Volunteering and job substitution is clearly the hot-topic issue for library and information professionals at present.
Thiings have really come to a head after a CILIP report on the subject came to light and became a lightning-rod for a lot of simmering discontent over whether or not our professional body is representing the interests of its members on this issue.
But concerns goes much farther than just this paper. I recently attended a recent East of England event where library and information workers from all sectors discussed the difficulties this issue was causing them. I realised then that this goes way beyond public libraries and also just how much potential this has to unite people working in widely diverging sectors who normally don’t make much common cause.
And in February, CILIP lost a very energetic and effective Vice-President because she felt unable to combine an active campaigning role with the post.
I don’t want to take on this whole issue as there are lots of people more knowledgeable and better-qualified than me already discussing it- for example, Johanna Anderson, Phil Bradley, Ian Clark, Ian Anstice and Gary Green.
But there is one important aspect that I would like to see being discussed.
I think that one of the things we should be doing is holding organisations using volunteers to replace paid staff to account over whether or not they are living up to their own objectives and promotional statements on economic development.
And, if they are not, we should be looking for some effective methods of drawing attention to the gap between what they say and what they do.
Local authorities, colleges and universities, government agencies and other large organisations often promote rather heavily their role in boosting local and regional development and in stimulating the economies of the areas in which they operate.
They are important local employers in many different fields and this fact is often used prominently in their marketing materials and mission statements. Thus there is surely a significant consequence for them to consider when replacing paid employees with volunteers - the effects of removing jobs from the local economy, reducing the former postholders’ spending power and possibly moving them and their families onto benefits at a great cost to the state (and with possible knock-on effects to their own services).
Campaigners for library and other public services should not be letting this behaviour pass unnoticed or unremarked.
At the Library Campaign conference in November a speaker from Unison actually produced some figures on how this stacked up. (A record of this exists online thanks to Ian Anstice’s notes on the day here - search for the heading “Does this make economic sense – Pete Challis, UNISON.”)
I do realise that the library workers’ trade union is hardly an entirely objective source. But hey - there they were, rolling up their sleeves and actually standing up for their members.