Tag Archives: volunteer libraries

Your thoughts wanted about volunteer-led libraries

A few years ago, public libraries run by volunteers were almost unheard of. But more and more local authorities are turning to the idea. And more and more local people are taking them on as the only way to ‘save’ them.

Speak Up For Libraries (a coalition of organisations and campaigners, including Voices for the Library) wants to hear from anyone with a view about these volunteer-led libraries in the UK, whether they are a volunteer, a library worker or a library user.

Let us know, via SpeakUp4Libraries@gmail.com :

  • What works well and what doesn’t?
  • What are the challenges and considerations?
  • What is the impact on the library service and what do you see as the future?

The information will be used to inform SUFL’s advocacy.  A summary of the evidence will be published.  All information received will be anonymised unless specific permission has been given to identify the contributor and the names of library or library service.

Please email queries, comments and information to SpeakUp4Libraries@gmail.com

(Originally posted on the Speak Up For Libraries site)

Response to the Rural Libraries Report

Another week and another libraries report lands on the VFTL virtual desk.

‘Rural library services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures’

http://www.opm.co.uk/publications/rural-library-services-in-england-exploring-recent-changes-and-possible-futures/
looks at the ‘experience’ of rural libraries, especially those that are volunteer supported or led, and was commissioned by DEFRA & ACE and researched and written by Locality and OPM:

“Following the 2013 reports Envisioning the Library of the Future and Community libraries: Learning from Experience, this research explores what the experience has been – and could be in future – for rural libraries specifically.”

Basically the report paints a picture of a free for all based on your ability to access funding streams and your success at raising income and attracting and retaining volunteers. If you have the skills, time and knowledge then you win and if not you don’t – in other words the rigours of the market place. It’s no longer a ‘comprehensive’ county or country wide service, it’s a post-code lottery service.

The researchers conducted a ‘Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA)’ of “recent and relevant documents” which they sought to “capture key messages” in order “to summarise recent evidence as it has been presented to date”. Interestingly or worryingly they “did not set out to consider the full range of arguments, ideas and possibilities relating to library services in rural areas”. Why not? With widespread cuts, closures and divestment wouldn’t it have been better to rigorously assess “the full range”, or does conducting a REA cost less?

“Given the gap between the speed at which policy development moves, and the time it takes to conduct research (including reviews), being able to pull research together quickly, in time for policy deadlines, is clearly desirable. The idea of Rapid Evidence Assessments (REA) is therefore seductive: the rigour of a systematic review, but one that is cheaper and quicker to complete. While a few short-cuts are taken, the quality of the review is not compromised. In this situation, the only difference between an REA and a systematic review is speed.
Does the reality of REAs meet their promise though?”
http://www.alliance4usefulevidence.org/rapid-evidence-assessments-a-bright-idea-or-a-false-dawn/

They then held a number of workshops which brought together service staff, volunteers and other stakeholders, with no implicit mention of service users being consulted.

 

But enough of the methodology.

 

The report uses 8 authorities as case models, these being;

 

Buckinghamshire
Cumbria
Devon
North Yorkshire
Suffolk
Surrey
Wakefield
Warwickshire

 

An interesting bunch we’re sure you will agree but they’ve shied away from assessing Lincolnshire and Herefordshire. Did the REA not pick these two up or are they too challenging?

 

The report goes on to makes some bold claims about volunteer involvement in supporting or managing rural libraries;

 

“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors.”

 

We have absolutely no problem with the statement that libraries can ‘evolve’ with the support of their communities, this is what we all strive for, but where is the evidence to back the claim that they can become more “effective” when volunteer-led? More effective at what and as what? Maybe the following excerpt from the report will help to shed light on this;

 

“The level and nature of support provided to rural libraries in future will depend on the outcomes those services and venues are able to contribute to. These may be far-removed from the traditional function of a library, yet hugely valuable to a community (and to public agencies seeking to reduce demand on their services).”

 

So rural libraries are expected to become volunteer supported or led one-stop-shops, a ‘Big Society’ shared services ‘hub’ if they are to tap into the full range of funding opportunities. The authors choose to call this ‘economies of scope’.


And what about poorer communities that may not have the time, resources, skills and knowledge to do this? Add to this the fact that over 4,000 library staff have lost their jobs in the last few years and you have a very fragmented, under-resourced, under-staffed, de-skilled post-code lottery of a service.

 

“The thinktank Civil Exchange said a “big society gap” has opened up with levels of charitable giving, volunteering and social action strongest in wealthy areas and among privileged professional middle-class groups.”
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/dec/09/big-society-deprived-david-cameron-charitable-wealthy

And how will the ever growing number of volunteer-led ‘libraries’ (according to this report 300 in England alone and 5% of those completely cast adrift or ‘independent’) deal with a myriad of public service type enquiries and transactions? Will they receive Universal Information Offer training or/and a kiosk or two loaded with ‘My Community’ software?

The report however does raise some concerns in relation to the sustainability, viability and integrity of ‘community libraries’;

“The marked increase in community involvement in the running of rural libraries is clearly a headline change witnessed in the last three to four years. Around 300 community libraries are known to exist in England at present. Some of these are truly independent of their local authorities, with book stock and support systems entirely self-sourced, although these only account for around 5% of the total. The vast majority can be categorised as either community-managed or community-supported, with access to varying degrees of continuing council support – usually including advice and expertise, and retaining connectivity to the library management system and book stock. That commitment to support community libraries has frequently been resource-intensive for councils.”

“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors. This can involve the nurturing of a library’s role in supporting social interaction, strengthening community ties, hosting events and activities to appeal to a wider range of people and creating space for clubs and societies to flourish.
 
In other cases, however, library friends groups might save a branch but bring with them very limited perceptions about what that facility will offer. As such, library service managers are sometimes concerned about the inability of some of their community libraries to live up to what should be expected of a local library from the point of view of standards / consistency of service and inclusivity.”

 

Along with the need for better indicators on the social benefits of libraries and the importance of showing this if they are to attract resources and generate income from a wide range of funding sources;

 

“Workshop participants reflected that the most successful, sustainable rural libraries will contribute to a wide range of local outcomes and, in so doing, should be well-positioned to attract resources and generate income from an equally wide range of sources (e.g. from public health, adult education and employment support).
This will demand better capturing of data on the usage and benefits of libraries beyond traditional measures such as book issues – which workshop participants agreed underestimated the value of role their libraries played.” We agree with the need for better qualitative indicators but not in the context given in the report. Public libraries in our opinion should be about empowering communities and promoting social equity not propping up the localism agenda or creating more opportunities for private investment or entrepreneurs.

As you would imagine in a report partly written by Locality and partly commissioned by the Arts Council there is lots of talk of income generation, sharing services and collocation with shops, pubs and post offices. This fits neatly with the ‘Enterprising Libraries’ programme;

“a partnership between Arts Council England, the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), is looking to fund a number of projects in which libraries will use their role as community hubs to spark local economic growth and improve social mobility in communities across the country.”

The report also fits neatly into the ‘innovate don’t save’ agenda which is often used as a stick to beat campaigners and supporters with;

“we can move away from the idea that libraries are failing, or that they have to be ‘defended/saved’, to one where they become invigorated and attract investment and support because they are part of what makes rural communities tick”

Voices strongly believe that public libraries as a statutory service shouldn’t be opened up to the market and shouldn’t have to attract ‘investment’, if they were properly tax-funded, resourced, supported and staffed then they would flourish. As for volunteer-led libraries our view was clearly laid out in our submission to the Sieghart review;

“We believe that volunteers play an important part in assisting library staff in delivering specific library programmes when properly supported and trained, but that they are increasingly used as a substitute for paid and trained library staff. We believe that this is unacceptable for both library users and existing library staff. Under the pretext of funding cuts from central government, local communities are being forced into running their local library, with the threat of closure by the local authority if they fail to do so. We still hope that true localism will prevail and the wishes of local communities, often blackmailed into providing library services, will be respected by both local authorities and national government.  But our hope is diminished by the clear intentions laid out by the government and we greatly fear what this means for the future of our public library service.

Job substitution and service fragmentation is creating a two-tier library service and a post-code lottery for the public, with poorer communities, who often do not have the time and resources to volunteer, receiving an inferior service to those in more affluent areas. The result of this is often no library service at all, or one that is little more than a book exchange. In our view this is neither ‘comprehensive or efficient’.

The “role of community libraries” in the context outlined above is, in our opinion, to further the government’s aims to shrink the state through its ‘Localism’ agenda. The role of “community libraries” in delivering library services is, therefore, to undermine the statutory requirements of the 1964 Act and the principles of a comprehensive and efficient library service. Their purpose appears to be more ideological than practical in the long term, with the consequence being a two-tier, post-code lottery, library service casting adrift those in the poorest communities who rely on the many varied information services provided by appropriately funded public libraries, from claiming social security to improving literacy standards. The social and economic consequences of this division should not be underestimated.”

Data protection and volunteer-led libraries

In 2011 the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries raised privacy and data protection concerns,via their blog, regarding the use of user records by volunteers in ‘community libraries’:

“Library records contain information about people’s addresses, details about vulnerable people – for example the housebound, and exemptions such as exemptions for foster children, fines and borrowing history.

As paid, trained, library staff who are CRB checked, are set to be replaced by volunteers, alarms bells started to ring. I wrote to Library Services Manager, Sue Laurence, several months ago (21st April) asking if volunteers in the community libraries would be able to see these records because if so, unless a suitable policy was in place, then they could potentially use the record for nefarious reasons.”

Further concerns have been raised in terms of the role of volunteers in administrating the ‘Books on Prescription’ scheme. These books are prescribed by local GPs to patients with mental health conditions which are then collected from the local library. There is the potential for both embarrassment and raise issues around privacy, particularly if the person picking it up lives next door, or just down the street from the person issuing it.As Catherine Bennett noted in her recent opinion piece for The Guardian:

“In the short-term, this might be less of a problem than the embarrassment, anticipated in smaller community libraries, of ordering from a local volunteer with a hazy grasp of data protection a title such as Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Overcoming Binge Eating, or Break Free from OCD. All the above, with many other frank self-help titles, feature on Books on Prescription, a collaboration between GPs and libraries – and 33,000 volunteers. Is the service confidential? Totally, of course. But if in doubt, just ask the untrained and inexperienced librarian at the desk.”

Some councils may have allowed full access to user records on their Library Management System (LMS), but others like Warwickshire have restricted it because they obviously have concerns in terms of their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1988.

Many, or most councils, now see volunteer-led libraries as sitting outside their statutory remit and offer varying degrees of support or none at all. This support could initially include training on data protection, but who knows how comprehensive and ongoing this is?

Paid, trained and experienced library staff are given constant reminders, briefings and training on data protection and other related matters. Paid staff must also adhere to a ‘code of conduct’ which includes ensuring that they respect their obligations towards maintaining confidentiality. Furthermore, they are bound by ‘customer care standards’ which cover all aspects of communication, including the sharing of information. They deal discreetly with personal details and enquiries on a day-to-day basis, it’s the way they are wired, part of their ethos if you like.

Now, we are not saying that public library workers don’t make mistakes or abuse their trust – some do, but the vast majority do not. If they were to abuse this trust, and if such activity is discovered, they would be held accountable for their actions under relevant legislation and could potentially lose their jobs. Of course, this is not to suggest that the majority of volunteers are anything but trustworthy.  But they are not subject to the same scrutiny as paid, trained and experienced staff. And the implications for this could be very serious indeed.

These issues remain a serious concern, as illustrated by this recent comment on an article about proposals to extend the use ofvolunteer-led libraries in Swindon:

“Presumably all the training that you refer to has gone on bringing volunteers up to speed on IT…What does this training involve exactly? And are all volunteers CRB checked, up to date with health and safety procedures, confidentiality, data protection and so on?”

We suppose the only way we’ll ever find out about the extent to which volunteer-led libraries meet their obligations under the Data Protection Act is if something goes wrong or someone blows the whistle.  Until then, many library users will just have put their trust in a fragmented and unregulated service.