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Keeping the doors open in an age of austerity? Qualitative analysis of stakeholder views on volunteers in public libraries

Walton, GL and Casselden, Biddy and Pickard, Alison Jane and McLeod, Julie (2017) Keeping the doors open in an age of austerity? Qualitative analysis of stakeholder views on volunteers in public libraries. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. ISSN 0961-0006

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Abstract

English public libraries are increasingly adopting a hybrid approach to volunteer use, whereby volunteers plug the gaps created by reductions in paid staff, in response to local authority cuts arising from the Conservative Government’s austerity measures. This article builds on an initial phase of research reported in a previous article from 2015, which examined library service managers’ views of volunteering in public libraries using a Delphi study method. The second phase of research uses a case study method to investigate a variety of stakeholder views regarding public library volunteer use, using interviews, focus groups and surveys, thereby providing a complex picture of understandings and meanings. Results indicate that there is a clear mismatch of opinions relating to this phenomenon, in addition to a number of unintended consequences, directly attributable to the challenges identified. Key consequences of volunteer use relate to social exclusion, reductions in service accountability and quality, and a blurring of the boundaries that exist within the library, causing tensions for all stakeholders. Formal and informal strategies for ensuring these consequences are minimized are vital for library professionals who may be managing these volunteers, and a carefully planned volunteer relationship management strategy is suggested, which underpins the volunteer use equation, ensuring a mutually beneficial arrangement for all. A series of key recommendations are discussed that may help to counter some of the challenges identified, and provide a possible way forward for library professionals having to deal with this complex situation.

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