26 Apr 2017

The real value of Librarians

1:17 pm on 26 April 2017

Auckland Libraries say they will save $1.8 million by cutting 5 percent of staff. But what about the human cost?


Auckland libraries are set to cut about 5 per cent of staff.

Auckland libraries are set to cut about 5 per cent of staff. Photo: 123rf

When I was 23 and mysteriously unable to find work relevant to the Film Studies MA I had just completed, I landed a job at the Auckland Central Library working 30 hours a week.

My role as a library assistant - it takes about 4 years of study to earn the title of Librarian - turned out to be demanding in just about every way. Physically, mentally, emotionally - I have never been so busy or exhausted in a job.

I worked for the library for about 10 months. My mother has worked as a librarian for Auckland libraries for about 40 years.

The announcement earlier this month that Auckland Libraries would be undergoing massive restructuring made rumours of job losses official and punctuated what has been a year long nightmare for her and her colleagues.

Fit for the Future, cheery PR statements tell us, is a jazzy new plan to retool Auckland Libraries for our ever crazier digital world that seems to come down to the following conceit: who needs staff when you have computers?

In addition to the loss of around 5 percent of Auckland Libraries staff, Fit for the Future will see permanent staff members sent to work at not just one library but at several in a designated collection. Meanwhile a number of roles are to be disestablished and 80 percent of current staff must submit expressions of interest asking to not lose their jobs, in spite of being given no information as to what hours or which libraries they would be given.

With an “improved business model” the $65 million operating cost will be reduced, they say, by approximately $1.8 million a year. What a saving!

Since library staff were informed of Fit to the Future in May last year, my mother reported a rapidly increasing climate of anxiety and panic: Colleagues bursting into tears in the staff room; CV workshops in which managers spend their free time helping staff fit their careers into two page resumes (cover letters are not being accepted in the reapplication process, thank you very much); Stern, repeated warnings from management to keep all this confidential.

In the midst of this chilling effect - one that remains as library staff reapply for their jobs - one might think everything was going fabulously.

“We have always known that people love our libraries and throughout this process we have heard that message loud and clear”, Mirla Edmundson, Auckland Council’s General Manager Libraries and Information, breezily told Our Auckland this month. “That has given us a lot of confidence that we are moving in the right direction and future-proofing our spaces for people now and in years to come.”

The language used in statements such as these - slick, cheerful, and bureaucratically opaque - is not just infuriating for library staff who have been strictly warned time and time again not to express their own feelings about Fit to the Future to media or the public. It is crushing.

Claims that the reduction of staff will not affect service are a disingenuous and direct assault on staff morale and it is hardly surprising that so many have already given up and taken voluntary redundancy.

If looking around a library is not enough evidence, studies show that around 80% of our librarians are women and in light of this it is hardly surprising that both the professional and social roles they perform are devalued. As Janet McAllister pointed out in the NZ Herald this week, library staff are not desk jockeys. The job is predominantly and essentially human, and the pastoral and social care they offer to communities is irreplaceable.

When I worked for Auckland Libraries in 2013, things were already hardly satisfactory for library staff. In spite of how hard the work seemed, I earned less than the living wage and had to pick up extra shifts to supplement my 30 hours a week. 40 hour contracts were exceptionally rare, with most "fulltime" staff signed to 38 a week contract for reasons I still consider suspicious. The "lead team" - a mysterious group of wealthy white baby boomers who apparently ran things - would show up occasionally to hand out council Pounamu, and seemed to exist primarily to remind us where we were in the food chain.

In spite of this, it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Hierarchies, bad and scary patrons, the terrible pay - none of these things ever negated the sense that what happened there was important or diluted the incredible camaraderie between staff.

Libraries are not businesses. They are taxpayer-funded community hubs, serving an irrefutable and universal public good. The idea that five per cent of staff can be disposed of to shave off roughly two per cent of the overall cost demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of value and a grave underestimation of the worth of skilled library staff. Not to mention that it is hard to imagine how putting 800 of your present workers through a stressful, time consuming recruitment process could be considered practically or fiscally efficient.

The world is changing as it always has, and yes digital services are important. Yet it is hard to imagine the kind of narrow sighted ignorance that would presume that the role of library staff is not essential and inherent to the public good that libraries serve.

My mother and her colleagues know the patrons of their small community library as well as they do each other. The students who come to study. The parents who bring their kids to wriggle and rhyme. The guy who looks at mail order brides on the computers. The rough sleepers who they know by name and give care packages to at Christmas.

The loss of library staff dispenses not only of skills like archiving and indexing and researching, but an expertise in people - and that’s something we cannot afford to lose.

Sign the Save our Super City Librarians Petition here.