As a long-term library campaigner and public speaker, and thanks to this social media thing, I have a lot of contact with library workers. For some reason people feel comfortable talking to me, and this may be because I have been very outspoken about library cuts and the many unsustainable schemes that local authorities are using to cast off their responsibilities.
One of the things that library workers contact me about is something that I find very worrying indeed – gagging. With the rise of so-called “community libraries” and the decimation of the workforce we are now left with an uneasy silence from the thousands of remaining library workers. Many campaigners are occasionally frustrated by the apparent lack of support from frontline library workers, but there is a deeply worrying reason for this. A year ago I had three or four library workers contact me to tell me that they were not allowed to speak about their situation at work, this year that has risen to three or four people a week saying the same thing. Last week I had twelve different library workers contact me about gagging restrictions. Many have taken to creating anonymised accounts on social media so that they can let off steam. I personally know of people who have lost their jobs due to “speaking out of turn” and many more who are too afraid to say anything at all. They feel that their grip on their job is so fragile that if they “get a reputation as a moaner” they will not have their contracts renewed, or they will be first in line for redundancies.
Here is a tiny little snapshot of some of the messages I’ve received –
“I’ve had two warnings about my public support for library campaigns. I can’t risk a third.”
“We’ve all been told that if we moan about the council in public we’ll be sacked.”
“My library users know that there’s something wrong, but we can’t tell them that half of us are being made redundant. We don’t know which of us will go yet so we are all petrified that anything we say wrong will be held against us.”
“They keep bringing in new changes, and more work, and longer hours for no more money but we’re expected to feel grateful we have a job and have been told we are banned from speaking in public about anything to do with the library.’
“I’m overseeing a group of volunteers, but I was a library assistant not a manager. Now I’m expected to be a manager and I’m paid no more and it’s awful. They all treat me like crap but I can’t say a thing about it.”
“We’ve been told that we’re not allowed to communicate with any of the people protesting about cuts to our library.”
“I had a formal warning when my line-manager saw my name on a petition about library cuts.”
“I’d have more protection if I was a whistleblower than just a person grumbling about how poorly people are treated in my local library.”
“I’m less than half the age of the people I”m expected to manage, and they all hate me and ignore everything I say. I had a moan about it on twitter and had a formal warning about it. I’m working alone and feel as if I’ve been cast adrift alone.”
“We have a meeting every week where we’re all reminded not to moan about anything to anyone outside the library. It’s bullying, but we’re too afraid to say anything. I need my job.”
All of this worries me greatly, and in my opinion this is deeply unethical. It also masks the depth of the pressure that library workers are under. Library workers who are too afraid to be honest about their situation hinders campaigns, but I completely understand why they would not want to say anything, or sign anything. I was a union rep for a long time and, frankly, nothing that staff are doing should constitute formal whistleblowing and talking about the realities of your job should be allowed. Local authorities are literally using fear to silence the libraries.
So, the next time you wonder why the staff from your local library are not speaking out, it’s probably because they are not allowed to. If you can, speak for them and be noisy on their behalf. When you talk about how amazing your public libraries are, and the huge difference they have made to your life, talk about the workers. These are the people who follow a set of ethical principles. These are the professionals with the skills and experience to give you exactly what you need from your library, and they make it look easy when it is far from that.
It’s never just been about bricks, or books, it’s always been about people. Without the library workers your libraries would be nothing more than a badly organised room with books in.
Take the time to speak out for, and thank, a library worker.
Dawn Finch is a trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and chair of the CILIP Ethics Committee. She is also a member of the Society of Author’s Childrens and Writers Illustrators Group committee (CWIG)
Footnote – if you are a gagged library worker and would like an anonymous platform to speak out against what is happening to you, drop me a line. I am happy to host your comments here and will promise to protect your identity.