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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Volunteers: the Good and the Bad

It would be really tempting to find this article depressing. It’s about a large volunteer effort to get books into Philadelphia schools that no longer have librarians or adequate libraries by cannibalizing the books from some of the two dozen schools the city closed this year, that apparently also didn’t have librarians or adequate libraries.

Thirty boxes of books went to one school library, many of which were decades old or in very bad shape. Fortunately, the previous library had preserved some 45rpm records for the kind volunteers to toss out. The cutting edge of audio playback technology circa 1950.

Sure, this could all be depressing. Poor schools, poor libraries, no librarians. Then of course we can take the rosier view: plenty of volunteers are using their precious time to make sure that schoolkids get some sort of access to books, because access to books is important for kids, or something.

And volunteering is a good thing, especially at schools. I’ve heard that parental involvement in schools is an important indicator of student success. I haven’t tried to verify that with actual facts, but a very diligent and extroverted mother on a train once assured me that was so.

If that’s true, then this is even better. It’s parents plus volunteers! I didn’t see anything about parents, so maybe this isn’t parents plus volunteers, but at least it’s the volunteers.

And if volunteers are important for schools, then the more of them we have the better, right? So Philadelphia is closing schools and school libraries and cutting back support staff. That’s okay, we just need more volunteers.

Next, maybe the various cities around the country who have decided school libraries aren’t that important could also start cutting other stuff, like teachers. Sure, teachers are sort of important to schools, but I’d wager that if the higher ups in educational administration had the choice between cutting their jobs or salaries or firing teachers, the teachers would just have to go. It’s only fair.

Besides, those teachers could just be replaced with volunteers. Just as students don’t seem to need a librarian in the library, or a room full of old books and 45s, or whatever, they don’t really need teachers in the classroom. After all, what is teaching but taking a lesson plan geared toward standardized tests and telling students to study for the tests.

Heck, you don’t need teachers for that. The whole thing could probably be done with a grade-school MOOC if the schools involved didn’t have computers that needed to be “coaxed” back to life.

But the poorer schools would have to go old school, maybe with VHS tapes playing lessons from the standard curriculum based on the exams. They would probably be supporting the exams of the 1980s, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The volunteers could helpfully switch on the TVs and VHS players, rewind the tapes, pound on the machines when things got stuck, and explain to the students what a “tape player” is, assuming they’re old enough to know.

Then they could mock old people by pretending they couldn’t program the VCRs, just like all those clever comedians used to do.

Most schools have administrators who help administrate, but even this could be taken over by volunteers. Volunteers need organizing, and who better to organize them than other volunteers! It only makes sense.

Then there’s the property. One volunteer donated $205,000 to make sure that one school library in Philadelphia stayed open. Why just volunteer to pay for staff? Why not for the buildings as well?

Volunteers could buy the school buildings back from the city, creating much needed city revenue. Maybe they could even get a tax break. The buildings could be maintained by volunteers, with maybe one rich person per school writing off the few overhead costs on their taxes.

Then we would finally have dream schools, at least for people who think public education and libraries are evil socialism, schools that don’t take any public money, or force that darn “government education” on their students, or force their students to be in proximity to offensive books in the school library.

Or maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea. Even the volunteers are worried they won’t be able to sustain the libraries, which would make their current enterprise ultimately fruitless, and the availability of volunteers might make some politicians less likely to support basic infrastructure if the effort was successful and sustainable.

Volunteers: damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Regardless, it’s sure not a good time for poor school libraries and the students who need them.



  1. I think this points to a confusion that school boards and administrators have regarding the future of books, technology and basic needs. This is all the more distressing in lieu of the push for Common Core – an academic program which stressing reading titles that most libraries don’t even carry.

    Perhaps we have come full circle where we need a Carnegie Mellon to change the world once more.

  2. “I haven’t tried to verify that with actual facts” – this seems to be a common theme for AL.

    • Irritable, aren’t we?

      Relax, I’m sure the AL will put her staff of ace reporters on it straight away. Parental involvement in schools is clearly a top concern at the Library Journal and we need to get to the bottom of these facts as quickly as possible.

  3. I know you think this is satire, but some of that has been proposed as a serious suggestion in my town. There was a recent referendum to provide funding for the local schools to ensure 20% of the teachers weren’t cut. An opponent to the referendum suggested that instead of paying $40 extra every year, everyone in town could just volunteer at the schools for a day. Because kids are sure to learn when they have 180 different teachers for a class. Hundreds of people thought that was a great idea. The referendum didn’t pass, so I’m looking forward to their putting their plan into action. Can’t wait to see what I get to teach for a day!

  4. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    The bad thing is that I’ve heard taxpayers locally give these grand ideas pride of place which is why policing got cut severely in one community, one of the local libraries is stuck waiting for the official canvas report on 2013-11-26 to see whether it succeeded or not since its unofficial levy issue victory margin was only 60 votes, and one school district has had to reduce the school day again & services offered to students to just barely above state mandated minimums. It isn’t as if the people are actually dirt poor as local car dealers report automobiles being bought and paid for in cash without any financing. The notion of paying for common goods is becoming increasingly foreign here.

    You’ll give me nightmares relative to that levy campaign I’m working on for a local agency.

  5. Somebody famous said, the poor will always be with us. Why is it they are the ones who always get the shaft? As for volunteers, I admire anyone who gives freely of their time…especially in public libraries.

  6. Nancy Radler says:

    I have three children who are almost out of school and I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I don’t have to worry about whether my children will be afforded a good education or not. And I live in a relatively wealthy area of the country where the taxpayers routinely vote to fund public education (a northern suburb of Chicago). I am also, by happenstance, finally earning my MLS in Library & Information Science. I initially intended to become a school librarian, but was so discouraged by the devaluation of currency in the field (and the hoops I’d be forced to jump through in this state without an education degree) that I have changed my focus to academic libraries. I’d like to know if there is some way to advocate for stronger public schools and libraries besides with my vote. Anyone have any ideas? A March on Washington?

  7. I worked in Mental Health in the fair state of MI and seriously one time the governor decided (about 18 years ago or so) that he could replace all the workers, or most of them with volunteers..he hired some psychiatrist to look into it…before long the plan was scrapped and so was the new hire. Unfortunately the governor stayed …Been there done that.

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