Volunteers Are Not Employees

Here’s a cool speech by Philip Pullman trying to save the public library system in Britain:

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does [Keith Mitchell, leader of the county council] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves?

And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way?

If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

I spent six months last year volunteering at an asylum center, and I can say with certainty that volunteers are not a remotely adequate replacement for full-time, paid staff. Promoting altruism is a nice thing for governments to do, but suggesting that volunteers be given responsibilities over people and property is a recipe for some janky-ass libraries.

It’s also unrealistic and exploitative, and seems rather drastically unsound, economically speaking. I mean, isn’t the way out of an unemployment crisis to have more people getting paid to do stuff, rather than just the latter?


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