Public libraries – a service not a cost centre

Last year, I was introduced to someone at a party by a nursing colleague from work like this…

“This is Andy, he’s my librarian”

She went on to tell her friend that without my help she wouldn’t have got her first in her nursing degree. I did go on to say that it was probably mostly all her hard work and studying that contributed to the degree, but I did help out when she did research stuff… and I was only doing my job.

But that was possibly one of the proudest moments of my professional career, only witnessed by my wife and a couple of people. And I know that there are similar instances in those working in libraries where their working experience has made a difference to someone else’s life.

What I am now seeing now is people not appreciating all the hard work and dedication that library staff are contributing daily to people’s lives. And these people are our political masters and key employers of library staff. Staff are a cost line in a financial report. Where as staff work for a library service, politicians see the library as a building with books and electronic resources coming from it.

The public library service does not work in isolation of one building in a community, but is a vast community of libraries with library staff working together to help people within the United Kingdom wherever they are. The public are served by people trained to really define what information they actually want and provide it to them.

It is a service. It has been developed over many years of endeavor by many professional and full time employed library staff. They have established excellent public collections of information resources both through co-operation with colleagues and through development and policies established by the Library Association and now CILIP .  And these public collections and information resources have been accessed by the public through the service provided by library staff – who deserve to be paid for their time and dedication. The library isn’t just James Patterson and Agatha Christie – but that’s what a lot of local politicians still think it is.

In many communities across Britain, one of the few communal institutions still remain as the pubs and post offices close. That is the public library.  Politicians looking to save money know that closing public libraries is a very emotive issue. They now plead poverty and “offer” these libraries to their local community with just enough funding to service the building and add a few books. They look to the community to provide the daily service – which in real terms means volunteers.

In basic terms someone who likes to do something without being paid is an amateur. I question not their commitment… but the more this solution is enabled the less the need for fully trained professional staff to staff the public library service. It is a threat to our profession and we should fight it with all our might.

Andy Richardson

CILIP Member