A long and barely coherent library rant: librarians…find positions of power!

I have a lot of respect and admiration for library campaigners. They are, in my opinion, pretty much spot on with regards to much of what they say regarding volunteers, open access, internet privacy and the running of libraries. I regularly catch up with events and debates over on social media and often follow conference papers and/or slides. Great organisations such as Voices for the Library and Speak Up for Libraries do important work in promoting library awareness and raising issues. Some vocal individuals do some awesome work, such as Ian Anstice with his Public Library News. Others advocate internet freedoms and the removal of blocks and filters on library computers or using Tor, for example. I’m no activist, but I commend them all. CILIP on the other hand have been less than vocal about the decline in library services. There most recent statement of concerns on their website is from 2011. [Note: for more recent information and campaigning from CILIP, see the comments from Nicholas Poole in the comments section below, and I think Nick for his input and clarification.]

Libraries, as have been noted by the folks involved in campaigning and awareness are, and should always be, a force for good in society. They allow those who wouldn’t normally have access to stuff – books, internet, newspapers, skilled information professional in some regions – free and unquestioning access. As was noted at the recent CILIP 2016 conference, libraries can help with injustices in society. Of course, this is changing, with libraries blocking some internet services, and the likes of Google and Facebook editing the information that should be freely available. Open access is another debate entirely, but many libraries can get information that is behind paywalls (or otherwise unobtainable) for a small additional fee (ILLs are £4 in Kent, or at least they were in 2011). The idea of encouraging business such as Barclays into the libraries is scary. If libraries are to provide safe and neutral spaces, corporations (whose agendas whatever they say, is about maximising profits) can only provide a bias service. A Barclays Digital Eagles can never give unbiased advice on your financial education, for example.

I believe a librarian should have a primary mission: to provide the information seeker with the information that they seek whatever that may be and wherever it is housed. Additionally, as ALA said in 2015, a librarian should provide the public with an “understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.”

I’m not convinced librarians should be overtly political. We need to be aware of bias and not force our own on those who we help. We need to be aware, however, of what is occurring in the world and react accordingly. We should never be a censor.

I worked in a public library between 2006 and 2011 and I’m now an academic library manager. I worked in Kent, managing public libraries across the district, but mainly in Canterbury. At the time, there weren’t that many librarians in the county – I estimate somewhere between 10 and 20 (memory fades) – and there are even less now (I still have friends who work there and I know about the cuts). There were, when I left, 99 public libraries in Kent. Very few librarians were public facing. One librarian often covered two districts, around 9 or 10 libraries. Everyone else was a Customer Service Officer (library manager) or Customer Support Assistant (library assistant). Hurrah for neo-liberalism, right? Almost everyone I worked with had no library qualifications. Some didn’t read books for pleasure. It was just a job. This means two things. Firstly, that they are more likely to buy into management rhetoric and neoliberalism without understanding the issues. Secondly, they cannot understand the nature of the information they are providing, in context with definitions of information literacy frameworks. The outcome is that they are not librarians and therefore not able to provide the service a librarian could. And hence seen by some as replaceable by volunteers. I suspect this is a deliberate policy of dumbing down and replacement by councils.

As an experienced librarian, I only use libraries to get books for me (very rarely are they on the shelves). I used Kent libraries to pass my PGCHE, and I read fiction that I don’t want to buy. I don’t need a library but I still want to use one. Much of society needs a library, but I think it’s just as important that those of us who don’t need one, still use one. I’m not going to ask for help with research, because I don’t need that. But I also know that most of the front of house staff couldn’t help either.

Recently, Elizabeth Elford of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), said that “there will be fewer public libraries when we come out the other side, but they will be better and more innovative.” Since 2010 343 libraries have closed and a further 174 moved away from council control to management by community groups. This has meant that 8,000 jobs have been removed, mine included (although I was replaced, the role of the person who got my job was not replaced). There’s been a lot of talk about volunteers replacing library staff. First and foremost, this is wrong. In practice, it is not such a big leap of the imagination and I can understand why councils do this. As I’ve said, if library staff are predominantly untrained assistants and managers, replacing them seems straight forward. However, it is my opinion that a proper library should be staffed by librarians, and these are not so easy to replace with volunteers. When SCL are backing cuts, what hope does a library campaigner have?

In recent years, as I’ve been keeping on top of developments in the library world and as I’ve been teaching undergraduates about library skills and critical thinking (I have no library qualifications, but a science-based MSc and a PGCHE), I’ve been pondering the public’s perception of libraries.

It was a whole lot better back in the day. Before I joined Kent, they had a local studies librarian and a reference librarian, amongst other professionals. The IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto 1994 included such statements as “facilitating the development of information and computer literacy skills” and “facilitating the development of information and computer literacy skills” as well as promoting reading in the young and “providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts”. I ask, who in a modern public library can do these things? There aren’t staff capable of teaching these literacy skills and the idea of a children’s librarian is a joke. When I worked in Kent, we all had to do everything. We all sat on the reference desk and we all sat on the enquiries desk. We all managed class visits and we worked in the local studies collection. There were no specialisms and none were encouraged. Quite the opposite. When I arranged to teach the public how to use the internet for job searching and CV writing, no members of the public turned up. Why would they? (I’ve since completed a post-graduate teaching qualification – maybe they would now!)

Most people think public libraries are a good thing. Yet why are they in decline? An Ipsos Mori poll, published in a Carnegie report by Liz Macdonald states that in all the nations of the UK, more than 70% of respondents thought that libraries were either essential or very important to the community. Yet usage is declining.

Some research into public libraries from 2014. So visits are on a general decline. Nothing unexpected here (click images to open larger in new window).

Visits to public libraries

Consider what the campaigners and advocates think public libraries should be about: information literacy training, free access to unbiased information, studying environments, etc. Now, consider the public perception of libraries. It’s a little different. Books, local studies and photocopier/printers are seen as more important than skills training:

Importance of service

And when asked about how the public have interacted with staff, it’s even more damning:

Helped by staff

Is usage declining because service levels are dropping and access to librarians is becoming harder, or is the reverse true? There is no control group so we can never really be sure. But why would a person in need go into a library when they would not get expert help?

The UK Government published an independent report into libraries in 2014 which laughably said “Libraries are, let us not forget, a golden thread throughout our lives.” How is that possible when libraries are not, and have not been for many years, staffed and funded properly? Two years later and the aims of this taskforce are far from being met, with the exception of getting more community run libraries in place. As usual with these things, the report is bluster. Something to placate those campaigners who believe the government should be doing more.

So, my message is that library campaigners are more than likely just yelling into an echo chamber. The people running libraries and hence making the decisions on budgets and services aren’t listening. They produce reports and taskforces but they don’t listen to information professionals. People in councils who are the budget holders and policy makers care little for libraries and see them as a way of saving money. After-all, we can all afford Kindles and smartphones and books from Tesco, right? As with most people in power, they miss the point of what a library needs to be to the less powerful. Because they don’t need one, why should anyone else? It is my volition that the only way to change public libraries for the better is for the library campaigners and advocates to rise to positions of power within councils. Only then can they influence policy on a fundamental level. I’d hoped to achieve this goal, but then they took my job away and forced me to become a registrar of births and deaths (well done, Kent County Council), a job I couldn’t do, and therefore I left.

I think libraries should be about two things:

  1. Of course society changes and libraries should change with them. However, in an information economy, surely now more than ever, libraries should be a safe place where people can learn about information literacy and how to use it safely and ethically. Libraries, therefore, need to be staffed with skilled information professionals who can teach – either 1-2-1 or in workshops – the general public.
  2. A place where books and online information are freely available, uncensored and free of bias. Books should fill all cultural requirements and the internet should not be filtered or monitored (which is a complex task, because protection from illegality needs to be in place). And as I said, many users don’t need a library, but like to use one. But the books available shouldn’t just be the latest best sellers or prize winners designed to get the middle class reading groups in just to boost issue numbers. For access to information to be achieved, policy makers, key influencers and decision-makers need to understand the information and book worlds as librarians do.

Other people are more eloquent than I am about the reasons why libraries matter. Read “The time of the library is now” by the aforementioned Ian Anstice.

Our world is changing. Information and networks, and access to them both, are more important than ever. There are those on all sides who would take away our civil liberties. Politicians (and councillors) and religious leaders think they are better than us, and can make decisions on what we think about because they know better. In these times, libraries and librarians should be so very important. Any wonder why they are in decline?

I continue to support my local library, as should you. I will continue to borrow books. I don’t need a library as the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in society do. And even those who can afford books, shouldn’t feel like they have to buy them if they are available at the library. I would encourage campaigners and activists to seek out positions of power and influence or the end might come sooner rather than later and there’ll be nothing we can do to stop it.

I’m a librarian. I’m here to help.


10 thoughts on “A long and barely coherent library rant: librarians…find positions of power!

  1. Swindon’s public libraries have been moved to reside under ‘StreetSmart’ alongside recycling, grass-cutting and streetlamps, etc. This is a radical change in the status of the statutory service.

    It means, to my thinking, that our Library Service is equated in the public mind with waste and other miscellany, NOT education, literacy, information and wellbeing. It also means that our Librarians and trained staff are relegated to purveying a service that is perceived to be undervalued by the council. In turn, that means that the public could cease to value it, with dire consequences for all.

    I wish that CILIP leaders might have protested or challenged this insulting relegation. But to date, I believe, it has passed without comment.

    1. Thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read my post. Sounds bad in Swindon. Each authority appears to have its own strategy for devaluing the service. Once it’s devalued enough, I imagine the powers that be will try to remove the statutory provision.

      1. Campaigners won’t give up quietly but, yes, you are right. In two days’ time, so-called ‘consultation’ concludes on 11 public libraries to be completely divested to volunteers .. who would not even be supplied with books anyway. But, if no-one comes forward to ‘run’ them, they will all be closed. The council plans to retain three other libraries, but they’ll have their staffed hours cut from 50+ to only 15/week. The central library will stay, but also with fewer staffed hours. The south and east of the Town will have no professional provision whatsoever. It’s a disaster and the council is, I’m told, on very thin ice as far as compliance with s.7 of the 1964 Act. The tragedy is that we have a VERY GOOD professional library service here and people use it and love it.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and there is much of value here. However, I would point out that it is not accurate to say that CILIP’s last position statement on this was 2011. For the past 18 months, we have been running a national campaign called #MyLibraryByRight (www.mylibrarybyright.org.uk) based on legal advice received concerning the interpretation of the 1964 Public Libraries Act, which has included expressions of solidarity and support, direct engagement with policymakers and engagement in campaigns (see for example my address to the 2015 Speak Up for Libraries conference – http://www.cilip.org.uk/news/speak-libraries-speech-nick-poole). It has also involved a fair amount of direct engagement with Local Authorities about specific decisions and proposals. There is (much) more we can and will do, including some useful current discussions with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but I thought I should clarify the point! FWIW, we have also announced a joint campaign on Privacy and Libraries with the Carnegie UK Trust, which builds on our response to the Investigatory Powers Bill. This doesn’t invalidate your excellent post, but I felt I ought to point it out!

    1. Hi Nick and many for your comments and clarifications and also for taking the time to read my post.
      I took the information from Advocacy and campaigns section of the CILIP website. I’ve been aware of the #MyLibraryByRight campaign which I wholeheartedly support. Great stuff. Maybe the CILIP site needs updating, as it does look like the most recent statement was this one: http://www.cilip.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/A%20CILIP%20STATEMENT%20ON%20THE%20POSITION%20OF%20THE%20PUBLIC%20LIBRARY%20SERVICE%20IN.pdf
      I’m pleased that you posted some information and links so any readers can find more recent information. I’ll add an update to the post.
      Accuracy is of course what we should all strive for!
      Thanks again and glad you liked it!

  3. Excellent article. Thanks for the kind comments about me and http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com on the site. Library campaigners have successfully brought of the deep cuts to public libraries to the public. In this, we are pushing against an open door with the media: I often get asked exactly how many have closed, how many jobs lost etc.

    What the media are far less interested in are the reasons why public libraries are still important. And, without that narrative, many decision makers and voters just shrug when they hear about the cut. That is going to take a lot of effort and combined work by many people, or a lot of money. One of the other. At the moment, we have no money and what should be the propagandising individuals (and organisations e.g. compare Voices for the Library with SCL for the two extremes) are often in disagreement with eachother. That needs to stop but that is easier said than done.

    By the way, it IS possible to do a control on had the impact on library usage: cuts or other factors. One simply has to look abroad.

    For example

    New Zealand in 2009/10 had total library costs of NZ$ 254,731,130 and total issues of 54,773,664 with.total visits 37,009,606. Fast forward to 2014/15 and their costs were NZ$324,036,766 (259,930,157 inflation adjusted) with total issues of 41,723,822 and total visits 32,652,133 and online visits 18,721,206. So library budgets have stayed pretty much the same in NZ but they’ve had a deep decline in book issues and a notable reduction in physical visits. (Figures are from my own research, asking their national organisations – I’ve got Portugal, Spain and a few others as well, all showing similar).

    So it’s not just the budget. It’s other factors, probably including e-books and smartphones. What’s notable, though, is that NZ still have wonderfully buoyant go-ahead librarians and few Kiwis would say their libraries are in decline. The narrative there is far more positive. They’ve done this by not obviously closing a lot and still having top-notch libraries. That increase in online visits is something to weigh against the physical decline too.

    Hope this is of interest.

    Ian Anstice

    1. Ian, many thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post. Thanks also for the information on NZ. Interesting for sure. Sounds like a lot of effort on your part in your research too! Definitely something to think about.
      What surprises me about the media is that there are always stories about privacy and online security – exactly the kinds of things libraries could be helping with, but there’s no equating of the two…
      All we can do is persevere I guess.

      1. Perseverance has its points but I much prefer success. I have been impressed by the political lobbying that libraries do in the US and it would be great if we could do something here.

  4. Let me provide a bit of grit in this librarian oyster!

    As you say in your piece – isn’t there a problem joining up what some professional librarians want public libraries to be and what the public actually wants. How many of the public are longing to “learn about information literacy and how to use it safely and ethically”? Not many I suspect. Are the public wrong?

    The public would I’m sure agree with the thrust of your second point i.e. libraries must provide a good stock offer with plenty of depth. But if that is not happening then that is surely something that those in charge of the stock (librarians) need to put right. Also haven’t you got the point about policy makers the wrong way round – it is not for policy makers to see things the way librarians do – it is for the librarians to provide brilliant libraries which the public want to use. Then it will be self-evident to policymakers that libraries are a vital resource. I appreciate this is easier said than done in the current financial climate.

    The real problem at the moment is that the public are giving up on public libraries. The public library offer simply isn’t good enough. Professional librarians need to focus on that rather than complaining that the world doesn’t understand them.

    1. Many thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

      To respond. Although Ian A (above) provides some evidence from New Zealand, we can never really know, as I’ve said, if the library service is declining because the public isn’t using it, or if they’re not using because it’s getting worse.

      Public may not think they need to understand info lit, because its an abstract concept, but when you hear stories of ID fraud, privacy issues and the recent Brexit campaign, it is clear that they do need it. I think the public are wrong, but that’s because that’s what they’ve been sold. People think that Google or Facebook has the answer and aren’t imaginative or critical enough to question that. I teach IL to students and even some lecturers and colleagues where I work, and they’re not aware of many of the issues surrounding IL.

      I know a stock librarian and they don’t have the freedom to buy as you suggest. Guidelines and budgets are set by others, and those are only interested in issues and visits.

      Agree, that in many cases libraries should improve, but librarians are in no position at all to enforce that.

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