Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Q: How is a library like a charity shop?

Photograph of a radio alarm clock by Jarlhelm on Wikimedia Commons
A: Both can easily be run by volunteers!

Or so said Alan Downey, one of the authors of the KPMG report 'Payment for Success - How to shift power from Whitehall to public service customers', on this morning's Today Programme.

Now, I'm not a public librarian, and I haven't the time or the intellectual capabilities to write the cutting analysis this deserves, but I would like to make few points in a slightly ranty fashion:

1. Mr Downey makes running a charity shop sound like a piece of cake.  I doubt that it actually is.

2. People aren't falling over themselves to run charity shops as he suggests - several in the neighbourhood in which I live (not the classiest end of Cambridge) have recently closed, or are open only restricted hours.

3. Even given that running a charity shop isn't simple, running a successful library, especially in the areas where they are currently undervalued, is probably significantly more difficult.

4. If libraries (and other currently public-sector services) are going to be run in volunteers in the future, where are the skilled volunteers going to come from once the current crop of probably retired trained former-librarians has run out?

So, what to do? Many people are tweeting about this, which I suppose engenders a feeling of collective dismay (much better than being miserable alone). I suppose I'd like someone (CILIP? the MLA?) to make a hard-hitting statement about the value of libraries and the importance of professional librarians, but I'm not so hopeful.  Maybe I'll contribute to the CILIP Conversation ('Defining our professional future') on this topic once I'm feeling a bit more coherent.

Edited to add: Better rants have been written by Elspeth Hyams and Bethan - go and check them out.

Further addition: There's a post and discussion about this on the CILIP Information and Advice Blog and at Optimus Librarian.


  1. How did I miss this this morning?! Thank you for your post (now tweeted) and your very articulate, non-ranty response ...

  2. It's sort-of similar to that 'Oh, nobody uses libraries any more' comment from academics - who of course have their own offices

  3. Interestingly there was a piece on breakfast TV a day or so ago, saying that employers had to be very careful when using unpaid interns, work experience people etc, as the 'minimum pay' rules were such that the line between work experience and work covered by the act was so thin that employers could find themselves liable to pay the interns. (Apparently it was within the rules to claim that the work should be covered by this retrospectively!) . I can see that volunteers could potentially come under the same rules.

  4. Really interesting post--thanks, Girl on the Moon! I suppose the plan is to force libraries down the route that the arts sector has taken, where galleries and such like are being administrated by volunteers (of varying standards). Quite depressing. The question is how to dispel, once and for all, the widely held view that libraries are just rooms with books in them.

  5. From the point of view of someone running a charity shop (as an unpaid trustee) I was aware of the "minimum pay" argument & found it rather chilling although I'm at a loss to see how it could be enforced.

    I'm hardly likely to sue myself because I haven't been paid the minimum wage although I have set hours when I expect myself to turn up at the shop :(

    Fulbourn village library is run by volunteers.

  6. Thanks for bringing this to my attention - I missed the original interview (must have slept through my alarm clock yesterday morning!). I guess changing the perception that libraries are 'just rooms full of books' is part of why we're doing Cam23 in the first place - learning how to use new tools in order reach out and engage new sets of people in the sevice we offer.

  7. Right. Has this person ever been behind-the-scenes in a Library, or is he still holding the delusion that we all sit around reading and stamping books all day? This is the same attitude I encountered with a friend of mine who's still an undergrad; the whole 'oh, working in a library can't be that difficult/busy'. It annoyed me then and it annoys me now. Thanks for posting this!

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone. It's quite cathartic to have a rant and discover that other people agree with you.

    The consensus seems to be that the authors of the report appear to have done very little research into what they have written about (by all accounts, there is a complete lack of citations in the report itself), and have presented their ideas in a very smug, self-satisfied way.

    Whilst I understand that some libraries (thanks for the pointer to Fulbourn Village Library, cambstreasurer) are run very successfully by a team of motivated volunteers, I just don't understand how this could be applied successfully on a large scale. How many people are going to volunteer to run public libraries in or near deprived council estates where they're needed most?