25 January 2011

Libraries and volunteers

Wellington Library
This post is slightly off-topic for this blog, really, but at the core of it is what seems to be a deep difference between the way things work in Canada and in the UK. The context is the deep cuts in library services that are being made across many areas of Great Britain. This grim map shows the extent of the planned closures. There is an assumption being made by those advocating closures that volunteers will step up to keep libraries open.

My very limited experience here in Canada is that volunteers have an important (actually, essential) role in small libraries. There is a core of paid staff, but a lot of desk-duty, book-shelving and labelling is undertaken by volunteers. When I started reading British librarians' objections to the use of volunteers, my first reaction was to think 'well it seems to work quite well here', and wonder what the fuss was about. The work done by volunteers in just one library I'm involved with here is worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.

But then I reflected a bit further and realised that 'here' and 'there' aren't very similar in this respect. My sense is that volunteering is much more common here and there is much more community spirit. Of course, part of this is the difference between living in a rural area here and (most recently) living in a city, there, but I also lived in an Oxfordshire village for a while and I still don't think there was the same extent of voluntary work there. There was a central hard-core set of retired people who had time to spare for community work, but I would say that was it. Just here in the County there are so many different organisations which do charitable works in the community - Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Legion, Elks, Odd Fellows, Masons, Women's Institutes, to name but a few (and that's not even looking at the activities of the various churches). And all for a population of only 25,000.

In Ontario, children have to do 40 hours of community service once they get to high school, which helps to get them into the volunteering mindset, I suppose. The Canadian Citizenship Study Guide we've got to learn for our test emphasises that one of the responsibilities of citizenship is 'Helping others in the community'. I somehow doubt that the same point is made in the British equivalent, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong about that.

Philip Pullman's wonderful, passionate speech in defence of Oxfordshire's threatened libraries makes good points about the scarcity of volunteers in the UK. I wonder why the two countries are so different in this respect, and whether it has always the case, or if something changed at some point in the UK to make people less likely to volunteer their time for others.


Unknown said...

I've had some rather disheartening conversation with my (American) step daughter who has a high school requirement for something like 40 hours a year of community service (which is not so very many hours, since she can do it over the summer). What has been disheartening is that she feels like she has to find the right volunteer match -- not so much for herself, but for her college "resume." It's a great opportunity for kids to get the reward of giving back, but I feel like in many cases the point it missed.

Unknown said...

This is Merrilee, by the way, not sure what Google has done with my name...

Lucy Corrander Now in Halifax! said...

I think there are three problems in relation to libraries and volunteering - in England at any rate.

One is that many of us are dissatisfied with our local libraries so one would be volunteering to work in something which needs to change but without much chance of changing it.

Second is that many libraries have very odd opening times.

Third is that the government is throwing so many things to volunteers all at once, it's hard to see how there will be enough volunteers to go round. Libraries won't be the only institutions looking for their help.


Diana Studer said...

To Lucy - those odd opening times - are a problem that grows out of the lack of staff. One goes, and the others are expected to cover. Till it all falls apart. In our small town the library is closed over the weekend, but open every day in the week. 'Tis a vicious circle, because if people can't get to the library in opening hours ...

Someone wrote recently about the misconception - we can close the library, it is all on the internet anyway. The 'mind' boggles.

Amanda said...

That's very depressing, Merrilee. I hope that it won't be the same here, but I can see how easily this requirement becomes just another point of pressure for teenagers trying to maximise their chances of future success.

Lucy - I think Diana's right - the weird opening hours are part of the funding problem. I also think a lot of (dare I say it?) middle class people don't think of libraries as relevant to them - preferring to buy the books they want to read, rather than borrow them. This upsets me on a number of levels - it seems wasteful, for one thing, and also puts the library service at risk, which will harm a lot of people who don't have the option of going out and buying what they want, whenever they want.