How do you manage the diverse responsibilities of volunteers in your library?

“It is time to re-assert the value, role and purpose of public libraries and point to how they can respond to change in order to remain at the heart of the community.” – Arts Council England

It is obvious that the UK’s public library landscape is undergoing a great deal of change and change brings challenges to all of us, even us as suppliers.

One such change has been the introduction of an increasing amount of volunteers, meaning not only that our systems must be usable by library staff trained in the role but also by those with no library background whatsoever.

The role of volunteers in our libraries

Budget cuts are forcing local authority leaders to investigate alternative models of delivering services and turning to the community has become a popular solution. ‘Community library’ models are on the rise with the number of volunteers increasing 100 per cent between 2010 and 2014.

Arts Council England, having themselves published a briefing on implementing and running community libraries, said, back in 2013:

“We expect to see a shift from a service provided to a community to one in which local people are more active and involved in its design and delivery.” – Arts Council England

Volunteers are involved at various levels within our libraries, from simply supporting trained library staff at one end of the scale to complete management or ownership of library buildings at the other.

The Libraries Taskforce have released their own good practice guide for community involvement in libraries, listing benefits and considerations of the different models.

Some benefits suggested include: cost reductions, retaining and potentially extending opening hours and being able to better tailor services to the needs of the community. But there are considerable challenges of course…

The role of trained library staff

Professional and trained library staff are the backbone of the public library network in this country and in a climate of fake news, stumbling literacy rates and a huge digital skills gap, their role should not be undermined.

Yet, many in the industry see the presence of unpaid staff as a threat not only to jobs but to quality of service. So, to discourage an ‘amateurisation’ of the industry, both the ACE and Libraries Taskforce state the importance of professional and experienced staff.

In most cases, trained library staff are supported by a handful of volunteers. Yet, whatever the level of involvement, volunteers are often dependent on library professionals to provide the guidance they need to fulfil their role. This adds extra responsibility on to the shoulders of trained staff already with a heavy workload.

The Libraries Taskforce considers the following as key considerations to community supported libraries:

“Attracting and retaining trained volunteers may be an issue… It also places a demand on staff time to manage the volunteer rotas and training, and some adjustments in management skills to adapt to managing volunteers.” – Libraries Taskforce

The report later goes on to state that “trained library staff should develop and provide training on… LMS, stock knowledge, library offers”.

The great difficulty here is that staff are already stretched. This is why, in developing Axiell Spark, we focused a great deal of attention on making things easier for both trained and untrained library staff.

Our role as a supplier

We now develop our solutions with the full spectrum of library workers in mind. In our discussions with industry stakeholders and customers, we were challenged to create systems that could be easily picked up by all staff with as little training as possible.

The key with Axiell Spark is the simplicity of the staff-facing interface. With volunteers able to manage borrower facing functions with minimal training, the burden on librarians to provide this support is greatly reduced.

This is perhaps best shown on the Circulation overview page, where we have brought all core functions for checking items in/out into one simple interface.

Role management and security has also been a critical feature. As library staff have access to personal information, it is vital that library managers can control which staff have access to what.

“Being able to access (in a limited capacity) a networked Library Management System (LMS) and one membership card for the library network means the community can benefit from access to a local authority’s book stock”Libraries Taskforce

Axiell Spark is built to be PSN compliant, with over 200 permissions that are customisable meaning that volunteers operating at all levels within the library only have access to the appropriate data and tools to complete their role.

Moreover, because turnover of volunteers can be a big issue for libraries, we have made it easy to add or remove new users.

Public libraries – an adaptable industry

“Public libraries have always adapted and renewed themselves to meet the changing needs of people and communities. Books and information are supplied at speeds that were unimaginable a generation ago, changes from vinyl discs through cassettes and CDs to music downloads have been made, and the comedy stereotype of stern librarians hushing library users has been consigned to history.

So, it is time to re-assert the value, role and purpose of public libraries and point to how they can respond to change in order to remain at the heart of the community.”Arts Council England

The public library industry continues to prove itself to be resilient and adaptable. Every year there are new challenges and every year libraries respond, sometimes even leading the way for the public sector.

Therefore, we, as suppliers, must make every effort possible to learn about these challenges and help our users overcome them. We feel Spark really embodies this need – you helped build it and you continue to drive our innovations.

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