Librarians speak up about library closures

Three librarians – with almost 50 years combined experience – working for a Midlands council severely cutting its library provisions got in touch to share their story. Despite being gagged from discussing the closures, they are standing up to shout about what the cuts really mean...

There is a lot of talk about libraries and their important impact on local communities, but then there are the librarians – people who have chosen this as a vocation and believe in it. In the debate about library closures it is often the voices of librarians that are heard the least. This piece has been written by three frustrated librarians with almost 50 years experience between us.

Parts of this council’s library services have been at risk since 2010 – this has meant constant threat of redundancy for staff for years. We have been repeatedly told that we are not allowed to “campaign” for our jobs. This means in practical terms that we are not supposed to engage in discussion about changes to the library service, branch closures, job losses etc.

It also means that while members of the public can say what they like about the service or the staff we are unable to reply. This has led to increasing frustration as we have no way to tell anyone how we are feeling. We are even banned from discussing it on our own social media profiles. Volunteers can celebrate the gain of a community library (as it gets passed over to them) but we can’t lament it.

Councillors are unable to see the service as a whole and have always campaigned to keep ‘their’ library open. We have a couple of libraries that could have closed with barely a whisper in the past but instead have had to keep all open because election years make councillors work hard in their patch. Sensible suggestions for streamlining the service have fallen on deaf ears, which means now we are faced with total devastation of services.

Library staff in this borough and I am sure elsewhere CARE

A consultation was put in place last year, but was designed following market research guidelines not Local Government ones (for which there is specific guidance available on GOV.UK). The consultation was only available online and was extremely difficult to locate. Paper information sheets (not many) were sent to library branches but staff were given instruction not to hand them to members of the public unless they specifically asked for them.

There was no offer visible for the consultation to be available in other languages or large print. Library staff were told that we were not allowed to undertake the consultation ourselves “because there are so few staff you won’t have time”.

When the information paper about the consultation was published, it reported that “borrowing books, finding information and ICT” were the top uses of libraries, yet the conclusion drawn on the same report declared that: “It would appear that libraries are not actually about literacy and books, nor necessarily about ICT access…but…more as a community space for people to meet and a space people think other people ought to have access to, even though they don’t use it themselves”.

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At least two thirds of libraries in the area will be closed. The first we heard of this current plan was a message from the leader of the council stating that he would be briefing the press, and the first facts any of us learned were read in local newspapers. We were not offered any kind of staff meeting to discuss concerns.

The consultation seems to have been a fait accompli. We have seen emails that were sent to community groups about taking over some libraries before the official vote to close them had taken place. It is almost as if they knew what the outcome would be, which is one thing, but then effectively sharing that knowledge with the community groups they emailed… That’s messed up. Meanwhile, it took eight days for us to hear anything official about what happens next from our Head of Service.

We are now in limbo. To close the libraries at the end of June we now only need be given 45 days notice. Putting most of the above aside though, there is the human impact of the decimation of our library service on those who use us every day.

We have been repeatedly told that we are not allowed to “campaign” for our jobs

This borough is not a wealthy one. High unemployment, low literacy levels and a dying high street combine to make this a place where libraries are essential. Job seekers are supposed to spend seven hours a day (according to the government) searching for jobs on computers when they do not own one. We help people who have never used a computer before in their life fill in a myriad of online forms in order to provide for themselves. We are asked to watch children while the parents shop (no, sorry!), to sign passport forms, scan vital documents to government departments.

Staff do their best to support the homeless people who come to the library to get warm because there is nowhere else to go. Our mobile libraries visit people who don’t see anyone else in their homes from month to month. That human interaction is vitally important. We are there when relatives die and people need consolation.

Throughout these years of uncertainty we have always been expected to continue to provide the same excellent service that we have always given. The staff numbers have dwindled down to a skeleton crew and these days we scrabble around to find enough staff just to open all of the buildings we have got. Customers have no idea about this of course and continue to demand, and receive, a huge amount of assistance.

Library staff in this borough and I am sure elsewhere CARE. We care that someone looks hungry or upset or confused. We put up with abuse from some of the more demanding customers and the blue lights in the toilets to prevent drug use. We cope with the verbal insults because we have stopped someone looking at pornography on a public computer. We put up with all of that because we want to provide a service and to help.

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Colleagues and some customers have been in tears because the library they use is closing. I have tried to comfort when all I really want to do is cry myself. How on earth do you convey to people who only care about money the true importance of libraries?

To quote the writer Anne Herbert, ‘Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries’.

To protect the librarians’ identities we have omitted their names

UPDATE

The librarians got back in touch to share what happened next…

We finally had an all staff meeting about the new restructure on Monday. Only there were two meetings instead of one, so neither of them were ‘all staff’. I suspect this was because they couldn’t be bothered to make their way to the venue we usually use, which would fit us all in, but no reason was given.

They were held in the Council Chambers, one at 10am and one at 2pm. Nearly all of our libraries are closed on Mondays so this meant almost everybody having to come in on their day off. Which would be fine, but we were only given one week’s notice, so not everyone could make it. And let’s not forget the fact that the Saturday staff only found out there was a meeting on Monday when they turned up for work on the preceding Saturday. That’s around 48 hours notice.

The meetings marked the official beginning of the 45 Day Consultation with staff period.

I think it’s worth mentioning early on that in this, the very first meeting between the new head of service and his staff, a meeting to update us on the progress of a restructure that means the closure of nine static libraries and one mobile library, they didn’t have any of the details we most wanted to see:

How many job losses will there be?

How many members of staff will be needed to man each library?

What will the new opening hours be?

We were given some of the new job descriptions, but no confirmed gradings to go with them, so we don’t know for sure what each role will be paid.

None of that information will be ready for a couple of weeks, so ostensibly, we’re still in exactly the same position we were in last week, but the consultation period has started.

The head of service mentioned “money” about eight times and “books” only twice

From what we can gather from the job descriptions, it looks as though there will now be a massive pay gap between management and workers. Where does responsibility for day to day stuff now fall? It’s not clear from what we’ve been given so far. And if they haven’t been consulting with anyone who has any library experience to date, then have they even taken these kinds of things into account?

As an aside of sorts, in the first meeting of the day, the head of service mentioned “money” about eight times in the first fifteen minutes, and “books” only twice throughout the whole thing. He spoke about the need for libraries to start generating their own income, yet had he spoke to us before doing all this we could have run through previous suggestions with him, and told him why they were knocked back. That way, if anything sounded feasible, he could have investigated further. As it now stands, there are 45 days before what he’s proposed gets passed into fact. That’s not long enough to explore some of these options.

And lastly, he had no idea how we select the books we buy into our libraries. Basically, we don’t, they’re selected for us as part of the deal we signed recently. It’s called supplier selection. He didn’t know how his libraries go about getting their stock of books.

Are similar things happening in your area? Get in touch to tell us #WhyBooksMatter editorial@bigissue.com