School Libraries- do we need a network for the volunteers?

What is the difference between a room full of books and a school library? The answer is, of course, a librarian. I’ve been working through that answer for almost twenty years.

I am not a qualified librarian. For the majority of primary schools, in the state system at least, that simply isn’t an option. For almost ten years I wasn’t even paid and even now my salary hardly reflects the hours I put in or the responsibilities I shoulder. Which presents a dilemma that is becoming more familiar throughout the sector. Put crudely, are volunteers robbing professional librarians of their jobs?

There are really no straightforward answers to that. In the case of public libraries, some unions have protested against the increasing substitution of well-meaning volunteers for trained staff. They are not simply covering their members’ backs; they have a valid point. Volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned or dedicated, may well lack the skills and training to carry out this vital role.

Volunteers also struggle with other constraints. They see what needs doing but do not have access to the networks, the official back-up and the resources to get it done. Faced with the yawning and widening gulf between the necessary and the possible, they are at risk of burnout and despair. This is no secret to others who might be willing to take their place, were they not so painfully aware that they might not be able to control the job’s tendency to take over their lives and sour their relationships.

Managing volunteers, something I’ve occasionally found myself doing, is an underrated skill demanding sensitivity and empathy as well as a clear vision and the ability to communicate it. I have worked in schools where people gave enormous amounts of time and dedication to their library roles, only to be treated atrociously by managers who came in and undermined all their hard work and commitment without even listening to their point of view. In fact, much of my time last year was devoted to rescuing a library where that had happened, and a very important part of the job was regaining the trust of those volunteer helpers.

Nevertheless, the reality is that in many schools, the only staff libraries can expect are either completely unpaid volunteers or teaching assistants who already have a full workload and are somehow expected, in their very limited spare time, to turn the chaotic and tattered few boxes of books parked at the end of a dusty corridor into a library.

At SLA conferences I have come across quite a few such people. Often they are determined but daunted, and I am sure that for every one I come across there are a dozen out there who either are unaware that the SLA exists or, even if they have heard of it, would feel guilty expecting what little money a school can spare for library books (often the proceeds of PTA fundraising) being spent on sending them to a conference. Sometimes we get talking, I keep in touch and try to help them avoid making a few of the mistakes I have made.

But I am beginning to think we need something more. The SLA, as its name suggests, is a professional body. Whilst they are, I am sure, in sympathy with the aims of volunteers, their first responsibility is to their chartered and qualified members. I would add, by the way, that they are a superb source of knowledge, inspiration and contacts to school libraries anywhere. But it is unrealistic and probably undesirable to expect them to change their particular focus. They are quite right to maintain that there is no substitute for a qualified library professional, and that is what every child in every school deserves.

So I am beginning to wonder if it is worth setting up a network to advise and assist voluntary library workers, or whatever we should call them. And if anybody out there thinks this is worth exploring, or supporting in any way, or they are just thinking they would like to be involved, please let me know your thoughts. Maybe follow me, and we shall see what we can come up with together.

UPDATE: The SLA have been in touch since I shared this to emphasise that they see the support of voluntary librarians in schools as very much part of their role. It’s great to be starting a dialogue with them on this and I’m sure good things will come of it. Thank you SLA!


6 thoughts on “School Libraries- do we need a network for the volunteers?

  1. The School Library Association is open to all – not just professional and qualified librarians. We are well aware of the financial and other constraints on schools and recognize the huge input volunteers and parents make to a school library, especially in small primary schools.

    Whist we would always recommend a school has a trained or qualified librarian in post we also appreciate this is not the case. There are some excellent schemes already in place – for example at Tower Hamlets Schools Library Service – where small primary schools actually share the time of a qualified librarian who can – even in a short time on site – make a big impact in the school with reading initiatives etc.

    We aim, as a practical organisation, to support everyone who works in a school library – check out our website, or give us a call if you are not sure whether we can help in your situation. Agreed, there is a membership fee to access all our resources, but some are available free of charge.

    1. Thank you for replying so quickly. I’d like to think that any volunteer network – assuming it doesn’t already exist of course, would complement your excellent work rather than compete with it. I have noticed that where professionals do work in community schools, they are rather more prevalent in KS3 and above. Here in Manchester we don’t have an LA SLS so primary folk can be rather isolated. But speaking personally, I’ve gained a great deal from the SLA – the recent Cardiff conference was truly inspiring, for example. Also Melanie Wild at MGS has been a great support.

  2. Great blog and thoughts. I have come up against some hostility when I say I work in one school on a voluntary basis (all my other work consulting with schools is paid). The school in which I’m a volunteer simply wouldn’t have a library at all if I hadn’t set it up and agreed to maintain it on a voluntary basis. They cannot afford budget for books, let alone a salaried position. So my argument is that better there’s a volunteer than nothing at all. However, this does of course work against having qualified librarians – and I am vastly disappointed that my local area is closing my public library, making librarians redundant and turning it over to volunteers. However, in a small primary school library a volunteer librarian does not need the same skill set as that for a public library. The SLA are excellent in what they do and I think provide good resources, and there are lots of free resources online to help too. However, simply a forum or community where volunteer primary school librarians could share information/practices/ideas/experiences might be a lovely thing to have to complement the very professional service that the SLA provides. All in all, what we’re looking to do is get kids reading – anything that assists this must be a good thing.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m inclined to agree with you about the different skill set – in fact a teaching background might be more helpful than a librarianship qualification. I was lucky to have the skill and guidance of a qualified librarian in my early days – just teaching me the basics of cataloguing and where to source supplies was very helpful and the kind of thing I might be able to advise others on now.

    In public libraries it seems to me that the de-professionalisation of staff presents an existential threat to the service, something I’d only support with reservations, if at all. In schools there are real opportunities opening up for paid, not necessarily qualified, people to work over groups of schools supporting volunteers on the ground. That’s how my own job has evolved, an opportunity that came about when the single small school I was working in became an Academy Trust.

    People don’t always realise what’s out there. If you know where to look advice, support and sponsorship are all available. That’s the kind of thing a network could facilitate, I hope.

  4. A good blog and you raise some very legitimate points. I’m glad the SLA have responded; as they’ve said, they support everyone working in school libraries and membership fees are not high enabling you to access a huge range of resources. There is also a network of SLA branches that hold regular meetings which may be useful as well, great opportunities to network! I’m Chair of the Central & East Berkshire branch and we welcome everyone to our meetings. The professional organisation for librarians is CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) who award Chartership status.

    1. Thank you for replying, Barbara. I was fortunate to have the assistance of a Chartered Librarian in my early days. I take your point that involvement in the SLA at local level might be the way to progress this and I’m looking at that.

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