Another senior manager today gave, at best, lukewarm support for the universal need for paid and qualified library staff.  At the end of  an interview with the highly influential Today Programme this morning, Tony Durcan appeared to say that volunteers could replace paid staff as long as they had a “network of skilled people” to support them.  Mr Durcan is the boss of Newcastle City Council libraries, a former president of the Society of Chief Librarians and a current Councillor of CILIP, the professional body for librarians.   After saying library work was “not brain surgery” he did list a few of the vital jobs that library staff do but then said that volunteers would be equally able to do so as long as they had assistance. It did not appear from context, although this was never explicitly stated, that this assistance had to be in the same library. This will pain many, not least the campaigners in Surrey and Gloucestershire, who wish to keep libraries under council control.  It also appears to go in some way against the official CILIP policy that states:

“If community managed libraries are to be regarded as part of the statutory service they must have a core paid staff, be part of the professionally led public library service and operate within a service level agreement with that parent library service. Volunteers play a valuable role in enhancing the public library service but they are not a replacement for the skills and expertise of staff. All are entitled to a public library service of high quality.”

On the other hand, like almost all librarians, Mr Durcan will not be used to being interviewed by national media and it is easy to mean one thing and seem to say another. 

The full transcript of the interview is below…

BBC Radio Four, Today Programme, 4th April 2012, 7.53am

Sarah Montague (S) : A High Court judge has told Suffolk County Council that it would be unlawful for it to allow ten of its libraries to be run by volunteers because it hasn’t taken enough account of equality issues.  The council says that as it only lost the case on a technical challenge, it could still push ahead with the voluntary scheme by providing additional training.  So is that the way forward for all libraries? Well, Tony Durcan is head of libraries for Newcastle City Council and a former president of the Society of Chief Librarians, good morning to you.
Tony Durcan (T) : Good morning.
N: Now this ruling on equality issues, that is just a question of training the staff is it?
T: In this particular instance, yes.  I think whenever we make any proposals to services or budget reductions that impact on services, we have to carry out proper equality assessments to see how they affect people and what we can do to mitigate that.
N: OK, but can you give us an example of the kind of thing that that would cover?
T: An equalities issue?
N: Yes.
T: It could be that if you were reducing opening hours, would that disadvantage a particular section of the community?  So if your library was perhaps only open one evening a week and you reduced it by that evening, how do people who go out to work or children coming home from school use services? That’s just one example but it covers the whole range of service areas.
N: Now Surrey County Council have made it clear that they would want to basically get round this or at least find a way to tackle that problem because from the sounds of it these libraries are only going to stay open if they can find a way to make them work on a voluntary basis?
T: That appears to be the case with Surrey and there are examples across the country where other library authorities are also looking at a range of volunteer proposals to help, well, in some cases to protect the library service and and maintain it and in other cases to enhance it.
N: And do you see that as the way forward if there is a shortage of money and if there’s not enough to keep libraries going, is the answer to get in voluntary staff? 

T:  Well, it depends what it means by “just getting in voluntary staff”.  There is a huge spectrum, I believe.  One is where volunteers, which we have been doing for many years, we have about a hundred in my authority, come in to help do things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.  Not to subsitute for opening hours or staff but to do extra things so, for example, we run a very successful summer reading scheme, part of a national scheme, and we have sixty teenage volunteers that work with children –
N: Sure but what’s wrong with substituting for the more typical council paid staff?
T:  I think it depends on the context in which you do it.  I think first of all it is down to each authority’s policies and the negotiation it has with the workforce … but I do believe, personally, that there needs to be an element of support for volunteers rather than volunteers just be asked to run a service without any support at all.
N: If it is a case, though, that a local council – and we’re hearing this from across the country – local councils don’t have the money.  A library will close and they go to the local community and say “we can keep it open if you do it” then surely that is part of the solution.
T: I think that can be part of the solution, yes, but I do believe that if the public were to continue to receive a good service, those volunteers then they will need help and support.  You know, library work is not brain surgery but it is a technical and professional job which we do need to be able to help people to find the books they want, the information they need, the people who come in and don’t know how to use a computer but need to send an email to someone … and I’m not saying that volunteers can’t do that.  They absolutely can, but they need the support of a network of skilled people to help them develop those skills.
N: Tony Durcan, thank you.

Ends 7.57am