Letter: The library volunteers deserve respect and thanks for their efforts

This letter sent to the Star was written by S Webster, Sheffield, S6

Thursday, 5th September 2019, 6:39 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th September 2019, 7:58 am
Stannington Library

Since May 2019 I have responded to several letters sent in by Martin Smith, Matthew Vaughan and Harriett Ferguson on the subject of Volunteer, (or Community), run libraries.

They believe that libraries should not be run by volunteers and instead staffed by what they describe as ‘professional' library staff employed by Sheffield City Council. On that point I agree. Libraries are a public service and as such ought to be under the control of the Council. However five years ago the Council, after a public consultation, announced that it would close 15 of its libraries because of financial constraints UNLESS community groups were prepared to take over the running of the libraries to be closed. In every case community groups agreed to keep libraries open. Since then the Council has made some funding available to help support the libraries it intended to close. Consequently existing library staff lost their jobs.

Recent articles, (within the last few weeks), in The Star have referred to job losses at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service. The other day Police & Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings referred to budget cuts to policing and said that the recruitment drive announced by the government will only put the number of officers at the level they were a decade ago and that budget cuts were a factor in rises in crime and disorder. As much as I'd like to see a return to Council run libraries I'd prefer to see more police on the streets, firefighters on duty and improvements to care in the community to support those who are in need BEFORE I'd like to see money spent on restaffing libraries.

Martin Vaughan in a letter to Your Say in May singled out Stannington Library as a 'failing' library and pointed out a number of faults which were completely inaccurate and led to myself, (as a library user), and the Assistant Chair of Stannington Library to respond to correct the inaccuracies in Mr Vaughan's letter. She described his letter as "Yet another fact free rant from the poison pen of Martin Vaughan".

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Matthew Smith in his letters again refers to 'failing libraries' run by volunteers, that Volunteer Libraries are run by 'Strangers, Unaccountable and Unprofessional' people running libraries where children and vulnerable adults gather. I responded with fact rather than supposition to Mr Smith and have a further point to make. After my response in Your Say I made a Freedom of Information Act request asking for the number of complaints made to Sheffield City Council's safeguarding team in respect of incidents occurring at libraries whether run by the library service or a community group. The response I received noted that 'All community run libraries have their own safeguarding policies in place" the supplied me wit a list if I wished to ask for more details. They confirmed that there had been no reports of concerns for the welfare of children or vulnerable adults to safeguarding teams since community groups took over the running of 15 libraries almost five years ago!

I'd also refer Mr Smith to another recent article in The Star dealing with the sentencing of another six men convicted of sexual abuse of vulnerable girls in Rotherham. The judge, along with other judges around the country who have sentenced offenders for similar offences, the findings of three separate enquiries into Rotherham and a parliamentary enquiry were all highly critical of the failure of those with statutory responsibility for safeguarding the victims in Rotherham. I think it fair to say that vulnerable people are at greater risk of abuse because of failings by those in authority rather than from organisations who engage with them!

Harriett Ferguson complained that the 'Cobbled together system is a mess' that it should be returned to Council responsibility because Librarians were being deprived of jobs, Authors of income from Public Lending Rights, Users could not search the libraries catalogue for books acquired by community libraries and that community libraries "impeded access to literature and knowledge" and went on to suggest that if people didn't volunteer "Libraries could be Saved"! Oh if only that were true!

If people didn't volunteer Sheffield would have 15 fewer libraries.

In truth the "failing libraries" aren't failing at all. They are doing well and despite being run by what the gang of of three describe as "amateurs" remain open and are well supported by the communities they serve.

The unqualified unprofessional volunteers have a wealth of qualifications, skills and experience that have allowed them to manage the libraries, raise funds to meet the shortfall from the Council add to book collections offer extracurricular activities to engage with the community and encourage more people to use the libraries.

As far as extracurricular activites in community libraries I am aware of knit & natter at Walkley Library, an after school computer coding group at Greenhill, art & craft sessions at Ecclesfield, story time sessions at Burngreave.

Stannington has just had a series of family sessions in the school holidays and now that the schools are back are hosting regular school time visits for classes of children at local schools and restarting the popular mum & baby storytime and song sessions. I'm sure other community libraries are running similar sessions but I have only referred to those I actually know about. The community libraries I have been in are welcoming safe havens for the people who visit most of the users know the volunteers and recognise that they are giving their time to ensure that the community retains a valuable resource and are accordingly grateful. The Volunteers deserve respect and thanks for their efforts they don't deserve to be unjustifiably vilified by those whose ire ought to be directed at those who made the decisions to close 15 libraries!