Library Camp Pub Chat Dilemma : volunteering, would you?

After a long and exciting day at Library Camp a few of us went to the pub.  A conversation took place that I have been mulling over ever since.  We were discussing the threat of “volunteer run libraries” and what it means for the library and information profession. Someone asked, “if you were currently unemployed and there was a community run library being launched near you, would you volunteer to help keep it open whilst job hunting?”

The dilemma :

Volunteers will take the jobs of paid and trained staff – how could you be part of that? Also, WE ARE WORTH IT we deserve pay for the skills and knowledge that we work hard to attain and develop.


The library will close if it is not taken over by volunteers. If you think it important that people have access to a good quality library service then surely this should come first? How can you stand by and let a community lose their library – you obviously do not think them that important? It also might be good to have on your CV.

I am interested to hear

What would you do and why?

What advice should our professional bodies be giving to members?


16 responses to this post.

  1. Would it be ethical to take the volunteer post then campaign to have a funded lbrary reinstated?


  2. In Oxfordshire they are pushing volunteers on the rural libraries. The “draft” volunteer job specification runs to 10 pages. It is clearly job substitution. The other factor is people assume volutneers are free, they are not. CRB, Health and Safety, Fire Safety etc is all required to be able to work in a library. These things are not cheap. Unless there is a fully paid member of staff onsite at all times (might be the case in big libraries but there won’t be in rural ones) these things are required for all volunteers. The libraries been forced to volunteer are actually going to lose money under the proposals put forward by OCC. I have gone into great detail on the subject here:


  3. This has been a dilemma for people seeking work in the museums and archives sector for a long time – volunteering has often been the only way to get some relevent experience, prior to doing a Masters or even post-qualification in order to get enough experience to stand a chance of getting a paid (contract or permanent) post. There has always been the thought that, if there weren’t so many willing (desperate?) volunteers, perhaps the organisations would need to offer more paid roles.

    I would say that volunteering is a valid way of getting experience when you first start out, or for a librarian wanting to change sectors to public libraries (to see whether you like the work/environment, as much as to get relevent skills & experience on your CV).

    For a qualified and experience public librarian to take a voluntary post, especially one which last week was a paid role, is a much harder choice. Is it worth keeping your skills up to date at the expense of supporting a ‘business model’ to delivery that you may not agree with?


  4. I’ll just prefix this by saying that I’m very pro-volunteering in general – by the end of 2011, I’ll have done the equivalent of 31 working days of volunteering work this year (it’s practically a small second job!). BUT: I’m noticing that increasingly, there are volunteering and internship ‘opportunities’ that sound very much like jobs.
    And I have a problem with that – if its unpaid, if its a skilled task, if you have to make a regular, long-term commitment to it, and if the organisation you’re working with isn’t a charity, then that’s a job.
    For me there’s a fundamental problem with the government’s idea that you can take away jobs and replace them with volunteer positions. People can’t live on air. I wouldn’t do it even to keep a library open.
    So although in theory I support libraries and I’m an active volunteer, it’s a no from me.


  5. Posted by Lauren on October 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Denise’s point is really interesting – would that make it more like the American model in which people working in libraries (paid or unpaid in the case of the US) are actually allowed to lobby councils and campaign for funding?! If staff who worked in libraries now were allowed to speak up for the value of their own jobs without risking their livelihoods, perhaps we’d not be in this position.

    It’s really difficult. I think there are too many issues – management, organisation, ethical etc. to make volunteering a sustainable and sensible option as anything more than just supplementary to a proper paid staffing structure, unless the vast majority of your volunteers are fully clued up/qualified/trained to provide a proper library service. In which case, councils should be paying them.

    I personally couldn’t volunteer to work in a library that was under threat of closure, and I wouldn’t offer training or support to help volunteers if I was approached, especially not if they hadn’t spent a significant amount of time and effort lobbying their council to come up with a better solution than volunteering. Some volunteers seem keen to run libraries because it looks fun, and “playing librarian” to them is nothing more than stamping out books and shelving, which is a scary thought – service standards are likely to plummet and the volunteers will probably get fed up of or just ignore the more complex or less interesting tasks, like inter-library loans, for example. If I volunteered somewhere, the chances are I’d be the only qualified librarian on the volunteering rota – and would probably end up taking on the lion’s share of work, or training volunteers for free. Much as I care about libraries and don’t want to see them close, it doesn’t sit right to volunteer. In a dreadful way I think if volunteer libraries fail, it might send a message to councils that they have to come up with something else in order to comply with the law. I’d rather spend my energy and time trying my hardest to explain why a properly staffed service is vital. I know the government and councils don’t want to listen, but I haven’t lost hope yet that we might make a difference.


  6. Posted by Graham Dash on October 10, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Having worked in and had a strong belief in public libraries for close to 40 years it is a hard decision to make, but I would not volunteer if it was to replace paid staff and the library was only going to be kept open by using volunteers. I might consider volunteering to provide “added extras” such as IT courses or anything else that isn’t part of the “core service”. Mind you what constitutes a “core service” is another question.


  7. My gut feeling is that no, I would not be prepared to take on a role which was previously a paid position, even to keep a library open. I can see that people hoping to get into the profession might take unpaid work for the experience (but they might thereby be helping to create a situation in which there will be fewer opportunities – Catch 22), or alternatively a recently retired librarian might fancy keeping active in this way. In the 80s there were a number of government schemes which while not quite volunteering came close to it (Youth Opportunities Programme, Manpower Services Commission). Some employers simply used these as a source of cheap labour with no intention of following up with job offers, and the existence of such schemes probably had a detrimental effect on long term training posts and apprenticeships. The commitment required from volunteers to take over every aspect of running a library is enormous, and I am finding it hard to believe that there are so many people out there who are willing and able to do this, with the spare time and no need of employment themselves. I am not knocking volunteering at all – I just don’t think it is appropriate in the case of statutory services. I used volunteers occasionally in my public library career, but always for “extras”, never to replace a paid job, and it has to be said that I found few people reliable enough and committed enough for us to be able to depend entirely on them even for the extra activities. When younger I considered VSO, and I think that if anyone seriously wanted to make a difference and could give a couple of years to such a scheme that would be a much more worthwhile way of obtaining experience. There are many other spheres in which volunteering is the only way in: a situation in which young graduates are having to work in bars at night to finance working for free in the area in which they hope to work for a living is a disgraceful state of affairs and no incentive for them. As for CILIP’s role, surely there should be no question of endorsing wholly volunteer-run libraries (I can’t quite see any point in its existence if it were to do so).


  8. Good question. I’ll be taking maternity leave next year and potentially a career break after that and was thinking about this issue, how I’d like to ‘keep my hand in’ (although I’m not a public librarian, I have been in the past). I was thinking about doing this more through paid relief rather than volunteering, as far as I am aware my local libraries are safe for now.

    If things change and the lovely library at the end of my street, only open 10 hours a week, is run by volunteers, would I be first in their to offer my services? Ethically it doesn’t sit well with me. I would much rather use any spare time I had before to campaign against this. I think that ultimately that would be a better use of my professional skills.

    It is difficult though as it is an ideal way to use your skills and ensure a quality service, but so many people are using their own time to convince local and national government that libraries shouldn’t be run by volunteers it seems wrong to join in with volunteering.


  9. I think this must be a difficult question for librarians to answer (I’m a journalist). From the public’s point of view they get a library staying open (although reduced hours) and may not immediately see the difference in being served by a prof. library assistant or volunteer. Again from a user’s p.o.v. my independent cinema here in Glasgow has a volunteer scheme. You have to apply and be interviewed and I think it’s quite popular to do a few hours a week as it’s a lovely place – and you get to see films free! All staff seem cheery, lovely people. I consider doing it as freelance work dries up. But would I be taking some paid employment away from somebody else?


  10. […] Library Camp Pub Chat Dilemma : volunteering, would you? After a long and exciting day at Library Camp a few of us went to the pub.  A conversation took place that I have been mulling over ever since.  We were discussing the threat of "volunteer run li… Source: […]


  11. Posted by callmecathy on October 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I disagree with volunteer run libraries because I think it means cuts, and not even cuts by the back door really, just cuts to services. As a qualified librarian, as a member of CILIP, as an employee, I have responsibilities, standards, and accountability, and I think library users/patrons/customers reap the benefit of that whether or not they realise it. I don’t think volunteering would be an absolute no for me but it would have to be a particular situation e.g. I am quite interested in the idea of guerilla librarians, providing information services at protests or community events. I have taken on pupil library helpers, but I was keenly aware of how to make the work experience valuable to them not just in terms of library experience but also the transferable skills they could gain. I put in place a training scheme and did quite a lot of work with them to make sure they knew what they were doing and to make them feel valued and to make them aware of all the skills they were gaining so they could be of use on CVs or UCAS forms. I have done a fair bit of volunteering and work experience in the past as a student myself right through university and it was an extremely valuable experience. But that is what it was – just volunteering, putting in some time to help out with something totally extra or unpaid work experience where I was properly supervised by someone who did know what they were doing! And for a short fixed amount of time only – the longest was about 3 months, about 3 days a week, and another one evening a week over a number of years. I can see why a doctor might put in a day a month or a week a year to work for free for a homeless charity or go abroad to provide eye surgery in a remote part of the world, but (most)librarians are hardly in the same pay bracket and that isn’t what the government are proposing anyway. That is like giving money to a charity – you are giving your time because you have a skill that is worth something to that charity. The key bit there being that it is WORTH something.
    However I am conflicted because I can also imagine a situation of actually being unemployed and having dependants, and you do what you need to do to feed your family or keep a roof over your head, and if the way to do that is to volunteer first to build up your CV I don’t think anyone should berate individuals who do what they have to do for their families. But I think that would be a heartbreaking situation and I’m pretty sure it would drive me insane if I had to and not be very good for self esteem!


  12. Posted by bethan on October 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks for asking this, Jo! It’s a tough question, and one I’ve been agonising over for quite a while – ever since the idea of volunteer-run libraries started to gain momentum.

    The reason it’s so tough to answer? Because we care about our users. More than that, we care about people in general and the principles of freedom of access to information.

    We have a moral duty as a profession to do all we can to support that. This involves supporting the profession, too – if we allow the profession to be cheapened or destroyed now, do we risk jeopardising the future of free and unbiased access to information?

    But if we don’t meet the needs of the users, what’s the point of the profession?

    How do we choose between someone in need now, and (possibly) many in (possibly) more need in the future?

    Would I volunteer? Intellectually, no. This goes for all other sectors, too – I simply think it’s wrong to ask volunteers to take over the work of trained professionals.

    But emotionally? If I saw someone in front of me suffering for lack of information I could provide, how could I not help them? It may not be the right thing to do for the profession in the long-term, but I just don’t have the guts to turn my back on immediate need for long-term gain. (Is this the definition of a ‘bleeding-heart liberal?’)

    Realistically? I’ll probably stay well away from any volunteer-run libraries, and try to avoid the issue, because I simply can’t work out what’s right. Moral cowardice, I know. Anyone able to take the lead and convince me one way or another?


  13. I don’t think this is such a difficult issue. Surely if the ultimate choice is between a volunteer-run library or a closed library the former is the lesser evil?

    I’m absolutely not suggesting that all (or even any) libraries should be volunteer-run, just that if it’s the only option the local authority is prepared to consider then surely those of us with a professional interest and professional skills are the best people to lend a hand to make sure that the tattered remains of the library service are at least vaguely useful?

    Would I get involved with a volunteer-run library myself? If I’m honest, probably not. Or at least not regularly. Not through any ideological objection but through a simple lack of time. That said, if they were looking for someone to inject a dash of professionalism on a fairly minimal basis (one day a month, or something like that), then I’d probably consider it.


  14. Posted by Andrew on October 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    I think I’d have to say no. It’s very hard to say no to helping a much loved local service continue, but by saying yes I’d be helping it limp along temporarily, offering a low quality service to local people – even though hopefully I’d be able to help it be a little better than if it was without me. I’d be too concerned with being able to offer a good quality service and I don’t see how a volunteer run service could possibly be able to offer the level service I’d expect.

    This is completely independent from any issues over whether or not it should be funded – I can rationalise those in a theoretical way, but would struggle to apply those rationalisations to a service I know myself.


  15. […] volunteers to keep public libraries open I’d recommend having a read through the insightful comments on Jo Anderson’s blog post on the […]


  16. This is going on elsewhere too. Resarchers in parliament. Journalism interns. My wife and I were talking about it as she’s just not got an interview and was wondering about offering to free lance for free.

    What it means is those who can afford to, work for free to stay ‘marketable’ while those who can’t afford to don’t. So affordability instead of ability rules the day and the least financially able lose out.

    It’s a dilemma. We decided in the end that taking free work on offer was okay to a point but actively offering not to be paid was just plain complicity with the injustice.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: