Friday, 30 November 2012

Volunteering in libraries...

Thing 22 is all about volunteering in libraries. I read Jo's story and really admire the brave decision she made to go and work as a volunteer in a job which provided her with genuine opportunities, instead of falling back on the safe option which was to return to a job (after having left to attend library school) where she found herself stuck in a rut. Others, like Girl in the Moon & Lisa in the Health Library have also shared their experiences of how voluntary work has helped to provide them with a solid grounding in Librarianship, through which they have been able to take on paid roles. There are some utterly fantastic-sounding roles which crop up in the voluntary sector, for instance this one which appeared this week on LIS-LINK, offering the chance to work for a library project in Peru! I would dearly love to have the sheer gumption to simply take off to go and do something like this (especially after the staff exchange I attended earlier this year - an experience which has made my feet more than a little itchy!).

One day I am sure I will will venture further afield, in fact...but not just yet. For the time-being, at least, my clodhoppers are very much grounded here in the UK where I feel voluntary work is all too frequently undervalued (and even treated with suspicion in some cases) within the information sector. I have written an article for Voices for the Library highlighting why I think volunteering is so important. This is with particular reference to the plight of Brent Libraries - a cause which I have written about several times before in this blog and one which has relied upon the dedication of volunteers since the closure of six libraries in the borough. Here's are some extracts from of the article which highlight my own views on volunteer libraries:


Six Brent Libraries were closed in October of last year - campaigners and volunteers have since been
working tirelessly to try to keep as many of these from staying closed permanently as possible

The S.O.S. Brent Libraries campaign was formed in May last year following the Council’s decision to implement library closures as part of Brent’s Libraries Transformation Project (LTP). Library campaigners gained support and raised funds to try to overturn the Council’s decision, resulting in a high profile but ultimately unsuccessful case heard in the High Court in July 2011. The seven libraries which make up the ‘Save Our Seven’ (S.O.S.) Libraries campaign are Barham Park, Cricklewood, Kensal Rise, Neasden, Preston, Tokyngton (all closed) and Willesden Green Library which remains open but is set to undergo redevelopment in a “mini Civic Centre” project seen as unfavourable by many local residents (visit their blog for more details). 

Community setups staffed by volunteers have now been established in Brent, each with a view to reclaiming a permanent presence either in their previous premises or in the vicinity of libraries closed in their respective areas. These are
Friends of Barham Library (FOBL) Volunteer Library, Kensal Rise Pop-up Library and Preston Community Library.

The FOBL volunteer library which has been set up in Wembley
(picture courtesy of
Brent S.O.S. Libraries)

Volunteer libraries are, of course, a hugely contentious issue within the library sector as a whole. The Culture Media & Sport (CMS) Committee is not in favour of the idea of libraries that are wholly run by communities, stating councils must continue to give volunteer libraries “the necessary support to maintain the service”. The opening of these volunteer libraries without any support from the Council is no-one’s notion of an ideal situation - it has been implemented as very much a temporary measure, one born out of necessity in Brent. Quite simply, it is a case of ‘do or die’ for these libraries and where a groundswell of support for libraries in the borough has failed to materialise, the future for those libraries is now bleak - a fate which has befallen the libraries of Tokyngton and Neasden.

A short video about Preston Community Library

I am certainly not suggesting the implementation of volunteer libraries as something which should be done in all instances where libraries are under threat. What is happening in Brent, though, shows people still care about physical libraries, they still need them and many are prepared to make tremendous sacrifices to keep them going, even in the face of strident opposition. How could anyone working within the library sector be anything but encouraged by this?! I work within the academic sector and as such I do not feel I am in any position to suggest what is right for public libraries as a whole. As a qualified librarian, though, I do not feel threatened by the presence of volunteer libraries in Brent – quite the opposite, in fact. I respect the work which those professionals in the remaining Brent libraries are doing to transform their services and am certain the new Brent Civic Centre Library will be a big improvement upon the current Town Hall Library. Yet I am far more encouraged to see some of the work that is being done where the libraries have been closed.

The pop-up library at Kensal Rise is also staffed by volunteers
Something I have witnessed first hand has been the incredible generosity which people have shown in providing support for these burgeoning volunteer setups. When I have spoken to friends and colleagues about what is happening in Brent, they have frequently offered to provide a lending hand towards the project, whether this be through attendance at a fundraising event, by signing a petition or (more often than not) donating their own books. I am heartened that so many people have put a great deal of work into retaining a library presence in areas which desperately need them. In this respect, Camden Public Library Users’ Group’s sentiments in their provocative blog post, The Demonising of Library Volunteers ring true, viewing those who are prepared to give their time and energy as “the heroic pawns in a local government story of indifference and mismanagement”.


My own experience of volunteering has actually been outside of libraries, where I enjoy volunteering for a tennis club near Waterloo. For over four years I have spent time at weekends helping to teach kids the basics of the game and last year completed my Level 1 Coaching Assistant training with the LTA! I have been given opportunities to gain leadership skills, to teach others and to manage a small team of volunteers through this work. It is a responsibility which I found stressful at times (particularly when I was also studying part-time on top of my full-time job) but I am happy to say this has paid off as we have now been able to employ a Licensed LTA Coach who has taken on the role of managing the project. I am proud that much of what has been achieved at the club came about because I stood up for a project I believed in and was able to advocate effectively. That people in positions of power actually sat up and took notice, lending their support and resources to the project, is one of the key things which has motivated me to want to advocate for libraries too.

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