Wednesday, 6 March 2013

“A library once lost is lost forever”

The quote above is one of my originals with a hint of Jane Austen for good measure! I suppose this post is really about me putting in my penny’s worth about public libraries and the precarious state they find themselves in these days. I remember coming across a quote whilst I was writing my dissertation three years ago (which focused on 2008’s National Year of Reading) which stated that more people visited a library then went to a professional football match or the cinema (Framework for the Future­, 2003: 12).

I have to say three years on, it doesn’t feel this way. I work in three different level libraries in Wiltshire and there are increasingly times when the only people in the library are the staff. Now I’m not saying that I want the library to be choc-a-bloc full all day everyday, I’m realistic but it has recently started to feel like the media hype might be right. Visitor and issue figures for public libraries are suffering a downfall nationally which can be blamed on the use of eBooks and new technology or the nature of life these days; more people working longer hours, commuting longer and therefore not having enough downtime. This may be my naivety coming across but I would have thought with the national media coverage the library profession has had over the last couple of years this would boost our numbers, not have a negative impact.

Wiltshire have not been affected as drastically as neighbouring local authorities in terms of cuts and there is relatively little difference on the frontline between now and 2009. None of the 30 libraries in Wiltshire have been closed, our 5 mobile routes are still in existence and our smallest ten libraries are now volunteer led with library assistants working behind the scenes. There has been a reduction in opening hours and the introduction of self service RFID machines in all libraries have been the only public facing cuts, but this is to be expected. Behind the scenes there has been a reduction in staffing top down from management to admin staff, librarians and frontline staff and a cut to our stock fund and budget for three years running. Therefore for the public who do use us it feels like business as usual... behind the scenes we are still trying to provide the same level of service on limited staffing, time and resources whilst also trying to attract new members.

 Like many public services, we are all trying to learn quickly how to do more with less. It would be interesting to find out if different authorities have had the same reaction from the public, or are those that have had to fight more publicly picked up a new following? I do feel in Wiltshire for all the media attention libraries have had over the last two years there is little reflection in the visitor and issue figures. Of course there will always be the customers who come in and lend their support, those who you’ve never seen before come in to make sure you’re not closing and tell you that they will fight alongside if anything may happen but overall there has been no increase in membership or active borrowing and libraries are quieter than a year ago.

We also have to fight against those who believe the library has had its day – most recently the tirade from beloved children’s author Terry Deary (who coincidentally I had just put a display up in the library to celebrate his 20 years of Horrible Histories... thanks Tel!). Anyone who believes libraries are not an essential service are clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic. This comes down in my honest opinion to ignorance of the range of services which are now provided by libraries. In times of austerity, libraries become even more important, helping with services such as job clubs, CV workshops, benefits help and in its purest form providing a social space for people to interact. There are also those who believe eBooks and digital publishing has filled the void of libraries. Yes, many local authorities now provide an eBook service alongside print but the number of publishers who do not publish electronic material make an e-collection very limited (Wiltshire’s collection at the moment is just under 3000 titles which include non-fiction and children’s titles). Not everyone can afford an e-reader or want an e-reader and those that can and do in my experience still have a fondness for the printed word as well.

Librarianship has always been an ever evolving profession, staff and spaces have to be adaptable and willing to change and that’s how libraries have survived through history. If you think about a library even twenty years ago it was a completely different service... the imposed silence rule if nothing else... I’d love to know if anyone can still enforce this with success in the public sector! Whose to say what the next twenty years will bring but I am confident that with new technologies the library service will find its place... there will always be a need for a free service to help people navigate new technologies and promote the pleasure and benefits of reading. In my own mind I do hope it’s not completely virtual... there is something about walking through the doors of any library and exploring the shelves which you can’t get from a screen.

The more immediate problem is reaching different audiences and promoting our value to those who may believe that the library has nothing to offer them. Yes it’s all about technology these days; facebook, twitter, linkedin, snapchat etc but how do you reach those who are caught in the digital divide? Do you go back to envelope stuffing? Local advertising is always beneficial and you should be able to rely on word of mouth but causing a stir about the library isn’t cheap and with ever cutting budgets we need to become innovative in the ways we market our services.

I have no doubt that libraries will still be around fifty years from now, maybe not in the same capacity that we are now but there will always be a place for a service which thrives on helping and enabling communities, providing a safe and impartial environment for all who need it. What we need to do is make sure that we continue to adapt to society’s needs and embrace new technologies and are able to deliver these services in an efficient and helpful way. There is a little bit of hope for the future though... the pictures below were taken in Calne Library... a Love Libraries display that ran through February asking members to share why they loved their library.

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