Friends of Pevensey Bay Library
Who should deliver the library service?
Why are we not supporting the option for a volunteer led library for Pevensey Bay?
People that do not use their local library regularly struggle with this one. They simply see substituting a paid employee with a volunteer as a cheaper option. They conjure up in their heads a nostalgic picture of an army of willing, amiable, elderly people taking out the cards from the pockets inside book covers, placing them in a little cardboard envelope then to be placed in a wooden index box on the library desk.
Do we really want our library to go back to the 1960s, when all you could access were the books on the shelf and if you were talking you were shushed? No, we want a library fit for the 21st century offering us access to the entire county council stock and beyond, library staff able to point us towards items that will interest us, and help us with quickly accessing information that we want through the libraries digital resources. We want reading groups to continue, the volunteer service for the housebound to expand, and an annual programme of live events for all age groups. We want a service that we are proud of and that we can help to promote locally.
The electronic catalogue and IT systems that now characterise modern libraries are invisible, unlike bookshelves which may not have changed in appearance that much since the 1960s. Despite their invisibility, these networked systems have given us a huge step up in local library services by providing access not only to all other libraries in the county as well as the county store, but libraries elsewhere in the country. We also get the added benefit of regular electronic reminders to renew books, newsletters about what happening in other libraries in our locality, and modern well maintained computers in the library that assemble useful information in an easily accessible fashion – The People’s Network.
Now here’s the problem, even if you think morally it is OK for well-meaning volunteers to take the jobs of your local library staff, do library users really want local people some of whom they may not get on with behind the library desk accessing not only their personal details but their reading histories? Well, research shows, not surprisingly that this option of volunteer led libraries is not what the public wants, see the graphs below (1).
As well as encouraging the nation to read for pleasure, local libraries are a key means for people to access books on sensitive issues. They are the most trusted institutions in our country. They contain books which offer help on physical and mental health, LGBT authors, curiosity about political history etc. We would not accept local volunteers having access to our electronic health records in GP’s surgeries, so neither is it acceptable for them to have access to member’s reading records.
Talking to some of the managers in county hall who are focused on centralised operations running efficiently whilst shedding their responsibilities for branch libraries, and a Parish Council who are trying to help keep the library open, I don’t think they fully grasp how important this issue is in small outlying communities. In these communities, where everyone tends to know one another and gossip is rife and sometimes unpleasant, the issue of trust in the library staff is even more important. Massive cuts are being sought in library services, but managers must hang on to ethical standards, it is not appropriate to give local volunteers access to a network containing personal information about library members.
Without the networked system, however, the library services locally will be set back decades. The answer therefore is to fund, one way or another, a similar service to the one that we have and improve it by using volunteers to help with tasks such as the Home Library Service, the Summer Reading challenge, the Reading Forward challenge for adults, homework clubs, coding clubs, rhymetime, storytime, a programme of live events such as author visits. Activities that engage and strengthen the community rather than undermine it.
As one local MP recently stated, “Sometimes government knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.” Well, it is up to us to make sure people understand the full value of our local libraries, should those under the political pressure of financial constraints forget.
The county council is inviting discussions on options for keeping local libraries open, but nowhere have they offered any kind of resources to help this happen despite all the different models of community libraries in the country, model which not only involve volunteers but also benefit from their county council’s support and are therefore able to remain part of statutory provision.