I hardly ever use my local public library. I am lucky enough to work for a university library that gives me access to almost anything I could want, and I earn enough to be able to buy my leisure reading, even if I rarely have the leisure to read it. If I need to I can use the British Library or one of the other specialist libraries in central London. I do not have young children. I have reasonable access to the Internet at home (could be better, BT), and I own a smartphone, a tablet, and an e-book reader. I am remarkably privileged, as, I suspect, are most of the people who make policy about public libraries. As the airwaves today were full of people expressing views about the value of public libraries in the age of the Internet, I popped into mine, and found it, as usual, full of young families choosing books and people sitting quietly working at PCs or at study desks. The reading hour for small children was about to start, and a CV clinic was being advertised.
Today the BBC published some research showing that public libraries had lost 8000 jobs in 6 years and 15,500 volunteers had taken the place of public library staff. Actually they didn’t say public libraries, they just said libraries, but we must assume that they meant public libraries. The sloppy reporting was symptomatic of a day in which the debate has often been at a level that does neither side any favours. As a librarian it is easy to get angry at the people we see as our opponents, but it was clear from today that the library profession has not yet managed to create a clear simple message about its value that can be understood and presented by the media. Instead the message is muddled. Librarians are invited on to the radio to talk about extra projects they are doing to engage the public rather than their core role, and volunteers are asked to explain the work of professional librarians. A few library campaigners do a great job (take a bow, Lauren Smith) but the questions are trivial and concerned only with the lending of books. There is no understanding of the professional skills of librarians.
Most public librarians cannot speak up against the Councils who are cutting their jobs, so it is vital that the profession speaks up for them. What is the difference between a professional librarian and a volunteer? A professional librarian has been trained to understand how information is created, disseminated, accessed, and sometimes blocked, and should be able to provide an individual user or a community of users with the right information for them. That skill was important when we only had print, but now that we have all the complexity of the Internet it is infinitely more valuable than it was. Everything else is a distraction.