Room for voluntary work in the library?

The economic situation in municipalities in Finland has given rise to a discussion about voluntary work in public libraries in chat forums, at seminars and in Kirjastolehti – the Finnish library magazine.

Finland’s Library Act regulates that all municipal libraries must have professionally educated personnel along with a sufficient number of other personnel. The Library Decree defines more closely the educational structure and qualifications personnel must have. The Quality Recommendation for Public Libraries provides more detailed recommendations for the number and quality of the personnel in public libraries. The chart below portrays the objectives set for the number and quality of library personnel as well as the extent to which they were observed in Finland in 2012.

The objective among the personnel with a professional education has been achieved well, but there is still room for improvement as regards the other objectives. However, there are extensive differences between municipalities. The service structures of the municipalities are being reformed and municipalities are being merged together, which threatens to reduce the number of libraries and personnel.

Pros and cons of voluntary work

The waves of discussion have surged in a crisscross direction. At best, voluntary work involves the empowerment and participation of the patrons and the entire community to develop library services, for example in the form of patron panels and production of events. At worst, voluntary work can be seen merely as a way to save money, replacing professional employees without consideration for the quality and content of library work.

Libraries have extended their opening hours by offering some services without personnel, particularly in cases where a library has book lending and returning machines in use. In some libraries, the opening hours have been extended with the use of volunteers, which has brought the library even closer to the patrons and made it more important to them.

Professional principles

The greatest and certainly the most justifiable fear for library professionals as regards the use of volunteers is that anyone, who may not have skills in library work, can take the place of a library professional and, what’s more, work for free. In addition to the decrease in the quality of service, there are questions of responsibility, uncertainty about the continuity of the services, a decrease in the appreciation of library work as a profession and a weakening in image.

There is an immense gray area between the extremes, but it can be cleared when voluntary work is limited to certain nonprofessional tasks. Libraries must clearly define the tasks, which can only be carried  out by full-time personnel with an education in library work. If libraries fail to do it themselves for professional reasons, then political decision-makers will do it for economic reasons.

No uniform position

Unionization among library professionals is extremely varied in Finland. Professionals in the field belong to different trade unions depending on their level of education and background organization. For this reason, trade unions do not have a uniform position about volunteer work.

The Finnish Library Association encapsulated the issue in a statement they made: “Professionals carry out library work; volunteers enhance the sense of community. Public, regulated, basic services cannot be carried out with volunteer work.”

There is room for volunteers in the library, but management, development and library work are the tasks of the full-time personnel educated in the library profession. As the economy becomes more insecure, municipalities must not only observe the regulations in the Library Act and Decree, but also observe the spirit of them.

Head of Office Finnish Library Association

Objective according to the Library Act and national recommendations

  • 70 % of the personnel must have a professional education
  • 45 % of the personnel must have a higher education degree + studies in the library field
  • 0.8-1.0 man-years/1000 residents
  • '6 days of updating training/man-years/year
  • Library director must have a master’s degree + studies in the library field

Situation (avg.) for entire country in 2012

  • 85 % of the personnel has a professional education
  • 38 % of the personnel has a degree in higher education + studies in the library field
  • 0.79 man-year/1000 residents
  • 3.5 days
  • No precise statistics available, but the situation is good on average.

Percentage of municipalities that have achieved objectives compared to all municipalities

  • 90 %
  • 32 %
  • 47 %
  • 11 %
  • N.A.