‘Communities deserve and have the right to the best information services possible’ – guest blog

Today’s guest blog comes from Sally Hughes

When applying for any Librarianship or Information/Knowledge Management postgraduate course, it is generally required that the applicant possesses at least one years experience in the profession. When applying for my MA Librarianship at The University of Sheffield I had very little, all I managed to achieve was around 4 months in total by volunteering at three different libraries, two public and one hospital staff library. However, I was accepted onto the course and still think it was the best thing I have ever done.

Throughout my postgraduate course I applied for a few librarian posts but with no success yet remained optimistic that upon completing the course I would find a job relatively soon after. After two months of what seemed like endless job searching when the course came to an end I felt extremely disheartened, not to mention worried that I would not be able to find a librarian job in the coming months, I was seriously considering my options. I received an email at the end of October from the Social Sciences Dept. at Sheffield University asking if anyone would be interested in volunteering in the library at The National Coal Mining Museum for England, I immediately took up the offer and starting working there at the beginning of November last year. The Coal Mining Museum’s library is small and very specialist (given the nature of the museum) but there is still a lot to be done, and I have been given some excellent and invaluable advice from the experienced librarians employed there. I have been taught how to properly catalogue specialist stock and have been given my own mini project weeding and cataloging the small staff library stock. However, I would not be learning any of these valuable practical skills without the qualified librarians to guide and mentor me.

I am a volunteer because I need the experience, pure and simple. It is most likely that I am struggling to get a job because of my lack of on the job experience and large volumes of people applying for posts along with the recession and other depressing factors. Therefore to save me from pulling my hair out with boredom and to combat frustration over numerous applications I’m attempting to expand on my knowledge and skills practically for me, for my professional future. But, I need those professional, paid librarians to help me out with this. I am lucky that in my volunteer job I am allowed to do a lot of interesting tasks that most library volunteers wouldn’t get to try out such as detailed cataloguing, I have been told that my employers trust me to do this over other volunteers (of whom there are several, I am the only one with a library qualification) however they still check and correct any mistakes I make, everything I do is looked over and I’m given feedback on my work. There is such a large volume of back room work to be done in a specialist library and I really feel valued, it’s clear that my help is appreciated, I think some volunteers feel they are being exploited or their work goes unappreciated. I recently asked the librarians at the museum along with the head of volunteer recruitment how they felt about volunteers in libraries, along with their opinions on the prospect of volunteers running public libraries. It was stated that volunteers at the museum were recruited to encourage community participation (from both the mining and local community) and to help the librarians out with the huge amount of work they have in their ever growing collection. The librarian’s opinions on volunteers running public libraries however was not positive, one calling the closing of public libraries ‘wicked.’ The employees I spoke to at the museum library all agreed that whilst volunteers are sometimes a necessity, it is an unrealistic idea that libraries can be run by volunteers because of the knowledge, skills and specialist training required for such a job which is being blatantly overlooked by the government and local councils.

It is proposed in the government’s ‘big society’ plans that public libraries, small, branch and rural in particular, be run by their communities voluntarily. Personally I know very few (if any) people who have the free time and would be willing to do this, certainly not forever, not even for the foreseeable future. How exactly can volunteers with no library experience or continual training and guidance be expected to manage and make financial decisions for a library, let alone offer the huge range of support that qualified and trained librarians can? This is not an attack against people willing to volunteer for their public library, absolutely not, it is an expression of hurt and concern for the users of public libraries and the excellent librarians that run them. I am a volunteer, albeit an appropriately qualified one, but if the librarians left, I wouldn’t know where to start they are paid for a reason they know what they are doing. Librarians are so important to our libraries not only because they can catalogue, select appropriate stock and give advice on books, they can offer help using the internet, finding reliable health, employment and local government information, they organise reading groups, even bibliotherapy and reminiscence sessions and support life long learning and literacy skills all in a non-judgmental and neutral environment. Imagine going to the library to quietly look up the symptoms of depression only to find that the lady from a few doors down is there to check out your books, for most this would be off putting.

Whenever anyone I know has asked why exactly libraries can’t be run by volunteers because ‘it’s an easy job’, ‘it’s just stamping books’ I simply say, can you imagine if you lost your job and were replaced by a volunteer, a volunteer floor manager, a volunteer chef, a volunteer banker (imagine that!), of course there are wonderful success stories of volunteer run companies, charities and libraries but one can see the point I’m driving at; we all train hard, get well educated and put a lot of time and money into our careers and librarianship is certainly no exception. Communities deserve and have the right to the best information services possible and this should without a doubt be provided by local councils employing experienced, skilled and qualified library staff. This is not all about money, it’s also about principle and loyalty to the profession which hopefully is coming through with the masses of library campaigns, read-ins and the media coverage libraries have been receiving of late. Librarians, authors and community members would not be creating such an impact if losing library staff was deemed okay, it’s not okay; it’s insulting to librarians and will be ultimately detrimental to communities.

Volunteering is good for me; it’s helping me to progress into something better, hopefully into a job that will be rewarding and I can utilize the skills and knowledge I’ve gained. However, if my local library were to close I don’t think I would be the first person at the doors to be a new unpaid employee because without the guidance of the professionals it wouldn’t be half of what it was.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

4 thoughts on “‘Communities deserve and have the right to the best information services possible’ – guest blog

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  3. kirsty

    Thumbs up to all of this — as someone who’s just starting out in librarianship I feel your pain re: the job market, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be volunteering in a library at some point in an attempt to fill the gaps on my CV. However, even if I think there’s a place for volunteers in some libraries to carry out some aspects of library work, I definitely agree that public libraries need paid staff. I can’t think of any public service which is entirely run and staffed by volunteers, and there’s a good reason for that. The public deserve qualified, skilled staff running their libraries.

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