Every day we see a slew of reports and opinions about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment. PPE has entered our vocabularies in a way that none of us anticipated and everyone seems to have an opinion on why we should, or shouldn’t, be using it. The debate heats up daily and it is clear that the confusion about its use has spread into our lives and is leading to mico-aggressions. I’ve been insulted and mocked for wearing a mask and have been bullied by people coming too close to me and invading my personal space.
We are moving rapidly towards the reopening of more public and shared spaces like libraries, community buildings and schools and this has raised the discussion about the “need” for PPE. Many organisations and employers are carefully picking over the evidence about how effective PPE really is, but are they asking the right questions?
Over many decades we have seen improvements to working spaces and practices that are designed to make the quality of our working lives better. Thanks to persistent campaigning by unions and good employers (and enlightened MPs) many bad or discriminatory practices have been removed and replaced with ones more suited to supporting the real needs of employees. We still have a very long way to go, but overall we have seen a steady pattern of improvement in working practices and in the spaces in which we work. Many of these improvements have been ostensibly small, but have made huge positive differences to employees.
CV-19 is not going anywhere and we should accept that any workplace changes we make now may need to be in place for years. The long period of furlough and isolation has left us all feeling confused and scared. Most of us are grieving, or scared, or vulnerable, or shielding, and are now worried that we will have to step back into the world of work as if nothing happened. There is a significant risk of not taking these mental and physical health issues seriously. When we ask “is PPE effective against the virus?” employers are actually asking the wrong question. What they should be asking is, “what do my employees need to feel safe enough to return to work?”
Yes, this may well be costly (and this is why we need to campaign for Government support for this equipment) but that is almost irrelevant. Once upon a time, it was costly to remove asbestos from workplaces, or to install fire escapes and fire safety equipment, but everyone would agree that this was absolutely necessary to ensure safety. I remember the huge upheaval and expense of installing fire safety equipment in one of the buildings in which I worked. That was over thirty years ago and that equipment has never once been used, but if it was ever needed it would save many lives and it made us all feel safer working there. If the argument is only about cost, then this should be clear. If it’s about money, say it’s about money and don’t try to say it’s about what’s right for your staff. Going around and around in circles examining conflicting reports about the effectiveness of PPE is doing workers a disservice because it ignores one key question – “would PPE help you to feel safe at work?”
This is the most important question of all. People are scared, and with everything that has happened over the last few months those fears are deep and real and to ignore them is to throw out all the good work we have done to recognise issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Repeatedly telling your workers that they are wrong and that their fears are not valid is bullying, and it dismisses all the progress that has been done to push back against bullying in the workplace.
We need to stop asking, “is PPE necessary?” If PPE makes employees feel safe in the workplace as well as supporting their mental health and wellbeing, it’s absolutely necessary.
We all know the answer to this question, right? Sadly, it seems not. Even the briefest scan through recent articles in mainstream media shows that there is definitely a skewed understanding of what a PUBLIC library actually is.
At its most basic level, a library is a curated collection of books and other materials. Of course this does not fit when we add the word “public” to “library.” This is where things need a bit more explanation.
Wikipedia does quite a neat job of explaining the basics of what a public library is. It says this
“A public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is generally funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants.”
I think that rather neatly sums it up, although I hate the term “paraprofessionals” as it sort of implies that library workers are only acting sort-of-alongside professionalism. It’s rare for me to meet an unprofessional library worker. Journalists take note – if you want to talk about libraries, talk about library workers.
I would also add to that Wikipedia description -“forming part of the statutory public library provision for the local authority as per the regulations relating to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.”
Many people still don’t grasp that their local authority has a statutory obligation to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” public library service. To fail to do so is to fail in compliance with the regulations. Frankly it is also robbing you! You have paid for these libraries in your council tax – it is literally your right to have that library. It’s not a nice extra, it is a statutory requirement.
I find that many articles about public libraries fail to mention or understand the key elements that make public libraries great, and so here is an article to help anyone writing about them, and a few suggestions of what NOT to say.
Libraries are expensive?
From DCMS Libraries Deliver report – link to full document below
Wrong. In fact evidence supported by the Government shows that libraries actually return roughly five times whatever is invested in them. ACE carried out some research that showed the public library service even saves the NHS money. A lot of money. In fact roughly 27.5 million pounds a year.
A public library does things that nothing else in a community does the same way, from parent groups to adult mental health support. It does this in an informal and casual setting that most people find more welcoming than formalised support groups. No need for appointments or awkward and uncomfortable meetings with “officials”, just drop in. This means that countless vulnerable people are able to cope and carry on living alone because they know that they have somewhere they feel safe and can turn to.
That phrase “feel safe” is very important. Public opinion states that library users generally trust library workers, and that trust should never be undervalued. It takes a decade to build loyalty and trust in any organisation, and five uncomfortable minutes to lose it forever. Library users often talk of feeling safe in libraries, that is absolutely essential to protect. Lack of investment and diminishing professional staffing reduces the feeling of safety.
Councils have no money, so it’s either libraries or children’s services.
Wrong, but let me explain why. There is no doubt that decades of mismanagement and poor spending decisions have left local authorities with debt and significant funding gaps. Swingeing austerity cuts have also left deep wounds in many aspects of local govt services, but this has meant that local authorities are using emotional blackmail to excuse closing libraries. People need to understand that cutting libraries IS cutting children’s services. It is also cutting mental health services, services to the elderly, services to the vulnerable, the unemployed, the lonely, the disenfranchised, and refugees. The only place in our communities that can (and should) serve all of these people, all people, without bias or judgement is the local library. When you cut libraries, you cut services to the most vulnerable people in society.
What really makes a library great?
This one is easy. What makes a library great is not the building, or the books, but it is always the library workers. The people who daily make a commitment to support the needs of their users and their whole community. It is essential that these people are paid a fair wage, and that they are well trained and that their role is appreciated and understood. Library workers should all be following a set of clearly defined ethical principles, and they should be paid, insured, and protected by their local authorities. Without library workers, it’s not a library, it’s just a room with books in.
Stop focusing only on the “rosy glow”.
So many articles only wallow in nostalgia that it allows others to perceive libraries as some kind of bubble that is trapped in the past. This could not be further from the truth. Please don’t write about libraries solely from your memories of childhood. Sure, share those (because they are so charming and we all need a bit of library love from time to time) but please take the time to find out what libraries are doing today, and check out how much they have moved on. If you haven’t regularly used a library since you were a child, you are not the person to be casting around public opinions on how they should be improved.
Stop peddling the myths
“No one uses libraries”, “no one needs libraries”, “it’s all on the internet”, “libraries are old-fashioned”…
We’ve all read these things, and they are simply not true. The UK had over 282 MILLION library visits in 2016, and it averages around 250 million a year. That’s enough to fill the London O2 Arena over 14,000 times. That’s a pretty big number. Just think about that for a moment. That’s the same as filling the O2 every night for roughly the next thirty eight years, and public libraries are doing that every year. Okay, so we know that all of these “no ones” are using public libraries, and that also shows that it’s a myth that “no one” needs them.
It’s not “all on the internet” and that’s just an ignorant and privileged thing to say. The digital divide in the UK means that around 10% of people have no internet access and are not regular computer users. Another big number here because at current population figures that means that around 6.5 MILLION people have no computer access or skills. That’s roughly the same figure as twice the population of Wales. So even if it was “all on the internet”, many people would not be able to access it.
Let’s take a look at one thing that is on the internet, but perhaps shouldn’t be – government paperwork. It is a sad fact that only 54% of applicants were able to fill out the Universal Credit forms without extra help. When people struggle with this paperwork they are usually sent to the library to do it. In fact official advice is to “go to your public library” to seek help filling out the forms. Of course, this is only possible if the library has staff and that it is actually open.
“Old fashioned”? Well, this is usually only said by people who have not visited a library since they were five. Libraries and library workers have been running ahead of rapid technological advances far better than most organisations. We were offering computer training when others were still trying to work out what a mouse was. We’re not playing at this stuff – information is our business and that means in all formats. On the surface things might have appear to have remained unchanged, but underneath that swan is not only paddling fast, but on feet that you’d barely recognise. The main problem with library workers is that they make this stuff look elegantly easy – and it really isn’t.
Libraries are too quiet for the modern world.
Oh my word, ask any library worker what drives them mad and they’ll tell you that every time they tell someone what they do for a living, people say “I bet you say ssshh a lot”. Frankly I only say “ssshh” to people who say that to me.
Libraries are quiet when they need to be, and that’s very important. The last place in our towns where you might be able to find some peace and respite from the chaos of the 21st century. A library is such an important study space and is often the only place you can quietly gather your thoughts. That said, most of our libraries are also buzzy and noisy and full of activity. I can see one from my window and there has been a steady stream of people all day. When I worked there we were rushed off our feet almost all the time, and the quiet of the evenings was essential for those who needed to study. Noisy is good, and quiet is good too. Now take a look at how hard library workers strive to offer both things to their users.
A suffocating silence is, however, falling in public libraries but this is for quite another reason – gagging. Many library workers at all levels are now gagged by their local authorities and unable to talk about what is really going on in their areas. Go and talk to library workers, and ask them. Ask them if they are gagged and give them the opportunity to talk with anonymity. It is well worth doing this with volunteer workers too. They are being expected to post a rosy picture, but all is often not what it seems.
Something is better than nothing
This one really grates on me because no one says it about any other statutory service or Govt provision. No one ever says that a group of volunteers with a med-kit is better than a real doctor, or that a bunch of well-meaning locals with a hose will do instead of the fire brigade. If your library does not do all of the things I’ve mentioned above (and more), and does not have paid library workers, then to my mind it’s not fulfilling the statutory requirements. Handing a library over to a small charity or group who have no sustainable plan, and no plans to take on paid and experienced staff, is not saving it but rather staving off the closure. It is a band-aid on an open wound and it will not stop the haemorrhage.
I have been looking at volunteer library business plans for almost a decade now, and I have yet to find even one that would not be laughed at by a real bank manager. Good people are being lied to, and are being expected to carry the burden of delivering a statutory provision without any clear framework, or a long-term sustainable plan. They are being fobbed off, and when their library does close it is the groups who will carry the blame.
There is also the element that this sort of library is entirely dependent on the community. Where the community is unable to support this process, they will not have a library. This is also being pedalled as their fault, and that is morally and ethically wrong. In fact, I feel that expecting people to work all the time for free is also morally and ethically wrong.
Many local authorities state that their volunteer led libraries are a “success”. I would ask all journalists to ask for proof of this. Falling issues and visitor numbers, unstaffed access, reduced services and diminished open hours have all recently been passed off as “successful”. Few authorities have actually bothered to perform solid analysis of their volunteer libraries, possibly because those who have see a rather bleak picture. If you are a journalist visiting a volunteer led library, check a few things, and ask a few questions. Does it still form part of the statutory requirement? Ask to see their comparative issue figures. Ask if anyone in the building adheres to a set of clear ethical principles? Ask if they have all been trained in things like privacy and the new GDPRs, and if they know what they are doing in terms of data capture and handling. Ask if they have a sustainable plan for future funding.
One last thing – words are important. They are, after all, our business and so we want to protect definitions because they matter.
A bookshelf in a phone box is not a library – it’s a book swap
A box on legs at the end of someone’s garden is not a library – it’s a book swap
A shelf at the train station full of discarded books is not a library…..
You get the idea. When you use the word “library” please be sure that you are actually talking about a REAL public library (a staffed and funded public library that forms part of the local authority’s statutory library provision) and not a community book-swap point.
Cute it may be, but it’s #notalibrary
You’ve paid for these places, time to assert your right to them and to talk about them in clear and unapologetic terms.
Oh, and you don’t have to be a library user to understand and appreciate that a great library improves your community and has societal value. In the same way you don’t have to have a house in flames to appreciate a well funded fire service. Some things simply make the places we live better, safer, and more bonded as communities. I don’t have a small child who likes slides, and it’s been a very long time since I tried to get over the bar on the swings, but I know that parks and green spaces make for a better place to live. Libraries do that too. I get that, and I hope we all do.
I’d like to now invite library workers to describe in the comments all the things that you do that are NOT stamping or shelving books. I couldn’t possibly list in this article all of the things that you do, so I shall leave it up to you.
Journalists – here are some facts and research that you will find useful. Thank you for supporting our public libraries, and please keep doing so. If you ever need any quotes or other details, or if you want to contact someone to talk about libraries in any of our many sectors, please drop CILIP a line, or seek out some of the wonderful library campaigners who give their lives over to protecting our public libraries.
One last thing you might need – take a look at the extraordinary work done by library workers to change and save lives. These are not all from public libraries, but it gives you a taste of what library workers mean to the world.
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.
I am a library campaigner. I have that in my profile descriptions on social media, and I am known for this role. I campaign and write about libraries, and am a familiar face at rallies and events connected to libraries and reading. I was President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and now I am standing for election as a CILIP Trustee and so it is evident that I care a great deal about our libraries. Recently someone asked me that crucial question – why bother? It seems like a lot of work, and you don’t get paid for it, so why bother?
After I had calmed down, I explained that the answer was so huge that I couldn’t do it justice in a few sentences, and so I thought I would share some of my past writings to explain why it matters, and why I bother.
Why do I need libraries in the first place? Well, I want a society where people have intelligence and are informed and creative. That matters to me and that’s what libraries (and in particular school libraries) do. I wrote about that here….
Like many people, I live with an invisible disability. I manage just fine, but one day I won’t and now and again I need more help with information. I need a safe space in my community that will offer me support on an ad hoc basis. It will save my local authority a huge amount of money if I can be supported in this way. I need someone I can trust in my community – I need my librarian. I wrote about that here…
I want our children to grow up as readers and to have the skills to access education with greater ease. I want them to be prepared for life and for the onslaught of fake news and biased reporting. I want children to have empathy for others and greater understanding of the world around them. I want them to have a school librarian. I wrote about that here….
I want people to read more. Reading for pleasure makes people happier, more rounded as human beings, and they even earn more. I sit on the Reading Agency’s national steering group looking at the wider impact of reading for pleasure, and the evidence is clear – people who read more benefit hugely. Books are expensive. For everyone to read more, and for society to benefit from it, we need more libraries. I wrote about that here….
The provision of a “comprehensive and efficient” library service is a statutory requirement. I need my librarian, and I need skilled library workers who have signed a commitment to providing an ethical and equitable service. Personally, I want to know that when I am handing over my data in a library it is to someone who has a set of agreed ethical principles. As chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee, I have written about that here…
But here is the big one – I passionately believe that it is vital to protect library workers. We have just had Libraries Week, and I must confess that I was dismayed to discover that many people were sharing things as if the library was some kind of sentient building that was doing all of these amazing things without any human involvement. Masses of people all talking about how astonishing libraries are… but I could count on one hand the number of high-profile media pieces that actually mentioned the library workers who make all these things happen.
Every time we talk about the work that libraries do, what we are really talking about is the work that the library workersdo. None of this would happen without them. A library is, after all, just a building – bricks and mortar, cement and glass. It can’t read stories, comfort the lonely, teach digital literacy, support the sick, calm the distressed or find jobs for the jobless – that takes a library worker. Yes, we should protect libraries, but only if they house library workers. It is not right that, as a society, we pay for libraries in our taxes and are then expected to do the work ourselves. I don’t pay for a building, I pay for the people who do the work. Call me old fashioned, but I also want human beings to be fairly paid for the work they do. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work seems like the most basic of rights to me. Why should essential services become a postcode lottery that means that libraries only exist in wealthy areas where people have the time and money to work for free? This is a rot at the heart of our society – that we are blamed for not doing all the work for free, and if we can’t work for free we somehow are less deserving of the service. People should be paid, and they should be trained, protected and they should be accountable. I have written a great deal about this issue, and these have been some of my most read and shared posts. You can read three of them here… and here… and here…
This is why I bother, and this is why I can’t stop campaigning for libraries – because the societal value is huge. Libraries save society money, and improve quality of life and opportunities for millions of people. It is sheer idiocy to put them in danger. To even suggest that libraries offer anything less than extraordinary value for money is a lie. Simple as that. A lie. I don’t mind shouting that from the rooftops. Look at the stats if you don’t believe me. Nobody uses libraries? Who are all these nobodies then?
I am standing for election as a CILIP trustee because I’ve always believed that if you are going to say a thing you should say it where people are best placed to hear it. If I don’t like a thing, then I’m prepared to step up and try to get something done about it. I can grumble and moan and shout all I like in the vacuum of social media, but it is in the corridors of power that the silence falls and the selectively deaf walk. Representing an organisation like CILIP allows us as a collective to speak louder and to shake the ivory towers. I do believe that there is strength in the collective. I’m up against some stiff competition in this election, and all of the people standing share my thoughts. Libraries will win no matter who is elected, but I can’t not stand. Making a stand is kind of my thing. I’m in excellent company. If you are a CILIP member I strongly advise you to take part in this democratic process. It’s your vote, your voice, use it! If you’re not a CILIP member, join us! Everyone with an interest in the library and information profession is welcome.
All in all, I want to look back on my life and know that I did everything I possibly could to make a difference. This is why I bother, because it matters.
Dawn Finch, librarian and children’s author, was president of CILIP in 2016 and is the current chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee. She is a member of a number of national committees concerned with literacy and libraries, and a member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee focusing on children’s reading for pleasure, and the rights of authors.
You can read all nomination papers for the all of the people standing in the forthcoming CILIP Trustee elections here… and if you are a CILIP member voting papers will be sent to you on or around 20th October 2017. The election and manifesto site can be found here
One of the joys of attending international conferences, and being CILIP President, is that I’m lucky enough to visit some superb libraries. This year (2016) the location for the World Library and Information Congress is Columbus, Ohio. In June 2016 the Columbus Metropolitan Library reopened after a sixteen month closure for a refurb, and so I stopped by for a look around. Actually refurb is too small a word for the extraordinary work that has gone on at Columbus Metropolitan. The library has benefitted from an investment of 35 million dollars, and on visiting it is immediately apparent where this money has been spent.
You enter the library through the grand and monumental entrance of the 1907 Carnegie building. The original features of this building have been preserved, and now contain art displays within the Carnegie Gallery space. On the front steps of this building, carved in stone, is the legend “My treasures are within” – what better statement could welcome us to a library? Walking through this classical space, under some dazzling art, you enter the main atrium of the library.
The new atrium has been opened up with high windows to let natural light flood in making this one of the most dramatically impressive library spaces that I have ever been in. Immediately to your right is the new children’s library, and this is no tucked away apologetic space – this is a large and bright space beautifully fitted out for children. I love the fact that there is space for reading, space for storytelling and space for looking things up…in fact there is a space for whatever a child’s imagination reaches out for. You can see the planning process here, and it really has children at the heart of it.
The central atrium
Stairs to the upper levels
The atrium leads through to a coffee shop and then out to the newly purchased and landscaped garden area, which in turn leads in to the wonderful Topiary Garden. If you head up the stairs (or the elevators) the first thing you’ll find is the huge reading room. This is another cathedral of natural light with towering walls of glass that overlook the park.
The rest of the library fans out around and above this space flanked by rows of neat study rooms. The flow of the lending and reference sections feels very organic and each section leads seamlessly into another. It really is a remarkable space, and staffed by enthusiastic and helpful librarians. (Yes, every person I spoke to was a qualified librarian)
The reading room
As I was wandering around I bumped into Pat Losinski, the CEO of the library. I must say that I was most impressed to find the CEO walking around and chatting to library users. He is justifiably proud of what they have achieved here, and what they are working on with the other Columbus libraries. They have already fully refurbished four libraries, and within the next two years the remaining six in the project will be opened. Pat told me how much value the people of Columbus place on their libraries, and how important literacy is to a successful city, and a successful country.
Art in the Carnegie space
One thing really struck me about the Columbus Met Library – the overwhelming feeling of calm that the space exudes. The Columbus Met is not an echoing modern edifice, but is in fact a blissfully quiet space. This does not feel forced and stifling, it actually feels genuinely refreshing and spiritually uplifting to enter. The place was very busy as I walked around, but the design seems to deaden the noise and allows people to keep that peaceful sense of calm without feeling restricted. No one is telling people to shush, and it is clear that library users are quiet because that’s how they want to be, and that’s how they want the library to be.
Child-sized doorway of the children’s library
I know that there is a tendency these days to voice the opinion that silence is an old-fashioned concept for libraries, but I feel that we give up our quiet public spaces at our peril. There are plenty of places in our communities in which to be noisy, but remarkably few places that are quiet havens. The world is a noisy and demanding place, and libraries can offer a peaceful balance to this. Where else can we go for quiet study, reading or just to sit and ease our mental clutter? A free and open space where we can sit and gather our thoughts is hugely beneficial to our mental health and wellbeing, and I do think that it is important that we don’t forget that.
Columbus Metropolitan Library is a remarkable space, and I think that Pat Losinski said it best of all when I complimented him on his beautiful library.
“Thank you,” he said, “but it’s not my library, it belongs to everyone.”
President, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)
Children’s writer and librarian.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE LIBRARIES OF COLUMBUS, OHIO – CLICK HERE.
Note – this post is being re-shared to explain why I campaign for libraries, and to celebrate National Libraries Week.
About 15 years ago I was on holiday in Cornwall with my family and I was sitting on a grassy slope enjoying the sunshine and the view, when I noticed a very small black spot in my vision. I was tired and the sun was bright and so I dismissed it as eye strain. Two days later the spot was still there, but had now been joined by another one. I called my doctor and got an appointment as I thought it might be an eye infection, or maybe a scratch caused by sand blown around on windy Cornish beaches. I wasn’t worried.
My doctor was. He sent me immediately to the eye emergency clinic for an examination. They were worried too. They could see holes in my retinas and they sent me for emergency treatment. The edges of the tears were burnt with a laser to stop them from spreading any further. They can’t be fixed. After this I was sent to Moorfields so that they could explain my condition to me. All of this happened in a two week period and so I was swept along without much time to take it all in. I learnt the name of my condition (lattice degeneration) and how rare my type is. I was told that there are many types, and mine isn’t one of the good ones. I was told that my retinas were like “wet tissue”, or “over stretched balloons”, or “stockings with ladders” – my eyes were compared to a few other odd things too. I was told that it’s untreatable, and that one day it will leave me blind, or maybe blind in just one eye if I’m “lucky”. I was told that could be in ten years, or maybe twenty, or it could be tomorrow. I was told that my vision would get worse, but might plateau, or might stabilise and then get worse again. I was told that it probably wouldn’t make much difference unless I “read a lot” (it’s my job, I read around 100 books a year). I was told I had the eyes of an 80 year old. I was told I’d “probably get used to it”.
Of course even though I was told all of this, I didn’t really hear it. In fact I left various doctor’s rooms hearing only one word – blind. That was all I knew – that I was going blind.
It wasn’t the doctor who gave me the information I needed to carry on, it was the library. Thanks to the library I was able to find everything from medical text books, to advice books, to leaflets, to helplines. I found support and information and I was able to set not only my fears to rest, but the fears of my family.
It’s been years now, and my vision has at times deteriorated, and then stabilised again. My library and my librarian have both been there for me. Finding new information and keeping me supported. There really isn’t anything else in my community that can do this for me. Last year my vision took a bit of a downturn and I had new symptoms to deal with. I now find that my peripheral vision is almost nonexistent, and focussing takes so long that moving or scrolling displays are almost impossible to read. Where stairs do not have clearly marked edges I have to take great care as they can blur into one, this means that many escalators resemble a silver-grey river which can be quite alarming. Artificial light can cause eye strain that often blurs out the vision in one or both of my eyes, and can sometimes cause a visual migraine that makes me almost blind for a few hours. Those two holes left me with blind spots, and my general vision is rather like looking through a dirty net curtain.
I have adjusted (although I get very angry at organisations such as train companies who seem to refuse to understand disability awareness guidelines which would make travel much easier) There is no label to show the public my kind of disability. Thanks to many recent changes in legislation I’m not entitled to any help. I’m not visually impaired enough to qualify for registration yet. I don’t get a badge, or a stick, and no one can tell I have it. People get angry behind me on public transport when I have to stop and stare at steps, or doors. They don’t give me their seats even when I’m holding on with both hands because my peripheral vision is so poor that I can’t tell what’s next to me, or because my balance is affected by my inability to focus. I am very patient with other people who tut when I can’t see that my ticket is the wrong one, or that it’s the wrong way up, or when I have to stop for a few seconds longer than they need. It’s not their fault that they can’t see my disability, as beyond an odd tilting of my head to get objects into the clearer bits of my field of vision, they can’t know what’s wrong. Being angry with them doesn’t help me.
To give you an idea of what my vision is like, I have prepared this image. I have always taken photographs, and discovering that I have a visual impairment might confuse some people as to how I do this. I do it by learning the camera’s capabilities and then trusting it. Mostly when I’m taking photos I actually can’t see what I’m taking until I look at it on the computer screen.
This is a photograph I took recently.
And this is a a fair approximation of what I actually see.
I take photos of everything because it’s really the only way I can see what the view actually looks like.
One day I won’t even be able to do that. This scares me because the way the UK is going I am afraid that there will not be a care network in place to support me. I am afraid that the burden of care will fall entirely on my family, and that’s not fair. I’m a hugely independent person and it’s not the thought of being blind that scares me, it’s the thought of being a burden – of being entirely dependent on the people I love. I need something else in my community that will support my needs and keep me going. I need something to keep me sane and to allow me to hang on to my independence. I need a library, and I need a librarian. I need to know that I will have a librarian who knows me and understands me. Someone who can hold onto audio books for me, and read the back of the boxes. Someone I can trust with my private information who can look things up for me. I need a safe and reliable place that I can get to in my community where I can turn to someone for help. I need somewhere local where I can have access to materials, and information in different formats. The thought of not having that really scares me.
When we talk about all of the things that libraries do for people, we often forget all of the things that they might one day do for us. You possibly feel that you don’t need your library now, but one day you might. I hope for all of our sakes that it’s still there when you do. I know that librarians are discreetly doing this sort of supportive work in their communities every single day. I know this because for decades I did it myself for other people.
I hope you won’t ever need libraries and librarians for the same reasons I will, but just in case let’s all stand up for our right to keep them right where they belong – in the hearts of our communities.
Trustee and Past President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)
It hardly seems like a year since the last one, but here it is again – Saturday Feb 6th is National Libraries Day! What a year its been. Despite huge evidence of the beneficial contributions that libraries and librarians make to their communities, we are still witnessing the decimation of our library service. The library campaigners have been working flat out to try to save the libraries in their communities, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude for all their hard work. National Libraries day gives us the opportunity to show our appreciation for our libraries and the people who work in, and for them.
National Libraries Day is a grassroots celebration led by library staff and library users. It is supported by CILIP and a coalition of leading literacy, reading, library and education organisations including the Reading Agency, the School Library Association and the Society of Chief Librarians, top authors, and you!
NLD is an opportunity for everyone to step up and show just what their library means to them, and here are some ideas for how you can get involved too. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, there is a way for you to show that you value our libraries and librarians, and that you don’t want to imagine a future without them.
Retweet our message: Send a strong message to your followers – something like “I’m sending a message that I love libraries & the wonderful work done by librarians.” RT to celebrate National Libraries Day #librariesday
Share your support on social media
Follow @NatLibrariesDay and sign up to our Thunderclap. Download the #librariesday social media frame and share your library pictures
Share a library shelfie or two with caption /comment and share or tweet it using #librariesday
Lend your talents – Write or create something – could you find the time to write a blog, letter or create a piece of work about what libraries mean to you?
Visit a library – If you can get out to a library, take some photos and show us where you are. Show us what is interesting and unique about your library.
Find an event near you – get out and get into your local libraries (with our without chocolates!). Tell them who you are and let them know that you support them. The NLD map on the website will show you where the registered events are.
As you will still feeling all passionate and full of library love – join us when we lobby Parliament to save our libraries. This event will take place on February 9th and you can find all of the details on the Speak Up For Libraries website.
Keep the momentum going and sign the CILIP petition to legally challenge the handling of our public libraries. Support, sign and share the My Library By Right petition and use #mylibrarybyright
President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)
The CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries group this year hosted their first conference and the theme of the two day event was the contribution that libraries make to the wellbeing of their communities. The conference had a superbly well-timed focus as the link between reading and wellbeing has never been better documented. Over the past few years we have seen the publication of many robust reports that prove that reading and libraries are vital to the wellbeing and mental health of their communities.
Over the two day event we heard from many speakers, all of whom had a direct involvement in the wellbeing agenda and how this relates to libraries. First up we heard from Paul Blantern, of the Sieghart Libraries Taskforce, who talked about the need for a national framework for libraries so that we could have a “consistent library offer” right across the country. During his talk he drew attention to the fact that libraries are often seen as the easy way to make cuts, but this will reflect upon the other services offered. He also talked about why libraries are important, what they offer to their communities, and how the Taskforce hopes to protect them.
One of the most interesting speakers of the day was Brian Ashley from from Arts Council England who talked about the financial impact of the library contribution to health and wellbeing. Brian’s talk was drawn from the Arts Council commissioned report “The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Public Libraries”. His talk was filled with some astonishing data such as the fact that library users are more likely to report better health, and less likely to take trivial issues to a doctor. This relates to a saving of an estimated £25m a year to the NHS. Extraordinary figures, and it seems pure folly that this is not taken into account by Government.
Mike Brook talked about the success of a Library Mental Health festival and he stressed the importance of the safe haven that a library provides for anyone with mental health issues. The need for this sort of space in our communities can’t be underestimated. He also talked about how to market and advertise the event so that it reached the right people.
The event also provided a number of workshops to help librarians support their communities in ways that they might not have previously considered. I chose to go to Jacquie Widdowson’s workshop on marketing and social media – an essential skill for the 21st Century Librarian! She gave invaluable advice on how to reach more people and how to extend the library welcome to people who might not have previously considered the library as their kind of space.
I was particularly moved by the workshop that I attended run by Julie Walker. Julie is a Bibliotherapist who works with Kirklees Library (and others) and she talked about what bibliotherapy is and how it helps people. She explained how it supports vulnerable people and showed us just how powerful the right text is at the right time. During the workshop she handed out short extracts of carefully chosen poems and asked if people would like to read them aloud. The emotions that bounced around the room made for an amazing demonstration of just how powerful this service is.
We also heard talks about how Staffordshire is supporting the mental health and wellbeing agenda in their libraries, and Carol Brooks talked about how important personal resilience is. Alan Medway gave a presentation about Staffs libraries and their decision to support issues such as dementia via their library provision. The whole event was filled with inspiring and useful talks and was a great success.
My own talk was about the powerful positive impact that reading for pleasure can have on all of our lives, and how libraries can fit in with that. You can download my presentation below, and please drop me a line if you would like to ask me anything about it, or would like me to come and speak at your event.
Libraries offer a unique service as they are the trusted and safe spaces that exist in our communities. In order to successfully fulfill this agenda we require something very special in our communities – a professional librarian who is trusted, knowledgeable and reliable.
Libraries save lives, let’s make sure that everyone is aware of that, and that people are aware of exactly how much we will suffer as a society if we lose them.
A selection of documents referred to during the 2015 CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Conference.
This is a transcript of the closing speech for the joint CILIP Ireland / LAI conference in Belfast in April 2015.
Libraries – advocate and motivate!
Many of us work in isolation and conferences like this are our only chance to meet the other people who work within our service. We are unlike any other industry in that we largely work alone or in very small groups. To be able to attend extraordinary events like this not only keeps us up to date with what is new and current in our industry, but it allows us to discover that we are not alone in our trials and our adversities.
Libraries have never been at greater risk. Never. I have worked in libraries for over 27 years – through several restructures and reevaluations and reshuffles and several other things that regardless of the label hung on it meant job losses and a deterioration of the service available. This apparently was not enough and the erosion of the service has continued and has led us to this place where we are now. Thanks to the Seighart report we are now matched with railways and we are experiencing our Beeching moment. Actually, I think that this is an understatement. After Beeching it was still possible to catch a train, and the system is still recovering, but it is recovering. The same will not be said of libraries. When we lose our libraries they will be lost forever. This will be a single track line and there will be no recovering. No philanthropists will step in and rebuild. Losing our libraries will be an irreversible process.
So what can we do?
Of course our biggest problem is with governments and their inability to take the time to understand what libraries and librarians do and to find out exactly how important they are. This is largely because the people in power have a limited experience of libraries that is essentially an oak panelled silent room in their old prep-school or a silent brandy-fuelled room at the club reeking of aged and over-stuffed old-boys and cracked leather armchairs. They feel that it is fine to protect that sort of library, but do the poor and huddled masses really deserve access to that?
One of the most crucial outward problems facing libraries today partially rests in the perception of libraries. There still exists a perception that libraries are a middle-class remnant of a stuffy past that has no place in the 21st century. If we step outside into the streets and ask people to describe what a library is there is a very good chance that people will still describe this….
Is this not what a library looks like?
Why do we bristle at this statement – because we know it to be false. We know that when people think of libraries they really should be thinking of spaces like this.
This is the plan for the new National Library of Kazakhstan and it is a far better illustration of what we know a modern library looks like. We have dozens of examples of such modern community hubs and we know that our libraries are essential and lively 21st century spaces that serve our communities (be they schools, universities or academic establishments) We know that our communities would be significantly less successful without our presence. We know this because we are in these libraries every day and we are able to track their impact.
How do others know? What are we doing to ensure that the wider community is aware of the importance and impact of libraries?
So often all that the non-library using public see of libraries is when another campaign starts. Campaigns do work, especially noisy ones, but the most effective campaigns are ones that bring to bear the power of hearts and minds. We can’t expect people who have never used a library to understand what a librarian does or what a library can do for them – we have to show them. We have to make our voices heard in a way that is positive and affirming.
So how can we do this? Use your users. One of the problems that we have with library campaigns is that it is often perceived as people just trying to protect their jobs – jobs that people do not understand or value. We need to better demonstrate what we mean to the people who use our libraries. Use your users to write about about what the library means to them, not what it means to you. A perfect example of this is the recent blog post at CILIP about prison libraries.
Ex-prisoner Jonathan Robinson – a man who really understands how vital libraries and librarians are to the process of rehabilitation.
How much more effective is it to hear the voices of people whose lives have been changed for the better by the support of the library and the librarian? We actually have no shortage of support, but it is directing that support to the right people that can make a difference. Find out who has the most potential impact in your field or your county and get them on your side. Use the famous, use writers, broadcasters, sports personalities, local youth workers, schools, anyone who can be useful to get the message to a wider and more responsive audience.
Make sure thatyou are concentrating on the impact of the professional. Many library campaigns concentrate on the impact of the service, and not those delivering it. Talking about the professional is our job and we should be doing it as effectively as the campaigners are doing with the service. When you talk about digital literacy, make sure that you talk about the librarian that will deliver this service. It is not enough to save a library to have it staffed with volunteers, no matter how well meaning they are – this is not a sustainable system. Talk about the librarians and show why they are important.
Stay positive. As library campaigners it is vital that we stay positive about the benefits and usefulness of a well-run library. As a life-long campaigner for change I know that the angrier the campaign, the less people listen. These are stressful financial times for everyone, and so people need to feel something on an emotional level to stand by you and make a difference. Yank those heartstrings with positive tales and case histories and show the benefit and wider value of your library to its users.
Be seen! Be seen as an individual, not just as a faceless organisation. This is not just about a building with books in. A building with books in is not a library – no matter what the government would have people believe. You cannot run a library with volunteers – that is just a book lending service and that’s a completely different thing to a real library service. Make sure that people can see you and, in turn, that they understand what you do.
Blog, tweet, facebook, speak, get out there! Join with others and support each other. Conferences are the perfect opportunity to network and to show support for others. Take every opportunity to forge new links and new bonds with anyone who does what you do.
Show people what we do – show them that we are not just sitting there reading and waiting for a book to stamp out. Show people what you do in your service point and how you do it.
So what do we do? Who are we? Why do people deserve a real librarian and not a volunteer? This slide explains exactly what we do and why we are so essential to supporting our communities.
One of the key elements of the campaign to erase the library service relies in part on all of us in the profession having divisions. It relies on academic libraries not supporting school libraries, public libraries not supporting health libraries, legal libraries not supporting prison libraries. We need to unite to ensure that we are providing an intermeshed and overlapping service – one access point effortlessly linking to the next.
Show your societal value. We do the most important job. We live in a time where the quantity of information available increases every second. With each passing moment the world faces another tide of information and only one sector of society can help to ride that wave and not drown.
There has been a great deal of talk about the current government’s pledge to commit 7.4m towards wifi in public libraries and the campaign for digital literacy. We all know why this is so important. Those who are digitally literate have greater personal freedom and earn more.
People with good ICT skills earn between 3% – 10% more than those without.
72% of employers would not even interview entry level candidates with no ICT skills.
Who is at the cutting edge of this digital literacy revolution?
We are the only ones in the right place to provide management of that knowledge in all its forms and to help people to access and organise it. We are all that stands between the population and fifty million hits on videos of cats riding vacuum cleaners. We are the information conduits, we are the managers of information and we need to make sure that people understand how important this is.
These are dangerous times for libraries, librarians and for anyone who works in knowledge management. This is the time to represent a unified front. This is the time to unite and speak as one to stop the rot that threatens to destroy our libraries. If this destruction is allowed to happen, there will be no going back. If public libraries fall then there is a genuine risk that other information service points will fall in their wake. If we lose access to the unique skills that only a librarian can offer we will become weaker as a nation because of it.
Stick together, build networks, cross services and make sure that people realise that this is not just about buildings and property assets, this is not just about wages or cutting costs for local government, this is about the professionals who provide a service that ultimately improves the quality of life for every single member of our 21st Century communities.
This is what truly makes a library – a librarian.
Please note – blog posts automatically close after 50 days.
As always I am pleased to read of any county that announces that they have “saved” their libraries, but I am increasingly seeing that this act of supposed salvation comes at a cost. That cost is losing trained and professional staff, i.e librarians.
Many County Councils are now announcing that their libraries will be “saved”
and that thanks to their glorious new restructuring it will instead be run by “skilled volunteers”
Hmmm, let’s have a look at the truth and workability of that statement shall we?
I’ve worked in the service a long time and (because I’ve worked my way up) I’ve seen pretty much every aspect of it. I’ve worked as a volunteer, and I’ve worked with them, and I’ve organised them. The truth about volunteers is a harsh one, and I apologise to any volunteers if they know that this is not them, but in my experience the points below show the truth of what happens when you rely on volunteers in the long term.
Fine (and incredibly helpful) to use them for occasional top-ups (for example during the hugely busy Summer Reading Scheme season) or for supporting outreach services, such as book deliveries for the housebound or for care homes, but not for core or essential services.
Apart from the obvious denigration of the skills of trained professionals, why can’t we use volunteers for everything?
Here are a few reasons why….
You can’t timetable them.
Volunteers want to work at a time that suits them, not you and not the service. You can’t insist that they work late evenings and weekends like paid staff. They will only work at a time that is convenient for them. Of course they do, they are volunteers and have no contract of employment with you so why should they work when you want them to work?
They cancel at a moment’s notice
That’s because they can. They are not being paid and so if the boiler man wants to come round, they cancel. Waiting on a delivery? Cancel. Daughter popped round for lunch? Cancel. Bit of a hangover? Cancel. Lovely sunny day so decided to have a day out instead? Cancel.
Of course they can do this, they aren’t being paid! You have no right to expect them to come in and no contract of employment to force them to so they have every right to ditch.
You have little or no recourse when they are bad at what they do.
I’ve worked with many volunteers and I remember a good number of ladies who were long term volunteers for the housebound. They were rude. No two ways about it, they were rude, controlling, aggressive and arrogant. We could do nothing at all about this because they were volunteers and without them several housebound people would have no contact with another living soul from one week to the next. We couldn’t sack these ladies or demand they modify their behaviour because we had no contract of employment with them (see the pattern beginning to emerge?)
You can’t insist that they undergo extensive training.
It takes a vast amount of training to deliver a successful library service at the frontline. You can’t insist that your well-meaning volunteer attend several dozen courses to be able to deliver that service because they are just volunteers and you have no legally binding contract of service with them.
You can’t insist on an apolitical standpoint.
Some volunteers may well have strong political leanings that will influence their responses and the way they deal with the public. You can not enforce an apolitical standpoint upon them because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them to ensure that they only express neutrality.
They are not protected in the event of injury or incident.
I have known a good number of librarians who have been injured during their work. This ranges from people who have put their backs out to people who were punched and one who was stabbed. These staff members were supported by their employers and were able to get well and were supported through various crises. You can’t do that with volunteers (no contract remember!) and so their only recourse will be to sue the county. Good luck with that!
They only do what they want to do. Yes, shelving a couple of hundred books can be boring, so is heaving a load of deliveries around or doing an extensive weed or stock check – but it’s all part of the job. It’s much more enjoyable mooching around in the reference section, or looking through new books, or chatting with your friends who just happen to have dropped by. Library assistants on a contract can be instructed to do the dull stuff because they are paid to. People who have no pay and no contract don’t want to do the dull stuff – why would they? They start off agreeing to, but all too soon you are drowning in returns and the shelves are a mess with things put back incorrectly. In my experience it takes about three weeks for someone to get to the NAD method of shelving (Near As Dammit)
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Some volunteers will inevitably abuse their power. These will be the most reliable volunteers in terms of available time and they will make your libraries less pleasurable places to visit. They will be controlling and suffocating and will turn people off visiting the library. You can’t do anything about this because you have no contract of employment with them and can’t insist that they modify their behaviour.
They drift off.
In the beginning you will have lots of volunteers. Plenty of people will come forward and say that they will help out and for a while you will be overwhelmed by the lovely support your library has.
This will not last. In a year or two you will be left with a tiny core of people who are still devoted, but who are essentially running the library on their own. You will be completely reliant on the two or three people who remain loyal, and they will be working full-time equivalent hours in a desperate attempt to keep the place open. If there is one paid librarian left in the building to oversee this (and I stress the “if” there) they will be on a zero hours contract that occasionally affords them a day off, but otherwise requires them to work every late, and every anti-social day (such as Saturday and Sunday) due to the lack of available volunteers.
It will become virtually impossible to get more volunteers because in a more rural community you may have simply exhausted all available people, and in most areas people will tire of working that hard for free. Students will graduate and get jobs, and other people will find that it no longer fits with other aspects of their lives. Most will simply find it tiresome and demanding and they will gradually drift away. You can do nothing about this because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them over things like working hours, or the need to notify you a good time in advance that they no longer wish to do it.
They don’t really know what they are doing.
No offence intended to volunteers here, but the scale of work expected of them is a bit terrifying! Being a librarian is a hugely complex task that involves an incredibly broad skillset. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century and I pedal hard to keep up with all the relevant changes that impact the library service and how we deliver that to our customers. I don’t have all the answers to enquiries from members of the public, but I sure as hell know where to find them. This is because I’m a professional – not a volunteer. You can’t expect volunteers to be able to do this. Customers will soon be frustrated by not being able to ask a question and receive the correct answer, and so they will simply stop asking, and will stop using the library. Catch 22.
This is just a very small snapshot of the potential barriers to delivering a quality service only using volunteers. I have had many wonderful and supportive volunteers in my time (and I thank them and they know who they are and I was able to do a better job thanks to them) but they operated with me, and ultimately the buck stopped with me – the paid and experienced professional. I am a strong willed person who was perfectly prepared to tell a volunteer that I no longer required their services, and so I was able to work with people who stuck at it and were superb – but that meant that I went from dozens down to three who were actually reliable and trustworthy – and that was in a school where I was lucky enough to have access to well-educated and involved parents.
When I was in public libraries it was a genuine nightmare keeping reliable and effective volunteers, and it was far worse for my colleagues who were in poorer or more rural locations.
We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.
This is not just about saving jobs, it’s about communities receiving that which they are legally entitled to. If all of your health visitors or community pharmacies were run by volunteers you would not accept it – don’t accept it from your one and only community information point either. Don’t let the Powers That Be convince you that you can find out all the information you require on your own, that’s a fallacy. You can find out all the legal information that you need on the Internet – but at some point you will need a trained professional to help you. Imagine if it was accepted that solicitors could be unqualified volunteers too? Or nurses?
Yes, you can wrangle around on the Internet when you have a question about issues that affect you locally (or nationally) and then you can wade through 50,000+ pages of disorganised information hoping you’ll strike upon the right one. Or, you can visit the information and knowledge management specialist in your community (aka the librarian) and ask them and they’ll give you the right answer.
You can’t rely on a volunteer to do that. If you are tempted to volunteer, don’t. You will not be protecting your public library by volunteering, you will only be supporting a fatally flawed scheme that will eventually bring about its demise.
Running libraries on volunteers is not a cheap and effective way of saving your local library service, it is a carcinogenic scheme that will ultimately kill it.