Wednesday, 1 December 2010

In favour of paid professional library staff

If unpaid volunteers are called into to run libraries, then skilled workers and life-long experienced and qualified professionals will be redundant. This cannot be allowed to happen. As it is, staff at certain levels are on rock bottom wages - some staff are employed by agencies and earn just above the minimum wage, working without sick pay, working unsociable hours and days at a flat rate. Library work is a physically demanding role - long periods of standing, heavy lifting, flights of stairs to climb, shelving and maintenance of stock. The other aspect of library work is, of course, knowledge and awareness - being quick to call to mind the title of the book a customer has only vague recollections of or is describing, ability to signpost customers to appropriate materials to suit their needs/queries, skill and passion in recommending items to customers. Then there are all the interpersonal skills so vital to the library worker's role. The range of customers drawn from all areas of the community is such that a volunteer would not necessarily be equipped to deal with all visitors and eventualities - some library users require extra sensitivity or empathy, this requires great skill and patience; there are users from deprived backgrounds, users with mental health issues, users whose first language is not English, users with learning difficulties. Libraries being such open, public spaces there are multiple anti-social problems that may arise and that must be dealt with professionally and appropriately. Years of working in libraries, of perservering and being impassioned about the job, equip workers with the necessary adeptness to tackle such interpersonal issues and incidents. Library professionals become personally acquainted with users and build a bond of trust and understanding that volunteers would struggle to compete with on the same level.

With the advent of self-service machines, staff are being 'relieved' of duties - when they are not being relieved of their jobs wholesale. Told that the machines are there to help them cope with demands/workload, in actuality, the library professional's role is becoming more and more undermined. Staff even receive training to convince them the good that these machines will play. Staff have in the same instance been informed of the cost-cutting measures that these machines will provide - it is cheaper to buy a machine than to pay the annual salaries of several staff. The message this sends is clearly unsettling and insulting. Innumerable customers lodge complaints verbal and written about the self-service machines - in particular, the elderly find technology not simply daunting but alienating as it cuts off human contact and is a clinical process rather than a meaningful human interaction.

Cuts are being made across all councils the country over between now and the next financial year, so now is the time to consult with your local council and to see exactly what proposals are being made in relation to library services in your local area. Councils such as Camden in London are looking into some of their branches being run by volunteers. Buckinghamshire Council in the south east is convinced that its local people want their libraries to be run entirely by volunteers and setting about to put this into action. Other councils have made mention of the word 'volunteer' but seem to be keeping their plans under wraps. The concept of unpaid volunteers could become a worrying trend. With talk of David Cameron's 'Big Society' centring on everyone pitching in and helping out as one big happy community, alarm bells ring. When job losses are occurring in significant numbers across councils, including within libraries - where staff's roles are often being slashed in hours, put up for consideration of voluntary redundancy or simply made outright redundant, to bring in volunteers wholesale would cancel thousands more jobs and presents the question: will such a job title as Librarian exist in the future?

The argument runs that financial cuts must be made across all services within councils, but if we consider how scant funding - and how low a priority in itself - libraries can be, and also how gargantuan top-end salaries at the decision-making level of the council can be; why should libraries, library workers, and crucially the general public, suffer so dramatically?

No comments:

Post a Comment