Thoughts on “Community libraries – Learning from experience” Report

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Thoughts on “Community libraries – Learning from experience” Report

I’ve been thinking about this Arts Council England / Local Government Association / Locality report (Community libraries – Learning from experience: guiding principles for local authorities) published earlier this week.

It isn’t really a comment on whether community/volunteer run libraries are a good or bad thing. It’s a guide for creating community/volunteer run libraries within the remit of the Public Libraries Act, statutory duties, and other legal requirements. It gives 10 case studies out of 170 community/volunteer run libraries currently in operation in England. I’m not sure if they’ve been cherry-picked or not, but I suppose if it’s a how-to guide it’s not going to pick those libraries regarded as unsuccessful.

I’ve just pulled out a few statements from the report for comment…

“Our research indicates that community libraries are established out of the determination and passion of local communities and those working in library services to retain what they regard as essential services.”

Could we suggest this passion and determination is caused by the threat of losing the service if volunteers aren’t found? 

“Whilst these are difficult times and some libraries have been closing, it is a mistake to characterise community libraries simply as knee jerk reactions to closure…”

Having followed the news about library budget cuts and closures closely for the past few years I still think many libraries handed over to communities were done as a knee jerk reaction. Some library services would have happily closed them and this is the get-out clause. 

“Every library service in England has trained and skilled professional library staff working at its heart. This is essential. There continues to be a need for paid professional library staff working in every library authority area, and of course professional staff and their representatives need to be fully consulted on any proposed changes to services.”

It’s good to read an acknowledgement about the importance of librarians and skilled library staff within the context of this report, but how about a bit more support for those staff.

“Not every library in a library service needs to look the same, provide exactly the same service as all the others nor have the same kinds of staff on site every day.”

I wonder how this fits in with the calls for a national library service and initiatives led by Arts Council England and Society of Chief Librarians that are aiming to unify library service provision across England?

In conclusion, the report does highlight that it takes effort and money and a wide-range of skills to set up and sustain community/volunteer run libraries, with low-income communities more likely to need more support.

I can’t help reading this report as a green light “Yeah! Go for it” instruction book for local authorities who might not have considered the community/volunteer run library option otherwise.

Updated CILIP Volunteers In Public Libraries Policy

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Today CILIP published their revised volunteer policy for public libraries. The decision to revise it was made after concerns were raised by members of the library profession (including myself) about the existing policy.

The back story to this change is written up in the following posts.

CILIP Volunteer Policy & Job Substitution: Letter to CILIP Update (16th May 2012)

Response To My Letter Re. CILIP Volunteer Policy (6th June 2012)

Further Discussions About CILIP’s Volunteer Policy (18th June 2012)

The wording of the new policy is as follows:

Use of volunteers in public libraries

 In 2012 CILIP Council agreed the following policy statement on the use of volunteers in public libraries. 

CILIP believes that society benefits from the contribution that trained and skilled library, information and knowledge workers make to developing and delivering services. We do not believe that volunteers should undertake core service delivery or be asked to replace the specialised roles of staff who work in libraries.

Volunteers have long supported and provided highly valuable additional support, working alongside qualified and paid staff, and they should be acknowledged and valued for this role. They should also be given appropriate role descriptions, training and management.

CILIP is opposed to job substitution where paid professional and support roles are directly replaced with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts to save money. This applies to all library and information services in every sector.

If this happens services will suffer and will be unsustainable. What remains would be a library service unable to serve the community comprehensively, support people’s information needs or provide everyone with the opportunity for learning and development.

CILIP will not assist in recruiting or training volunteers who will be used to substitute the role of qualified, trained and paid library and information workers. 

We acknowledge the difficult times that we live in, but now more than ever, high quality information services are vital to people’s lives, and local communities, learners, workers and businesses need the support of a trained and skilled workforce to thrive.

Date of policy: June 2012

Policy to be reviewed: June 2014

I’m very pleased with the revised policy. It acknowledges the support role of volunteers, but it also puts it in the context of how this is a support role and should not be used either as a replacement for trained staff providing core public library services, or as a cost saving exercise. In fact, it goes a step further by including “untrained administrative posts” alongside volunteers in this context – a statement which could prevent some library services from considering this route too. It emphasises that it will not assist in the development of roles that fall under this this banner.

At the same time as emphasising these areas it is also good news that the policy has expanded on the reasons why it is important to have library services provided by “trained and skilled library, information and knowledge workers”.

I also think it’s important to highlight that, in relation to its opposition to job substitution, the policy also states:

“This applies to all library and information services in every sector.” 

In doing this, CILIP emphasises that this is not acceptable in any situation and demonstrates its support for the profession across the board.

Not only does the new volunteer policy set out CILIP’s stance in line with advocacy work it has previously mentioned, but it also provides a policy with more substance. The original policy (from 2010) was too vague and brief – it didn’t clearly define CILIP’s position and left gaps that could allow library service providers to misinterpret it in a way that went against the spirit of the policy. This vagueness and brevity was a major cause of concern.

However, it’s reassuring to see that CILIP has taken note of these concerns, that the issues previously raised have been addressed and I hope that it will help ensure that public library users receive the professionally run library services they deserve.

Further Discussions About CILIP’s Volunteer Policy

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I’ve just come back from a CILIP Council meeting, where I’d been invited to discuss concerns about the current CILIP Use of Volunteers in Public Libraries policy. I’d already been informed prior to this that CILIP Council had agreed to review the existing policy and the plan for today was for me to put a bit of meat onto the bones of my initial concerns (and concerns of others) and provide some member perspective on the situation. Points I raised included:

  • The current policy is too brief, vague and too easily open to misinterpretation.
  • CILIP should state in the policy that it is against job substitution of any library staff. Job substitution featured so heavily in the recent volunteer policy review document that it warrants a clear statement indicating that CILIP is against this.
  • It currently leaves the door open for library service providers to interpret the policy in a way that wasn’t originally intended, go against the spirit of it and avoid fulfilling statutory duties and requirements for a comprehensive and efficient library service.
  • The written policy may be the first time people come across CILIP’s Volunteer Policy and, as such, it needs to clearly indicate CILIP’s stance.
  • The responses I received and read from CILIP Council representatives (including Mark Taylor, John Dolan and Phil Bradley) emphasised that CILIP does advocate for the profession, but this isn’t emphasised enough in the policy. This was also reflected in the discussion by others surrounding this correspondence. CILIP advocacy role needs to be backed up by the written word in this policy, as much as the policy needs to be back up by action from CILIP.
  • The length of discussion surrounding the policy (indicated above) serves to highlight that the written policy is currently ambiguous.
  • In highlighting the use of volunteers the policy needs to emphasise the critical need for professional/paid staff even more.

It was a positive discussion and encouraging to hear so many members of CILIP Council agreeing with the points above. It did raise questions about how the policy could be enforced and what would happen if employers or members went against the policy? Would the ethics board be called upon? How would members be expected to respond if they were asked to act against the spirit of the policy? This is obviously important, but in my mind, if you haven’t got a strong policy in the first place you won’t have anything to defend anyway.

I also understand that changing the wording of the policy won’t automatically make local authorities turn around and re-staff libraries. However, what I hope it will do at least is re-inforce the idea that the actions some library service providers are currently taking with regard to volunteers is unacceptable to CILIP and its members, and may in future stop others from going down this route. CILIP is one of the few high profile organisations that has the capability to influence national policy on libraries, and as such, its policies need to be strong.

The discussion also highlighted that concerns over volunteer policy isn’t just limited to public libraries or even in the UK, even though this is the area generating the most discussion. It’s a concern in other sectors and countries too. The strengthening of this policy should also help these sectors.

So, that was the discussion (what I can remember of it, anyway) and the aim now is for CILIP to review the policy over the next few weeks. By the end of July it’s hoped that the revised version will be in place and CILIP will present something that can be used to empower its members.

Response To My Letter Re. CILIP Volunteer Policy

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I received the following response from CILIP Council Chair, John Dolan, to my recent letter regarding CILIP’s Volunteer Policy. This was also published in the current (June 2012) edition of CILIP Update.

Dear Gary

I am responding to your letter on behalf of CILIP Council members. The review paper was indeed used at the March CILIP Council meeting to inform discussion, prompt debate and review CILIP’s policy about the use of volunteers in public libraries. The policy was agreed in 2010 and is kept under review, as are all CILIP policies. 

 The policy is:

“Use of volunteers in public libraries

CILIP acknowledges the contribution that volunteers make to libraries, enriching the services they provide and helping to sustain their viability.

In order to optimise the value of that contribution it should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided.

Volunteers are not ‘free’ and need proper management, training and development. In many cases a volunteers’ co-ordinator should be appointed to ensure appropriate management and recognition of the value of volunteers.”

The policy acknowledges that for many years volunteers have been a part of the work of public libraries and have contributed by extending library services beyond what is achievable with paid staff alone. Examples include home library services taking resources and information to people who are housebound; working with adults with learning disabilities who volunteer their time to deliver added value; and young people volunteering their time to make the Summer Reading Challenge such a massive success while learning and gaining in confidence.

The difficulty for everyone is that now they are being asked to take on more of the delivery of the core service rather than ‘added value’ aspects of it.

You’re correct, the policy does not currently explicitly say no to job substitution, it does state that the contribution volunteers make should be part of a professionally managed public library service. However, members of Council recognise the concerns that members have about this and have committed to reviewing and revising the policy. I understand that you have concerns and as you know I have to invited you to discuss the issues with members of Council.

CILIP has consistently refused to run training courses to volunteers and refused to run job advertisements for volunteers where it is clear they are substituting paid professional roles. In written evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport inquiry into library closures in England CILIP stated that a comprehensive and efficient public library service in the twenty-first century should be a:

“Professionally delivered service: by using the skills, experience and networks of professional library staff to shape services to the needs of local communities, engage  them effectively in service development, and ensure safe and impartial access to  services.”

Giving verbal evidence before the committee, CILIP CEO Annie Mauger, advocated for professionally delivered services. At a subsequent meeting with the Minister Ed Vaizey and public library chiefs Annie again advocated the importance of a professionally managed and delivered service.

At the same time local communities face difficult choices and a harsh reality where in many cases if volunteers do not come forward to support the library services, the libraries will be closed.  Volunteers cannot provide a library service as we all know it, as they lack the unique skills, expertise and values of paid staff.  CILIP has made a clear stand against this and against any local authority that considers this acceptable.

I look forward to discussing this with you.

John Dolan

Chair of CILIP Council

Links:

CILIP’s written evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport inquiry: http://tinyurl.com/crd3npf

Obviously, I’m really pleased that CILIP Council have decided to review the policy. The current situation generated a fair amount of discussion amongst the profession, including on Twitter and a number of blogs, listed here:

Johanna Bo Anderson’s blog.

CILIP President, Phil Bradley’s blog.

Question Everything blog.

Information Overload blog.

Public Libraries News.

I’m looking forward to meeting with CILIP Council over the next few weeks to discuss the situation, and hope that the discussion leads on to the formulation of a policy that leaves me reassured.

I’ll report back on the meeting.

CILIP Volunteer Policy & Job Substitution: Letter to CILIP Update

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I’ve just written this letter to CILIP Update regarding the current CILIP volunteer policy and its tie-in with job substitution. I was hoping to also add it to the comments section of the CILIP Council blog ( http://communities.cilip.org.uk/blogs/council/archive/2012/04/09/cilip-council-26th-march-2012.aspx ), where I had originally posted some other comments on the situation, but the website will not let me add it, so I have posted it on CILIP forums and here instead.

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Dear editor,

After seeing that the organisation’s current volunteer policy statement had been discussed at the March 2012 CILIP Council meeting, I read “CILIP’s Policy on the Use of Volunteers in Public Libraries: A Review”, which I believe informed the discussion on policy during the meeting.


This raised serious concerns in me about CILIP’s stance on job substitution, particularly when I read the following quotes:

“Job substitution – This goes to the heart of the problem. For many the use of volunteers should only ever be supplementary to the skills and expertise of paid staff and never in replacement. This is a traditional trade union view and is also reflected in the previous Library Association/CILIP statement on the use of volunteers. However Council agreed at its meeting in February 2010 that this policy was too rigid and failed to reflect present day realities where significant expenditure reductions had to be made.”

“The second paragraph of the current volunteers statement endeavours to ensure a continuing professional presence that is sufficient “to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided” but not to be constrained by a rigid no job substitution policy.”

“Whereas volunteers could be seen as extending and enriching the service in the past now they have become important in maintaining and sustaining a service that would be otherwise unfeasible.
18. However a return to the policy of no job substitution would be regarded by many as unrealistic and also risk excluding the Institute from meaningful debate and discussion over the future shape and delivery of the public library service in England especially.” 


However, after an email discussion with Mark Taylor (CILIP Director of External Relations) I now believe the organisation is opposed to job substitution. I say “believe” because the response I received did not actually say explicitly “CILIP is opposed to job substitution”, but it did imply that it was.

Based on this assumption, I would like to propose that the CILIP volunteer policy be updated to state that the organisation is against job substitution. It would clarify CILIP policy, leave it less open to misinterpretation and provide reassurance to members of the organisation.

I feel it really needs a statement like this in the policy, especially as the report I took the above quotes from had such a focus on the issues around job substitution. ie It:

(1) Highlights that job substitution is a major concern of its members.
(2) Mentions job substitution frequently.
(3) Was used to inform the current policy on volunteers.

As so much discussion was spent on the issue of job substitution as a precursor to agreeing the policy, surely it is worth including a short and simple statement in the final policy to clearly show that CILIP is against it.

Regards,

Gary Green

(Technical Librarian, Surrey)