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.

 

The Whole Story..?

image_galleryLove them or loath them ‘community libraries’ are an uncomfortable fact of life. I have great respect for volunteers that complement library services and paid staff, and libraries have a long history of working with volunteers, contributing as they do time, energy and additional skills. But since 2010 ‘volunteer led’ libraries have become ubiquitous and many authorities have them in one form or another.

A recent post on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Meeting the teams in community run libraries discusses work towards the development of a good practice toolkit for such libraries.

What comes through from the post is that many of the groups prefer core support from the parent library service and being connected to the wider library network. Such support can include oversight from paid staff, buildings and maintenance costs being met, and provision of stock and IT. This version of the model centres on volunteers replacing paid staff, and the subsequent budget savings this brings, but with the running costs being met by the local authority. Volunteers also support the library by fund raising activities to a greater or lesser degree. How much this genuinely meets the overall costs will differ from library to library, even ones within relatively short distances of each other.

However, while the posts goes as far as recognising the contentious nature of the issue and states that no endorsement of the volunteer model is implied I do find it unbalanced in tone and the emphasis is very much on the strengths and successes of the volunteer model.

This would be acceptable if recognition was also given to the pitfalls inherent in the system as a counter-point. Certainly any informed advice from the Taskforce needs to balance the pro and cons in a realistic narrative, if only to avoid the accusation of bias towards the government’s localism agenda.

For instance, despite all the wonderful work being done at Manchester Central Library, volunteer libraries in the area are struggling, with visitor numbers and opening hours falling dramatically. The challenges are nothing new and in both 2013 & 2014 a frustrated volunteer library manager vented her concerns to Public Library News about the reality of running a community library.

The situation is no doubt complex. Some volunteer libraries are thriving, some surviving with support from the parent service, and others barely managing to stay open. What we lack is data. Data to know how many volunteer libraries there are, what their experience is, and how we measure their success through standardised metrics. Will they be judged on visitor numbers, loans, events, or merely keeping the doors open?

So in the interest of balance and telling the whole story the Taskforce should highlight not just why community libraries succeed but also why and how they fail.

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Correction:

I incorrectly linked a fall in usage in Wirral libraries to community libraries being run by volunteers. It’s been pointed out that the Wirral has no volunteer led libraries and the fall was due to a reduction in opening hours last year.

It’s a unfortunate sign of the times that the term ‘community library’ has become almost synonymous with them being volunteer led that I made the wrong assumption. I’ve removed the reference in the above post and apologise to Wirral Library Service for the error.

 

 

 

Sometimes I Get So Angry..!

There’s no one theme to this post but observations about several issues. First and foremost is the lack of traction on the My Library By Right Campaign, an area I promised to explore further in my last post. The lack of signatures is very saddening and led to an outburst from Cilip ex-president Phil Bradley on his blog entitled ‘Really angry…’

I share his frustration with the apparent apathy out there. At the time of Phil’s blog there had only been 6,000 signatures, which has now increased to just over 9,000. This is embarrassingly low. There are 13,000 Cilip members so at the very least there should be 13,000 signatures. The fact there is not speaks volumes for the stronger together approach of Cilip representing different sectors. The number of signatures also doesn’t reflect all the library campaigns and individual campaigners out there. If everyone opposing closures at a local level signed the petition it would make a huge difference.

So here’s some things that everyone can do:

  • Sign the petition (no brainer)
  • Share not just once but repeatedly on social media
  • Ask family and friends to sign
  • If allowed share in the workplace and ask colleagues to sign
  • Some workplaces will not allow such open campaigning so talk to colleagues individually and ask to sign. At the end of the day this is a professional issue and you have every right to discuss it
  • Have the campaign poster or Cilip Update (Dec/jan 2015/16) prominently displayed in your office or at your workstation to help generate discussion and show your support
  • For the more adventurous campaign publicly and ask people to sign. Give out leaflets and engage with the public. Certainly this could be driven by Cilip groups regionally and equally by campaigners as part of local campaigners.

I’m sure there’s lots more so please share suggestions on social media.

Ultimately, as it states on the Cilip website, this is about holding “…the Government to account for these legal duties, including working with the Secretary of State to provide a clear and meaningful statement of the characteristics of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service for Local Authorities to follow.” And surely no campaigner or Cilip member can disagree with that?

This leads me on to the SCL and the apparent lack of support from them, with no obvious statement, or link from the SCL website, acknowledging the campaign. Phil Bradley tweeted the SCL about the matter to which I replied, only partly tongue in cheek, to give them time as they needed to ask permission from the LGA first!

SCL’s status as firmly in the camp of the establishment rather than representing the best interests of the profession are surely beyond doubt. There is certainly a distinct lack of openness, transparency and accountability about the body. So here’s a simple challenge to the SCL: contact all the members and ask if there should be link to the My Library By Right campaign on the SCL website. Show the profession that there is at least some inkling of democracy about the organisation.

Thinking of the SCL I am rather surprised that amongst all the Cilip groups there is not one for senior staff and heads of service. I assume historically they have relied on the SCL to represents such interests. However, perhaps now is the time for Cilip to consider establishing an alternative that is not so bound to the vested interests of the LGA and is obviously more democratic and accountable to members and the wider profession.

Lastly, I return to a number of tweets I posted recently inspired by an exchange I had with someone locally regarding libraries and book swaps. Unfortunately, there are many out there who regard book swaps and volunteer libraries as a viable alternative to properly funded and staffed library services. My argument is that it’s not enough for libraries just to be open, you have to give people a reason to come through the doors in the first place.

This means providing services, activities, and facilities developed and delivered by a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce, underpinned by targeted marketing and outreach. Every successful business and organisation knows this.

Without such knowledge and dedication passive service provision will ultimately fail.  Libraries need to be dynamic places delivering and evolving services for the good of the community. This requires professional knowledge and experience, a trained workforce, and adequate funding

It’s also why book swaps will never be libraries and volunteers will never be librarians.

It’s Complicated!

I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff.  A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.

However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.

That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.

No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.

However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.

Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.

A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.

Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.

The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions  for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.

However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!

Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.

The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to  NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.

Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.

So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.

However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.

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.