The Guardian recently published two letters from librarians in the “Public Leaders Network” — a brilliant feature which the paper describes, “This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public.” I’ve written before about efforts to reduce funding, cut services, or close libraries in the UK. This map shows mixed results of campaigns to keep libraries open there.
The letters are interesting — the first, published on National Libraries Day, is by an anonymous librarian in the Northeast of England. After explaining the assistance staff provides to job seekers, parents & carers, and young people, the author sums up:
“I know many people think we don’t need libraries when there’s Amazon, kids can use Google for their homework, and supermarkets sell paperpacks for £3 and are open 24 hours. But libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”” In the face of having to offer so much and on top of that, deal with budget cuts and politicians who believe all this could be done by volunteers instead of professional librarians, the writer goes on, “Who will want to become a librarian now?”
Although, I had to look up carpet bowls, this otherwise sounds pretty similar to pieces on blogs and in journals here in America. The second letter, a response to the first, is by someone who answered the first writer’s question. This writer sees becoming a librarian as a calling:
“For me, it boils down to one important point: the internet is a shallow (but extremely wide) surface-level summary of secondary, often opinionated information that sits on a bedrock of substantive knowledge that either isn’t on the internet, or lives behind a paywall, or is too expensive to purchase. Public libraries broker equal access to all that stuff. Get rid of them, and your information becomes drip-fed through Google filters (if you have a computer to access it). As a librarian, it will be my job to make sure those bridges are not burned, and that they’re well maintained and clearly marked, with delightfully efficient help points dotted along the way.”
The profession is in good hands with both writers — the first, a veteran of the culture war that argues libraries are somehow both unnecessary luxuries and basic community services that could be provided by volunteers, who still manage to end the letter, “even in difficult times, when I don’t know if I’ll have a job from one round of cuts to the next, I love it.” And the second, an idealistic newcomer to the profession. Both argue more or less this: libraries continue to be an essential public service.
The second writer’s perspective on this is eyebrow raising:
“A successful day in the library is one where people complain, like they would with any other local authority service. The Wi-Fi isn’t good enough; there aren’t enough academic texts; it’s too cold; it’s too loud; I don’t know my email password; why don’t you have this book? I love it. Complain and moan all you like – it’s your library service. It’s for you: take it, have it, use it. I’m your public librarian and this is your public library, and these are the hallmarks of public service.”
I am going to keep that in mind. It’s interesting to think that people only complain because they take for granted that libraries should be replete with well heated, quiet rooms bursting with every possible book and completely reliable Wi-Fi, regardless of having smaller staffs and budgets. But it seems a fine line between “Libraries should be doing all this much better, after all, they’re libraries!” to “Why do we even need libraries anyway, if they don’t even have/do ___?” I find that somewhat alarming. But I guess it’s cheerier to assume that people are only complaining because we’re essential. And it’s certainly heartening to know that people are choosing, even in quite uncertain times for libraries in the UK, to become librarians.