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!