One Hundred And Two!

The following guest post is from @ALibrarian1 on Twitter who has to remain anonymous due to censure they would incur for speaking out about their experience dealing with library volunteers. Obviously, this will not be everyone’s experience and neither does it detract from some of the great work volunteers do in libraries around the country.

However, it will resonate with many library staff, especially those who have had volunteers foisted on them after losing dedicated colleagues to cutbacks. It’s also an antidote to the sometime hollowness of the ‘positive narrative’. Not quite ‘alternative fact’ but never the whole story either.

It’s a serious issue told with tongue-in-cheek humour and not a certain amount of frustration. if you don’t already follow @ALibrarian1 on Twitter I highly recommend you do.

One Hundred And Two!

Hello. I recently started tweeting as @ALibrarian1 to vent my frustration/shout into the void about what it’s like working with volunteers in a public library. It’s been quite a surprise to find that there are lots of library folks out there who are interested, are listening, and who have offered both support and advice. Thank you everyone. Particularly to those who have reacted with horror, surprise and horrified surprise at some of the things I’ve tweeted about. You are doing an excellent job of reminding me that some things just aren’t acceptable, particularly when managers go out of their way to reassure me that ‘everything’s going so well!’ I accepted the offer to write this guest post so I can expand on some of the things I’ve been tweeting about and offer a bit more of an insight into my situation.

In April 2017 my library authority implemented an ‘efficiency based’ restructure which replaced about 60% of our staff with volunteers (or at least that was the intent, as many branches hadn’t and still haven’t recruited the numbers of volunteers they’d need to cover their opening hours). Every single one of our branches now has volunteers delivering frontline library services. We have three tiers: core libraries, the big branch libraries which are 60% staff 40% volunteers; hybrid libraries which are 40% staff 60% volunteers, and community libraries which are fully volunteer run with staff who drop in maybe one day a week then are on call as support by phone for the rest.

I’ve been working in this library service for just over 10 years, and work full time (37 hours) supervising a busy hybrid branch. We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time and 102 volunteers. One hundred and two volunteers, and we still need more. One. Hundred. And. Two. I have to keep track of one hundred and two people, most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week. I don’t know all their names and I probably never will.

Luckily, I’m not responsible for recruiting, interviewing, checking references or arranging a rota for them. That’s the job of the volunteer committee. A committee of volunteers we recruited to manage the recruitment of volunteers. Writing this, I’m well aware of how ridiculous this sounds. And it is. It is absolutely insane. The committee were formed from the small number of people who, in response to the 2015 council consultation on the future of libraries, gave their contact details and said they’d be interested in volunteering. Because they couldn’t volunteer while staff were still in post, and management needed to keep hold of them, they were formed into a committee. Then they weren’t given anything to do for about 6 months.

In January this year management started holding meetings with them in the branch to discuss what would happen from April. Staff weren’t involved in these meetings and both staff and the committee were told that we shouldn’t speak or have any interaction due to the “sensitive” situation – staff being on notice and the committee readying to replace them as volunteers. We already knew who had been granted voluntary redundancy, who was staying in post and who was being made redundant. Being pointlessly secretive about what we all knew was going to happen didn’t assist good relations between staff and the council. Staff contracts ended on the last day of March, volunteers took over on April Fool’s Day.

The council began a county wide recruitment drive for volunteers in earnest in late 2016 by announcing that since we no longer had enough staff (and glossing over the ‘how odd that lots of staff would be leaving at the same time’ problem; some library customers still don’t realise there were redundancies) we’d need volunteers to help us keep the libraries open. I believe this call for help to run the libraries “because we’re short of people” has been interpreted by some of the volunteers (particularly those who make up the committees) as a call for help to run the libraries “because we aren’t sure what we’re doing anymore”. Without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience. The council devalued staff by announcing that anyone can have a bash at running a library, so why should they think otherwise! We’ve made it very clear that we can’t run this service without them, and in doing so have given them licence to interfere with core service provision. We now need to bend over backwards to keep them onside. Should they decide to quit, we’re done for and libraries will close.

What’s it like each day in the library with volunteers? Short answer: bloody hard work. It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slots. There are many things I find intensely frustrating, the things that drive me to vent on twitter: The repeated daily reminders not to overfill transfer boxes so they aren’t too heavy to lift. Not to leave boxes stacked where they block a fire door. Not to shelve adult graphic novels with toddler’s picture books. The difference between a DVD and an audio book on CD (call me naïve, but this is not a thing I’d ever expected to have to explain more than once). Not to leave name and address details visible on the computer screen when they’ve finished registering a new borrower and wandered away…

The volunteers all have an introductory training session before their first shift which covers the layout of the shelves, fire safety, where the loos are, the usual sort of first-day workplace induction. Then they’re turned loose in the library for me to find something for them to do. That’s the question my colleague and I are asked throughout the day, “what shall I do now?” I haven’t a problem with them being keen, and wanting to be helpful and keep busy, but there’s an impression I get that helping customers who have enquiries doesn’t seem to be an option they always consider in answer to this. There’s a list of routine daily tasks but they seem to want special ‘volunteer’ tasks to do, and as a result I’ve seen volunteers straight up ignore customers who are waiting for assistance. I’ve seen volunteers tell customers “I can’t help you, I’m just a volunteer”. At this point we do step in and prompt them to offer help, but it feels strange that we must keep reminding them that their ‘job’ is to help people.

It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would. There’s a deeply ingrained idea that all we do is lend out books. “I’ll come and volunteer, but I just want to tidy books” is a regular comment. We have volunteers who refuse to do anything involving computers. I wouldn’t have recruited them, it would be impossible to employ a member of staff who said that, but it’s up to the committee to decide who is recruited. I just have to find them something to do.

All the volunteers have been surprised by the variety of services we offer. That we can recommend a book for someone aged 9 or 90, but can also help with finding crossword answers, that we can process bus pass applications, help people print boarding passes, family history searches, shotgun licences, give out town maps, that we almost never say no, sorry, we can’t help you with that. It’s been a challenge to communicate that this is what I need them to gain the skills to be eventually be able to do. In their defence, it is quite a daunting request, but this is what a public library service is.

The volunteers are stepping into a role which was done by paid professional staff. I’ve deliberately used a small-p-professional, none of my staff had library qualifications, but they were dedicated, professional, and all of them had been working in libraries for longer than I have been. We all know library work requires a massive amount of training as well as experience. It’s a real difficulty now. Post restructure, we don’t have enough staff left to run training sessions as well as cover frontline services so the volunteer committee are intending to take over some of the more structured training. Any training materials we give the committee, they insist on re-writing so they are more suited for volunteer’s style of learning. That’s just rude frankly, given that we’ve already purposely written them for volunteers and the committee aren’t familiar with library work.

We’re nearly 6 months in and it’s not really getting any easier. I don’t think this is sustainable indefinitely. The number of volunteers we need, the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting. I get to work early and stay late just to fit everything in. I’m needed on the library floor almost all the time helping the volunteers, as it’s usually too busy for my colleague to manage on their own, and the volunteers just don’t yet have the experience or confidence for enquiry work.
I was working as library supervisor in this branch before the restructure. I had to reapply and be interviewed to prove my suitability to supervise volunteers instead of staff.

Many of my colleagues took voluntary redundancy rather than go through the interview process. I never even contemplated voluntary redundancy because I wanted to carry on with the job I was already doing, but I’m not getting very much satisfaction out of it. I’m learning new skills – mainly relating to crisis management, short term planning, and how to triage my to-do list. I’ve limited career prospects here now. The council need me to help them keep the library doors open, but they aren’t offering anything inspiring in return. We’re repeatedly instructed to attend resilience training, change management, team building, persuasion and influencing training… all acknowledgement that things aren’t so great, but shifting of the fault onto staff. Some of my colleagues are having real trouble coping with the stress and the workload and being treated as an inconvenience by their committees who want to do things their way.

Were I to hand in my notice the branch would have to close for part of the week because I know there’s no-one they could spare from another branch to cover for me. I cannot change what the council have done in restructuring the service (and I’ve had a hard time dealing with the feeling of being complicit in ‘making it work’), but I will hold things together here as best I can. Perhaps I’m overestimating my abilities, but if I can keep my little branch afloat and steer it through the wreckage then that’s what I’m going to do. I do still like working in libraries, there’s so much to learn, there’s so much I still need to learn and I do not want to give that up just yet.

 

A Question of Identity

Who are we, what are we for, and who do we serve? Fairly important questions for any profession but I doubt many of us actively spend much time, if any, pondering the existential and ethical underpinnings of our profession.

So it was interesting when Nick Poole tweeted from the recent IFLA WLIC conference the question as to whether Cilip saw itself as an association for libraries or librarians or both, and then invited views. The question has implications for our identity and how we conduct ourselves, both individually and as a profession.

It’s also worth observing that the question of identity is intrinsically linked to the question of ethics as the ‘who we are’ dictates ‘what we do’ and ‘how we behave’. Both function and form should be closely aligned to shape a coherent organisational ethos.

In terms of ethics many of us will adhere to intrinsic personal standards – and obviously our workplaces also have codes of conduct – but professionally, such matters tend to be codified and promoted by a professional body. In this case, Cilip.

The two main areas of guidance are contained in the Royal Charter and the “Ethical Principles and Code of Professional Practice for Library and Information Professionals”  which is currently under review. In simple terms, the first document defines ‘who we are’, and the latter ‘how we should act’.

Professional bodies can have a variety of roles but most will cover the following areas to a lesser or greater extent:

  • Promote the advantages of the profession to the public
  • Promote the interests of the members of that profession
  • Maintain standards through education, training, and accreditation
  • Safeguard the public interest e.g. code of conduct to guide professional behaviour

Cilip does all of the above. But returning to Nick’s question, why do we do it? For libraries, librarians, or both, or for something else entirely?

Royal Charter

For all practical intents and purposes the answer lies in the Royal Charter, section 2: Objects and Powers. The ‘Objects’ represent the aim of the organisation, and the ‘Powers’ the objectives, or the means Cilip uses to achieve its aim(s).

Broken down the aim of the organisation covers two main areas.

Firstly, “…to work for the benefit of the public to promote education and knowledge through the establishment and development of libraries and information services…” And secondly, “…to advance information science (being the science and practice of the collection, collation, evaluation and organised dissemination of information).”

It is the former that provides the main insight into the question of Cilip’s purpose and again can be split into two aspects: (1) to work for the benefit of the public (2) by establishing and developing libraries and information services.

So it’s clear that Cilip exists for the benefit’ of the public and this goal is served by developing library and information services for public access and use. If we allow that ‘public’ equates to a customer base then this covers all areas of the library, information, and knowledge sectors as no matter how specialised the work area all members will have a public/customer base they serve.

In and of itself the principle seems fairly straightforward. However, the issue then becomes one of definition. What does ‘benefit’ and ‘development’ actually mean? Who defines it?

Without adding context beyond the stated aim(s), arguments can be made that are counter-productive to the association, such as de-professionalisation. That is; whatever is defined as being for the public benefit should be the goal of the association even if it works against the interests of its members.

For example; a volunteer library is better than a closed one (equals benefit) and a peer support network helps sustain them (equals development). Ergo, Cilip should by its own aims, support volunteer led libraries.

But as usual, the issue is not that straightforward and emphasising the ‘public benefit’ argument to the exclusion of all else ignores the overall context. And it is the ‘powers’ that provide the context.

Powers

If the aims of the Charter encapsulate the ‘why’, the ‘powers granted’ represent the ‘how’. Given the importance of these objectives for establishing the wider context it’s worth reproducing what they actually say:

(a) to foster and promote education, training, invention and research in matters connected with information science and libraries and information services and to collect, collate and publish information, ideas, data and research relating thereto;
(b) to unite all persons engaged or interested in information science and libraries and information services by holding conferences and meetings for the discussion of questions and matters affecting information science and libraries and information services or their regulation or management and any other questions or matters relating to the objects of the Institute;
(c) to promote the improvement of the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel;
(d) to promote study and research in librarianship and information science and to disseminate the results;
(e) to promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services of various kinds throughout the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man;
(f) to scrutinise any legislation affecting the provision of library and information services and to promote such further legislation as may be considered necessary to that end;
(g) to represent and act as the professional body for persons working in or interested in library and information services;
(h) to maintain a register of Registered Practitioners;
(i) to ensure the effective dissemination of appropriate information of interest to Members;
(j) to work with similar institutes overseas and with appropriate international bodies to promote the widespread provision of adequate and appropriate library and information services;
(k) to provide appropriate services to Members in furtherance of these objectives;
(l) to form and promote the formation of branches, regional member networks, sections or groups of the Institute in any part of the world and to dissolve branches, regional member networks, sections or groups so established;

Basically, this can be distilled into four broad areas:

  • Research: the promotion of librarianship and information science as an academic pursuit and discipline and to disseminate appropriate research
  • Education: to promote education, training, and the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel
  • Collaboration: to act as a professional body for members, to provide a framework of opportunity for member collaboration e.g. conferences, to engage with similar overseas bodies
  • Advocacy: to promote adequate and appropriate library provision, to comment/challenge legislation affecting the sector

What I take from these objectives is that the aim of the organisation, ‘to work for the benefit of the public’, is best achieved through a knowledgeable, skilled, and qualified workforce. One that is organised, collaborative, and outward looking so that it learns from best practice both nationally and internationally, and which is informed by solid research.

Equally, to promote the position (point C) of librarians. Traditionally, this has been viewed as being protectionist and sometimes rather precious about the status and hierarchy of the term ‘Librarian’. However, Cilip has addressed this issue head on and the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base offers a broader and more inclusive approach to CPD for all levels of staff. Recently, Cilip has also jointly launched a public library skills strategy to invest in and develop the skills of the public library workforce in England.

The presence of the professional librarian role – and allowing for how many routes there now are for achieving this – from specialist posts, to management expertise, and Head of Service, should be at the heart of any professionally run and managed service. A skilled, educated, and knowledgeable library workforce is, in my opinion, the single most important factor for ensuring that the public benefit is best served.

And for me, this is what promoting the ‘position’ of the librarian, and all library staff, means. Thus, my answer to Nick’s question would be it’s for both and by building a strong professional body we provide the best possible service for libraries, librarians and ultimately the public. However, I would like to leave the last word to Nick Poole himself:

“Everything CILIP does is defined under our Royal Charter, which gives us our charitable status and our mandate. The Charter is quite clear that our role as a professional association covers both libraries and librarians (and information professionals in all types of library and information service). Specifically, it states our responsibility to “promote the improvement of the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel” and to “promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services”. This is why we took the Charter as the basis of our current Action Plan, launched last year.
 
Having an independent member-led professional association which leads on both sector and workforce development is important. It means that we can maintain the status of librarianship as a recognised profession, scrutinise and influence policy and legislation relating to our sector and maintain a strong connection to our shared values, set out in the Code of Ethics. The staff, Trustees and Presidential Team at CILIP are committed to doing this job to the very best of our ability to secure the long-term interests of our profession.”