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.


14 thoughts on “One Hundred And Two!”

  1. I can relate to a good deal of this due to my own experience in school libraries. People have their own reasons and their own agenda for volunteering in many cases. And you haven’t even mentioned the constant problem of unreliability – if they weren’t volunteers they would be coming in when they didn’t feel like it, or when it conflicted with family responsibilities. Naturally they don’t or won’t do that so they are not seeking paid employment. But someone has to keep the show on the road when people don’t show up. That alone can be very stressful. And I speak as someone who has generally been blessed with reliable and very capable volunteer helpers.


  2. I read this post with some shock, much sadness and a lot of despair and anger. Anger that this could be happening., anger that so little is done nationally to save the profession and the contribution the public library makes to so many peoples lives. The ‘end is nigh’ I fear. The era of public libraries situated where people want and use them., the quality of the stock., the quality of the profession is being lost, probably for ever. Yes, many of us use the internet of course, or read on Kindle, but many do not or cannot. The importance for books and reading to the young, where many families cannot afford to buy new books regularly., and the benefit of doing things together in a safe and friendly place, a place for the elderly, the lonely, the student and so on. It is all ar risk, and the replacement by volunteers (however keen), is not and should not be the answer. There is a place for volunteers, and as I have mentioned before, when I worked in a very busy town branch library, when Saturdays were like the first day of Sales at John Lewis or Harrods, the volunteers were fantastic. Collecting books, shelving books, making tea when we were desperate etc. BUT they did not run the library., they had set hours and days (when we the staff decided we needed them), and all of us were happy and the library ran like clockwork.

    My sympathies to One Hundred and Two, the end is nigh I am afraid!!


  3. Why are the councils such awful shits. Just fund the libraries properly you idiots.


  4. Read this Joseph.

    Central Government has mandated Councils must fulfill these duties.

    Government has also defined (and cut substantially) the council budgets for delivery of all services.

    Everything that is not a statutory duty can be sacrificed.

    Councils have long passed the time where all the statutory duties can be adequately provided – let alone exceeded – with shrinking budgets.

    Read The Barnet Graph of Doom :


  5. I am waiting for the first employment tribunal of a volunteer suing a council for wages because their ‘volunteering’ is actually a non-salaried job (hence illegal). It’s happened with internships. I have some experience of this – managing volunteers is a job in itself. Library and Archive skills are undervalued and people wilfully refuse to learn no matter how loud we shout. No wonder our education standards are falling in areas where the cuts are biting hardest. The working class should work and not bother educating themselves or their children it seems.


  6. As a volunteer and retired chartered librarian (worked in Leicestershire, West Sussex and Bradford) I understand some of the frustrations. The library I work in is small and serves a population of about 6,000. Another of the volunteers has library experience, but the rest have no library experience, but we all want to do our bit to keep the library open. Without us it would have been closed. In one respect the 102 volunteers mentioned in the blog are keeping @ALibrarian1 in paid employment. The 1964 Act is a weak Act. There’s no Ofstlib or even basic standards for the “free” library service. In the days of Government grants being split between different local government services Libraries came under “Cultural Services” rather than “Education”, the other Cultural Services being non-statutory services. As highly paid local government officers in Chief Executive’s department have looked for savings (never to cut their own back office jobs), they’ve noticed how weak the 1964 Act is, and taken advantage of it. It many areas it’s down to volunteers to keep our libraries open, and to promote the library service in our communities.

    Yes, volunteers with family commitments may cause frustration at times; it can be frustrating when most people will work on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but few want to work on a Friday afternoon, some won’t want to work on the computer system, some may shelve books in the wrong section, or not follow simple instructions sometimes, or miss off borrower numbers from joining forms, or think that the “returns” shelving trolley is an appropriate place to leave their handbags and shopping bags. On the other hand they’re providing a service, they all have life-skills useful to library users. Our library is managed and staffed solely by volunteers, in liaison with the Council’s Library Service. The Council’s Library service provide the computer systems, public computers with Word processing, Excel and the internet, and public printer, and bookstock, and keep in touch. They paid for DBS checks on all volunteers.

    We volunteers do what we can, not just to keep the library ticking over, but to actively promote library services. A voluntary body in our village bought us some display equipment. Our first display (up for 3 weeks) was on National Poetry Day; our next will be on Libraries Week, then one for Remembrance, and others on Children’s Book Week, Global Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Week, Holocaust Memorial Day, and National Book Day. We’ve produced book lists of books by Lynda La Plante and Mark Billingham, as well as “What’s On” leaflets about events connected with our village. We’re inviting local groups (gardening, conservation, allotments, ‘in Bloom’, football club and cricket club, etc.,) to display information about them, tying those displays in with appropriate books and information. Two of our volunteers went into schools to promote the Summer Reading Challenge, and we liaise with playgroups and nurseries. I’ve never seen anyone say “Sorry we can’t help you”, as they always know someone can, if not themselves. We maintain a Facebook page. For the last 3 years I’ve been compiling a website about our village which gives some of the answers for local information.


    1. All very nice, but you are aiding and supporting the death of a profession, and all that entails

      Sent from my iPad


  7. Is doing the right thing (in my eyes) by aiding a community by volunteering to keep it’s library open wrong ? Yes it is potentially helping reduce paid library staff but sometimes library services can be draconian in it’s ways, resists change and will not always move forward. This is not nice to see either but life moves on. There are great library staff and well run libraries across the country, we all know this but sadly cash is not freely available to sustain the library services as they are. Every aspect of councils budgets/departments are under the cosh. Sometimes cuts are painful and upsetting but where else should they cut instead. We all want to save certain parts of the services provided by councils but library usage is not what it was, sadly, so an easy target it may be.

    It’s better to volunteer if needs be to keep a library of sorts open, than to walk away leaving nothing. Should volunteers stop helping to run libraries for communities that have no council run libraries or cysts to paid staff are implemented. Would you feel happy to see this happen and have no library rather than be known as someone who helped in a small way in the demise of a profession.

    Change happens, sometimes it’s not nice, I have suffered redundancy because of it in my former employment, but I moved on. The library services are no exception and it needs to embrace change to try and keep what they can but sadly closures, more volunteers etc are the future. We may not like this happening but sadly it will.


  8. Bless you for the work you’re doing. I hope you can keep it up. It’s people like you that make the whole cockamamie system work.


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