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