Thursday, 1 December 2016

CAN YOU HAVE YOUR CAKE? Thoughts on Libraries by Penny Dolan

The kitchen is full of the comforting smell of sugar and spice. I’m baking for the Friends of the local Library Refreshment Stall” tomorrow, when along with the mince-pies and scones, we’ll be handing out flyers for January’s Friends Quiz Event.

Yet today, on the first day of December 2016, that sweet baking scent is stirring some worried and bitter thoughts.

Our centre-town library is a lucky one, designated one of five “core” libraries spread throughout the County. The Friends fund-raise for small, occasional projects suggested by the current library staff. We are not faced with bills for heating & upkeep or legal fees to keep the building open, which I fear some libraries will be, soon enough, or already are.

Yes, it’s 1st December 2016 - and three months from now, on the first of April 2017, all the library cuts planned in the name of austerity will come into effect, not only here in my town but all over this County.

60% of the paid library staff at “my” library, at all levels, will have gone and the hands-on library work will have to be done by “general” library volunteers. 

It is a big change, but we are the lucky ones, with 40% staff remaining for now. In the smaller libraries, the cuts are even deeper. They will be run by volunteers who can “phone a named librarian” if they need help.

Right now, on my desk, there’s a Volunteer Form, ready for me to fill in and return. In January, there will be news of training days and on-line courses. What else can one do? Live in hope.

Outwardly, the Carnegie building – in a town rather proud of its appearance – will show no sign of those changes within. However, what worries me is the framework, the structure “inside” all these libraries.What will happen to the “deep” library knowledge, once all the trained staff have gone, as they must over time?

How will the culture and the expertise – that much-scorned word – be prevented from fading away? How will the library administrative system actually hold together? And who exactly, will be able to hold together a loose, disconnected library system?

I’m also, as a naturally suspicious person, rather worried about a model that relies so heavily on volunteers. Of course, people who give up their time for good causes are obviously wonderful people, trying to meet the needs of what they see as a local or national good.

Yet volunteering is also a kind of bargain. People get something out of the work, whether a social buzz, a skill-set to be practiced or learned, a more interesting place to be, a chance to help others, a good feeling about themselves or all the set. 

Such  satisfactions are what keep the volunteers coming.

However, volunteers are not employed or contracted to turn up. They remain, largely, autonomous. If the task doesn’t fit, they can stop turning up. If traffic or the weather is bad, they might decide to stay away, especially if their health is less than good. Family, hobbies, travel and other matters can demand their time and attention too. How will all this be managed, once large numbers are involved? 

Heavens, planning the schedule for Saturday’s four-hour Refreshment Stall was complicated enough, with some not wanting to do this or that quite then. Fair enough for a cake stall, but not so great for a public library service!

Will the few remaining librarians really have time and energy to deal with endless weeks of volunteer ebbs and flows, especially those in areas far less comfortable than where I live?

I have another worry, too: quite who will manage the group dynamics within the varied volunteer situations? Personally, I’ve met lots of generous, hard-working, helpful, practical-minded volunteers without any hint of attitude. Yet I’ve come across tales of self-centred special interest groups; of long, power-play meetings about the colour of a newsletter; of children’s activity teams excluding others who want to help and more.

Such antagonisms happen within the world of paid work, but it is far harder to sort these matters out when you are beholden to your volunteer helpers. Who will be dealing with all this issues?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. The first week of December isn’t really the time to be so critical and gloomy about the library service, which is something that I have loved my whole life, but when is? Besides, I might be wrong about this and all will be well.

Move on, move on. Put up the fairy lights and decorations. Stop sounding so miserable. Just fill in the Volunteer Application form and be positive and hopeful.

I will, I will, but maybe, while baking today, I’ll add a little more sweetness to the cakes, just to be on the safe side for Saturday’s customers? A good idea, yes?

Rant over - and wishing you all a good December!


Penny Dolan said...

Hello! If you are "seeing double" on Awfully Big Blog Adventure AND the Awfully Big Review section, apologies! The doubling is entirely my error, courtesy of the new & helpful Blogger layout.

What you should be seeing, in the Reviews box, is a link to Jackie Marchant's excellent review of Brian Selznick's new book! If you click on Reviews, you'll find it there immediately, so do, do look.

Bah! It's only on the blooming non-shiftable blog-link interface that my error is visible and I'm hoping the thing will correct itself SOON.

Meanwhile, you get twice the cake and three lots of my grumpiness, if you include this comment.

Penny Dolan said...

And breathe . . . Order is now restored!

Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Penny! Hope your library event goes well - and maybe there will be a little more help from the Government with libraries in the New Year??? (There speaks the optimist...!)

Hilary said...

I hope it goes well, Penny.

Sue Purkiss said...

This afternoon I bumped into a qualified librarian who was made redundant, along with most of those remaining in Somerset, a year or two ago. She said that most of the people she was at library school with have either been made redundant or have left because the pressures in terms of time and money mean that it's not the job they trained for and loved. Very sad. And what you say about volunteers is quite true; it's not a long-term solution.