘volunteer librarian’ themselves, which rather undermines the whole argument. Now, this is not a personal attack but we need to be clear as to what constitutes a librarian, which is a theme I explored in a recent post ‘When is a librarian not a librarian?’ Put simply, if an individual doe not hold a recognised qualification in librarianship then they are most definitely not a librarian.

This is not to undermine the valuable contribution such library helpers make but just as being a classroom assistant, despite the important work they do, does not make you a ‘teacher’, volunteering in a library does not entitle the individual to the title of librarian. So within this context there is no such thing as a volunteer librarian. Librarianship is a highly skilled and qualified profession and one way of campaigners supporting librarians is to ensure the currency of the title is not debased.

This leads me on to the question of librarian volunteers. That is, qualified librarians who help in their local volunteer library. This is a difficult and divisive issue.

One such volunteer recently commented that:

I am a retired librarian running my local library with about 70 volunteers. A library with no links to the local community is now a local hub, with talks, clubs, many kids events and displays, trained volunteers, who have just won an award for the tiptop service they supply to the community. I love it , having always worked miles away I know so many local users and volunteers. Some libraries were great but not this one – we have together made it great. I am proud of this Community Library created by the local population. And Surrey regards us as one of their own they fully support their community libraries.

The intention is again well meaning. However, the involvement of a retired librarian has wider implications than that of ordinary volunteers because they, in my opinion, also have a duty towards the wider profession.

Unfortunately, the involvement of qualified librarians in volunteer run libraries:

  • Undermines the integrity of librarianship and enables the deprofessionalisation of the public library sector
  • Limits career opportunities of those still in or newly entering the profession
  • Gives a façade of respectability to council cuts
  • Supports the erroneous notion that volunteer services are as good as those run by paid staff

I’m sure the inclination to save a much loved local library is genuine. Nevertheless, I also feel that retired librarians who have enjoyed a rewarding career and the good fortune of paid employment should not support a system that denies the same opportunities to their fellow professionals.

Rather than enabling the degradation of library services and actively supplanting paid staff retired and ex-librarians should be in the vanguard of opposing such moves.

By undermining the sector such ‘librarians’ should forfeit the right to be part of a professional body that is fighting hard to preserve the professional integrity of the public library network nationally.



5 thoughts on “Paved with good intentions”

  1. It is a given that library-users would prefer to have qualified professionals staffing libraries rather than reluctant amateurs – but where were these professionals anyway? Even prior to the financial problems and intended closures of branches, Dorset had only four qualified librarians on their payroll. These were the very people who cobbled up the closure plans and determinedly ensured they were implemented.

    Amongst our volunteers are several former ‘librarians’ none of whom is as well-qualified academically as the majority of the remainder of the team who almost all have degrees or professional qualifications of some kind.

    Our tiny branch library in a small coastal village was just a book-swapping facility with ever-diminishing opening hours. Our experience after volunteers’ taking over is that, since we are prepared to put in the funds and effort in a way the County Council never would, the library now has longer opening hours with a fantastic range of social and educational activities.

    Yes, bring back the paid staff and funding for book supplies and buildings but enlist the amateurs too to ensure there is no temptation to go back to the old ways of underuse and lack of initiatives – and make sure Union rules allow this to happen.

    This is a totally unrealistic dream, however. Yet more cuts have just been decreed and, yes, the book fund has been cut….again.


    1. Hazel, sounds like its been tough in your area but what I would say is librarians do not cobble together closure plans. All decisions are made by councillors and as paid employees librarians have to implement those decisions as best they can. In terms of some of your volunteer ex-librarians not being well qualified well many years ago that might have been the norm. However, for a long time now librarianship has been mainly a graduate profession. Most of my library peers hold first degrees, postgrads/masters, and chartership. Look far enough back and teachers and nurses weren’t graduate professions either. And while I appreciate that some of your other volunteers might be highly educated none will have qualifications in librarianship. Sounds like the council hollowed out your library/libraries and ran them down to make volunteers taking them on more attractive. Hence, the improvements.

      Not sure what you mean by union rules. Libraries are not curtailed by any union rules in my experience and most library staff do not belong to a union. Volunteers certainly have a role to play but in a complementary and supporting rule, not actually running libraries themselves. You might be interested in one of my posts that outlines why library staff are so important.


  2. Leon is correct. Help is not always help, was a saying we used in one place I worked. Volunteers in EVERY sector and do amazing and wonderful work. BUT at Christies hospital which I have to visit often, the volunteers are just that, valued members of the community who help out, but are not nurses, doctors or any other profession., but highly valued members of the hospital and greatly appreciated by the patients, BUT they do not as the volunteers for medical advice, but may ask where the toilets are, or what is the time, or is the cafeteria open.

    In libraries volunteers have always played a helpful role, shelving, collecting books etc, but not running the professional aspect. The tide however has turned and they (the volunteers) now, it appears, are the mainstays for keeping libraries open. Many of them will be ‘professionally’ orientated, in man y fields, and helpful and knowledgeable, but NOT librarians. BUT I do wonder where the profession is going. So few places now appear to ‘need’ professionals, so much else has been lost, like inter lending, data bases of store room stock and specialist collections , out of print material etc, all of which would of course have been handled by professionals. And Cilip, well it seems to be spending its time on re-validation?!

    It is very very sad, but the end of public libraries as they were, great places for reading, research, support for children, the elderly, etc etc etc, are going going and almost gone. Far fewer of them and those remaining depending on the very good will of the volunteer.


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