Monday, August 30, 2010

Surviving in the Land of Negative Negative Consequences.

The genius that is the New York Times concludes that some library jobs are better left to volunteers. And the money saved from transferring those jobs to volunteers might create additional positions for other essential jobs, like garbage collectors.

In some ways, librarians (and libraries) are garbage collectors, but I won't get into that right now.

Librarians are not teachers. We are not doctors. We are not lawyers. We are not auto mechanics. We are not accountants. We are not politicians. We are not...

So I understand what the NYT is saying. Library workers are not essential workers, so what universally ethical dilemma exists if some are replaced by volunteers? If a volunteer shelves a book in the wrong place, no one dies. Nobody goes to jail. Traffic still moves; ships sail; planes fly. Librarians help people find information, but most people don't really need what they were looking for, anyway. So yes, volunteers can do some library work.

What a volunteer represents to a community is savings. I say, short-term savings. The NYT says, "it would be unfortunate if this upsurge of civic virtue [the volunteer] resulted in only a tiny reduction in some people’s property taxes,.." But that's exactly what happens. Read stories on what libraries actually cost and you'll see just how little money is saved at the expense of forcing some bright people out of their jobs.

What does buying a full-time employee mean to society? For one thing, if that employee fails to show up for work, she doesn't get paid. So at the very least, there's an economic incentive for the paid employee to be there to help you.

What of the volunteer? There is no incentive other than that they like to help and that there might be a party with cake for all the volunteers at the end of the year. But volunteers have no real obligation to show up. What are you going to do? Fire them? Tell them that their voluntary services are no longer required? Then what? You have a hole in your staffing. Some tasks that were too menial for regular staff to do now need to be done by your professional staff. So that job which formerly was performed for $9 an hour that was then taken over by the volunteer is now going to be done by the $18 an hour professional.

The whole point of using volunteers is mutual beneficence: the library gets free labor and the volunteer gets personal satisfaction from trading their time for purposefulness. But when those volunteers cause library employees to lose their jobs, then how welcome will their future help be in the library?

Volunteers still need to be trained. And that training comes from those professional librarians. And that training is provided with no promise or obligation from the volunteer for any specific length of service. If the library hires a new employee, there is also no promise of service, but the paycheck is the carrot and the incentive to come back for more.

So no, librarians are not brain surgeons and yes, there are some jobs that could be done by your uncle Lester who got kicked in the head by a mule when he was nine. So there are no real consequences to the library for using a few volunteers. Until they all get spooked by the behavior they witness and you need to train a whole new batch.

But I wonder about your community when you lose your librarians because you had the bright idea to replace some jobs with volunteers. I like to think that librarians make good neighbors. They're relatively clean; they vote; they give to charity; shop locally; they're open-minded, mostly; they plant things and nurture their growth.

When I look around my library at the perverts we report to the cops, the loud and possibly dangerous people we wish would find some other place to go, and all the new books, CDs and DVDs that arrive each day, frankly, I would be suspicious of anyone who wanted to volunteer here.