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Yes and no

My sincere answer is, “Yes, of course, and no, never.”

A HOT TOPIC among library professionals has been whether libraries are allowed to use voluntary staff. Both the Library Association and its Chairman have been asked to outline their points of view on the issue. The Finnish Library Association has given its opinion, and I try to give mine here.

It is, however, difficult, and my sincere answer is, “Yes, of course, and no, never.”

THOSE WHO participated the IFLA conference in Singaporehad an opportunity to visit a library maintained by a Buddhist Temple and run by volunteers. The library, located in the historic Chinatown district, had already been closed down once, but the Temple and the volunteers managed to restore the meeting place for the use of local residents.

WOULD IT HAVE BEEN better if the library had been closed down for good? Surely not. People should have put pressure on the decision makers, mount the barricades and write critical articles in newspapers. This is what we would have done here in Finland.

WELL, the difference between Finland and Singapore is that we have what is called democracy. In Singapore, meetings of more than six people require a permission, and the press is, to a certain degree, under censorship. Besides, the unemployment rate in Singapore is 2-3 percent, whereas in Finland it is about 8 percent. In Finland, the newly graduated often have work in temporary jobs for several years before they find permanent employment. In the worst case, they graduate into unemployment. In other words, In Singapore, volunteers do not take jobs from professionals. Nor do they in Finland, but people are worried.

THEREFORE, we do not need volunteers, do we?

MAYBE, we don’t. It may as well be that municipalities will make cuts anyway, and some sort of civic activity would help keep the usage rate of libraries at least at a moderate level.

THIS, however, involves two fundamental problems. The job-security periods after the first municipal merger round in Finland have expired, and, for instance, the City of Kouvola has announced a 10 percent overall personnel cut. In a situation like this, it would be madness to send a signal that libraries can be managed by volunteers.

BESIDES, Finnish library professionals are highly qualified, and I fully understand if they resent the idea of having people with no proper qualifications working in libraries.

PEOPLE have a very narrow understanding of library professionals’ competencies, and this also applies to municipal decision makers. It is partly because general perception and understanding of what libraries do has not changed since the 1970s, and partly because people only see a small part of the work done in libraries.

I DO NOT find it impossible that in certain cases active citizens could help libraries expand their service offering, increase their usage rates and open their doors to e.g. meetings.

Case by case, however, and considering carefully what the consequences may be.