Saturday, 8 November 2014

Who should run a library?

Last Thursday night in a surrogate role on behalf of my wife Fiona I attended a debate by CILIP North East . The motion was "This house believes a volunteer run library service is better than no service at all". Four people voted for the motion of whom I was one, fourteen voted against and there was a non voting panel of five. So 23 people had assembled in Newcastle on Tyne to debate this important subject. There's a message there. Now had the motion been "This house believes that any library without a chartered librarian responsible for its provision is no library service at all", I would have voted for it.
Perhaps arrogantly I think there is a ready made answer to the whole issue and it is one that requires the Library profession to make a radical change, certainly those within it engaged in local authority funded libraries. The answer comes out of the experience of the last fifty years of the railway industry, There was an inherent mistake in the opening motion. It was to put the emphasis on the word "volunteer" and not to use the word "professional". In so doing it threw the focus onto job protection, unionism and politics. This is entirely misconceived. For all sorts of clear reasons, the world of public library provision is changing radically just as the railway industry was forced too in the 1960s.
On Thursday night, you could pickup the sense that people felt a library service was only "safe" and "effective" in the hands of paid employees. I would suggest few industries are as safety critical as running a railway. And rafts of legislation and accreditation have arisen at every level on the railway to certify that everyone involved should know what they are doing. That legislation operates not on the basis of paid/volunteer but on the basis, are you a public railway or not? As the public network contracted in the 1960s, a new type of railway appeared. That run by locally based groups, often all or part volunteer led. But such railways were/are not exempt from the operating legislation. It took British Railways something over a decade to get comfortable over this, but to its credit, the entire railway industry, now part privatised and very diverse, has.  Quite rightly the core Network today is fully employee led. However volunteers do function even within that in two areas. One is the marketing and promotion of designated Community Railways. The other is in the operation of heritage trains over the main network. These are both complex areas of operation, especially the second, yet the whole panoply of professionalism has been applied. So when a North Yorkshire Moors train runs over Network Rail to Whitby and Battersby, considerable volunteer input is involved, but every function is fully professionally accredited. The interworking of Network and heritage operations occurs in several places throughout the UK. It has done so since the Bluebell Railway and British Railways shared Horsted Keynes station from 1960. It happens regularly at Grosmont, Sheringham, Swanage to mention a few.
Beyond the interworking of the Network and the heritage sectors, there is a now vast area of independent heritage railway operations unconnected to the Network. Some random examples, the Snowdon Mountain Railway (never a part of British Rail), the South Tynedale Railway at Alston, the lengthy and wholly isolated Llangollen Railway running from there to Corwen. The list would bore you. All of these are regarded as statutory railways, just as there are statutory libraries. They all have to perform professionally and they all are subject to exactly the same HSE inspections as the main Network.Had this change not been made,a very considerable number of communities in Britain would have no rail service at all. I name a few CONNECTED to the national network thereby: Dartmouth, Swanage, Minehead, Grantown on Spey, Pickering, Haworth, Rawtenstall, Holt, Bridgnorth and Bewdley.
Over 60 years, this partnership, has first been created and then made to work in one of the most safety conscious of British industries. It is very rare on the railway network, you hear people second besting the employee and the volunteer, they are all professionals. That is the lesson that Britain's Library profession will have to learn now in the 21st century, if it is not to become a dinosaur.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm, interesting analogy with railways there. I agree that most people present probably were concerned about libraries being safe and effective, and they are key things to select. But how do you measure and check that?

Obviously, in terms of railway safety they already had legislation and accreditation in place to monitor the volunteer-run public railways. What do we have for libraries?

I would suggest that the nearest thing we have is CILIP accreditation so if the government were to declare that all public libraries (volunteer or state run) should have some oversight by a Chartered Librarian and to be staffed by people with (or working towards) Certification then I would be much happier with that.

I think in most cases they would have to pay staff in order to achieve it though unless you were in the fortunate situation of somewhere like Jesmond!

It is effectively the situation at the Institute where we have a Chartered Librarian managing volunteers. I've never had a volunteer ask to work towards Certification but it is a thought.... Perhaps that would be helpful for some of my job seeking volunteers? I can no longer offer the NVQ level 2 as the funding has gone so it could be a good alternative.

Thank you for your thoughts and some new ideas!