I’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.