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  • Jo Clement

On the subject of a volunteer-led library...

From the outset of the Darlington Library debate, there has been an ongoing thread of public opinion which says, don't worry, we'll run it. Whilst I don't doubt these heartfelt pleas are well meaning, nor the scope for volunteers to be a success, the idea of a volunteer-led library really should concern us. 

Library volunteers are placed in a double bind. They cannot deliver the same standard of service as a trained worker, nor can they develop the skills these professionals, were they paid and present, might otherwise help them to achieve.  This is not meant to undermine volunteers, some of whom have fantastically impressive professional and personal backgrounds. However from the perspective of someone who has both volunteered in the past and has had jobs usurped by wide eyed and willing volunteers, I can assure you this is a hand off. One that benefits nobody, least of all the volunteers themselves. I assure you the person rubbing their hands together because they don't have to pay you has very little interest in your project, development or indeed their clients. 


In the current competitive job market folk are eager to volunteer to gain experience. Apply for a paid job in a library without any experience and you'll not secure an interview. It's fair enough. You haven't studied for a degree in Librarianship. Why then, would you volunteer to run an entire library service without training or experience? Without the necessary experience to handle materials, you put archive custodianship in peril. Without the comprehensive skill set required to run and support the day to day running of the library, you risk lessening the effectiveness of its delivery to the community.  (You could also say this happens when you move a library from of a purpose built space like Crown Street with its under house archive, stunning architecture, perfect quiet and unique art gallery into a leisure centre with its surrounding noise and bleachy smells, with archives held somewhere inaccessible, offsite.)



Darlington Borough Council  may be snapping your hands off to run a volunteer run service but you need to ask why. They legally have to provide us with a team of trained librarians to meet the complex and demanding requirements for an efficient library service. Encouraging volunteer groups to run community projects in an abandoned Crown Street seems to only play into their scheme for the project to fail and for the building to go up for sale. And not necessarily to the highest bidder.


I'd happily run a series of poetry events, readings and activities but as a freelancer, my survival as an artist is contingent on fairly paid work. See through the veneer. Darlington Borough Council are only keeping Cockerton and Crown Street branches open temporarily. They're humouring us. Both will eventually be sold off. Look to the half demolished, half empty Arts Centre for confirmation.


We need to keep an undivided front to keep a local authority-funded and led service in Crown Street. We need to fight to keep our paid librarians. To those who still think they could run a library because they enjoy a spot of reading, think about NHS cuts. If you needed a heart bypass, would you want a trained doctor or a hobbyist who watched hospital dramas? While I appreciate that asking to view an eighteenth-century letter has much less pressing urgency than such an operation, the same principal applies.


To deny it undermines the specialised work librarians do, the intense study they've undertaken and the knowledge and experience only a trained librarian can bring. The eighteenth-century letter might be in indecipherable cursive, the paper might have to handled a certain way to preserve it and there could be restrictions on the amount of time it can be in daylight. The letter could prompt a question about its author, to which a trained librarian could guide your research down a whole new path.

Let's be clear. Librarians don't just stamp books. They are custodians and in that role, they mediate and interpret. Good gatekeepers, they bridge access between archive and the public. Guess what. Librarianship isn't all gorgeous old books and eighteenth-century letters. Sometimes people don't play ball. There's a very ugly facet to the public facing role that volunteers completely omit in their romanticism of what a librarian really does. There's a reason why almost all libraries now have an anti-abuse sign on the front of their desks. Then there's the ferrying of piles of books and the hours, oh the hours of standing. 

Being a librarian is like any other job in the Arts. As a poet, I feel this more than most. Even though I'm researching a Doctorate the amount of times what I do has been dismissed or diminished as a pleasant past time is unsettling. Trust me. It's eye bleeding, hard graft. The idea and the reality are two very different things. Being a librarian is a vocation not a hobby. Make no mistake: it's work. Often, a life's work. I wouldn't dream of telling my local seamstress I could do her job. She has years of experience, years of craft and knowledge you don't pick up just because one day you fancy making a shirt. You need to know how to cut a pattern. What cloth to buy. What thread to use. What needle to thread it with. Her eye can see more about how to shape a garment to a body than mine ever will. Librarians hone and develop their craft, too.

With this in mind, we need to think with our hearts and heads, united in and by the mantra: we want our library to stay in Crown Street. To tell Darlington Council that this means all of it. Our archives, our art gallery and most importantly of all, our librarians. Because without them, we don't have a library. This move is expensive. It's unwanted. It's inadequate. We shall not be moved.

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