Librarians: Are Volunteers Changing the Shape of the Profession?

While libraries across the country close, more volunteers are signing up than ever before to keep them running. But what does this mean for the librarian’s profession, not to mention the future of the local library? What’s more, is the changing role of the librarian a metaphor for an evolving professional landscape?


The Era of the Community Library


CIPFAAccording to results published by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, 337 libraries across the UK closed between 2010 and 2014. Over the same period, the number of volunteers increased by 100%, from 17,550 to 35,818. Meanwhile, the number of full-time paid professionals has been steadily dropping: in four years the figure dropped by 22% to 19,308.


This is the era of the “community library”, a concept generally backed by Councils. For the first time, the number of volunteers outweighs the number of full-time staff. The establishment is led by the community for the community, with volunteers taking on responsibility for everything from ordering stock to cleaning.


These libraries are sometimes met with doubt by a public resistant to change, who see a shift towards volunteers as a “regressive step”. Similarly, campaigners from Save Lincolnshire Libraries believe that “[volunteers] need to be there in addition to paid library staff working in libraries that are local authority run”, rather than taking over from paid professionals.


Volunteers: The Professional Body Shows Its Support


ESU1So, what does the professional body have to say? Our member, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), considers volunteers working alongside staff to extend and enhance services a valuable asset to libraries and their communities. The body sees a positive change on the horizon, which can be summed up by the outcome of this year’s Travelling Librarian award in partnership with the English-Speaking Union. The award is part of CILIP’s international policy, which “aims to provide opportunities for members to enrich their professional lives by sharing experience and expertise with overseas colleagues.”


CILIP LogoCILIP President Jan Parry is confident that this year’s winner Frances Tout will bring back valuable knowledge from overseas: “Congratulations to Frances on this fantastic opportunity. I recently visited public library services in Canada who ten years ago experienced similar challenges to ours here in the UK. Their librarians and information professionals took the decisions into their own hands and went ahead and started up new things. They welcomed makerspaces, allowed users to bring in their own food and drink and introduced money-raising ventures such as weddings, and special events like an annual book-lovers’ ball. It has turned things around for these libraries which are now highly valued community spaces.”



The Evolution of the Library – and the Professional


Frances, a community librarian at North Somerset Library Service, sees the changing shape of libraries as an opportunity to help them evolve. In an exclusive interview with PARN, she stated: “Public librarians’ roles are changing to satisfy the needs of the 21st century, but our skills are transferable and we are able to adapt to meet new challenges.


“We need to respond to individual community needs and wants, and increase our work with partners and volunteers to expand the services and activities we can offer. This might be by running social media workshops, coding clubs, creative writing groups, children’s craft activities… The list could be endless and every community is different.


“A major part of my role has been to develop the volunteering programme. We now have over 240 volunteers supporting our library service. They are not replacing staff roles; they are adding value and allowing us to extend and enhance the services we can offer to our communities. Volunteers bring new skills, their time and are great advocates for libraries within their local area. Library staff have also benefited from additional training and support to work alongside volunteers.”


Sharing Best Practice with Overseas Professionals


Frances believes that new ventures are the future for libraries: “Public libraries need to constantly evolve to remain relevant. To do this we need to invest the time to develop innovative projects. I am particularly interested in enabling communities to use library spaces in new ways, helping to build community cohesion and engagement, offering opportunities whilst putting the library at the heart of the community.


“During the Travelling Librarian study tour I hope to learn about US-based initiatives, including projects relating to partnership working, young people, older people, digital technologies, peer-to-peer support and volunteers. I would like to build relationships with colleagues overseas, share best practice and gain inspirational ideas.”


A Changing Skill Set for Professionals


It seems that the UK’s move towards community libraries will see full-time professional librarians taking on more of a role as “expert” in their field. To support the rising number of volunteers, librarians will be required to develop managerial skills. What’s more, librarians may find themselves in an increasingly directorial role, changing the structure of their work environment.


Is your industry seeing a similar shift in the skill set required to become a professional? Let us know in the comments.

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