The problem with volunteer-run libraries for Auckland

Volunteers play a vital role in communities but they’re not a substitute for trained and qualified librarians and library assistants, writes Anne Goulding.

The problem with volunteer-run libraries for Auckland

Comment: Volunteer-run libraries for Auckland have been proposed by Mayor Wayne Brown as a cost-cutting measure that could help the council address the spiralling costs of the City Rail Link project and recovery from weather-related damage.

Volunteers play a vital role in communities and have been used in libraries for years to extend services and to connect with hard-to-reach groups. But they are not a substitute for trained and qualified librarians and library assistants.

Brown’s comments highlight a lack of understanding of the extent of library staff responsibilities and the role libraries play within communities. In an interview on RNZ’s Morning Report he focused solely on the borrowing of physical books, noting the decline in books issued and young people “taking their stuff digitally”.

He seemed unaware of the vast collections of e-books and e-resources that public libraries make available for viewing and borrowing, not to mention the programmes, events and support Auckland’s librarians provide to individuals, groups, and communities within the city.

The move from a transactional model of public library service focused on the issuing of physical, printed books to a programmatic model supporting creativity, inspiration and connection seems to have passed him by. These developments are far more demanding of staff time and expertise, and it is doubtful that they could be maintained by volunteers.

A quick glance at Auckland City Libraries website shows the breadth of libraries’ services and facilities focused on learning, knowledge, information, and community building, all of which contribute to the wellbeing of individuals and the city. None of these run themselves, and though volunteers provide invaluable help in libraries, lessons from overseas tell us that volunteer-run libraries often have trouble finding enough volunteers or funding to maintain services, especially in less-affluent communities.

In the UK, where more than 780 libraries have closed since 2010 with the loss of 10,000 staff, the number of volunteer-run (or “community-managed”) libraries has increased as local councils look to divest themselves of the responsibility and cost of running libraries. Although there have been success stories with opening hours and usage increasing in some cases, very often services have declined with huge variability in the quality of provision and unresolved questions about accountability, liability, and long-term viability.

recent report I was involved with evidenced how libraries are essential social infrastructure in our communities, true “Palaces for the People” as described by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Open to all, libraries provide the resources that can help communities recover and adapt to changes brought by Covid-19, providing space for interaction, connection and support and helping address the isolation experienced by many in a progressively asocial society.

Within libraries, trained staff are essential to connect people to the information, materials and support they need for their learning, leisure, and wellbeing and to help them navigate our increasingly complex information and digital eco-system. Brown’s comments belittle the skills, expertise and commitment of library staff and undermine the library profession more generally.

Brown’s interview also included dangerous talk about “nice to haves” although he did not explicitly include libraries in this category. Library spaces that are free, open and accessible to all are not just “nice to have” but meet a range of important community needs, supported by dedicated and skilled library staff. Besides, “nice to haves” are often the things that attract people to cities and encourage people to spend time (and money) in places away from their homes.

There was one point made by Brown during the interview that I do agree with. He suggested that central government should be directly funding more of the services and programmes provided by local councils. Public libraries and their staff have expanded services in response to social, political, and technological developments, often the result of government policy and actions. They have become, for example, the go-to place for help with digital government services and technology skills support.

Although central government has provided funding for some initiatives, including staff digital skills training, these programmes are invariably one-offs and the prospect of long-term, sustainable funding is unlikely. Libraries’ and librarians’ expanding roles will not be resourced effectively by short-term grants.

Ultimately, it is not a question of whether public libraries employ trained and qualified staff or use volunteers. Libraries need both. There is no doubt volunteers add enormous value to public library services. They undertake work that library staff would be hard pressed to do—given their other duties and the minimal staffing levels many libraries operate on—and they build important links within communities. They are a welcome and invaluable supplement to a trained, skilled workforce—not an alternative.

This article was originally published on Newsroom.

Anne Goulding is a professor of Library and Information Management in the School of Information Management at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.