Southampton’s Tory council to sack librarians and replace them with unpaid volunteers.

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on July 26, 2010
Posted Under: Tories

Last month unison members in Southampton went on strike over the city council’s plans sack employees and replace them with unpaid volunteers. The council plans to get rid of 6 librarians. According to unison this will lead to one library being run exclusively by volunteers.

This, I am afraid, is a sign of things to come. As Richard noted last week, Cameron’s Big Society is set to involve replacing public service professionals with unpaid labour. And this is a big problem for both public sector workers and public service users. The most immediate problem for Southampton’s Librarians is that they face losing their jobs at a time when jobseekers outnumber vacancies by a ratio of 5 to 1. In other words they the real possibility of long term unemployment. More generally, the use of volunteer labour raises a damocles axe above the heads of all public sector workers. How easy will it be to push for decent wages, when your employer has an army of unpaid Gill Archer types at its disposal.

Finally this will hit users. Being a librarian is a difficult and demanding job. It involves dealing with lots people, often young people and vulnerable people. The question is whether we want to offer these people a proper library service staffed with public sector professionals, or whether they should have to rely upon volunteers – some who will inevitably (and understandably) feel that they are doing them a favour by being there. As Cliff Willet who works in the voluntary sector remarked over at i-volunteer

Being paid for what you do does make you more likely to show up for work on time, and does make you legally accountable to deliver the work you are entrusted to do. If it didn’t, why would anyone ever pay anyone to do anything?

As the Big Society kick’s into action, and volunteering perhaps becomes the next big thing, it is important for us all be aware of the implications of what. Yes, volunteering can, as David Cameron suggests, bring people closer together, and it can, most certainly, be a means of improving your local community. Yet, helping to put somebody out of a job will not make your community a better place to live. And replacing those who need to work with those who can afford to work for free is the last thing that is likely to bring communities together.

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Reader Comments

Volunteering is not a replacement. It is a means of providing support for what is already in place, of augmenting stretched resources.

Volunteers should never be a long term replacement for something as crucial as librarians. Imagine the uproar if it were suggested that we could save over £100k per doctor if they were replaced by volunteers.


Written By Ian Lewis on July 27th, 2010 @ 3:12 pm
Ian Rennie

Sadly this is a long way from an isolated incident. I’ve lived outside the UK for the last 8 years working for an American library, and came back after my library system laid off over 200 staff.

It’s heartbreaking to see the same thing happen here.

Written By Ian Rennie on July 27th, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

muito bom! :D

Written By Renã vicente on July 27th, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

I wouldn’t be surprised that, in the big society, libraries are not only staffed by volunteers, but also the readers should bring their own books.

A big society which is based on making thousands of people redundant, and exploiting volunteers without the expertise of the professionals, is destined to fail. A community based society cannot be imposed from the top, that is not democracy.

Written By Pablo Luis Gonzalez on July 27th, 2010 @ 8:01 pm
Judith Ecker`

How and why would council members assume that volunteers even know how to function as trained librarians? I know, replace ALL council members with volunteers, since it is obviously a very simple job.

Written By Judith Ecker` on July 27th, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

Excellent article. The people throwing these highly trained and greatly valued employees out of work have their own libraries of leather-bound first editions, so why should they care about those of us who depend on the skills, knowledge and commitment of librarians – who symbolise for them the terrible spectre of a society based on need.

Written By julia on July 27th, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

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