Posted by: bluesyemre | August 1, 2019

The Guardian view on #librarians: guides to life, not just to #books


The old Aberystwyth library, Wales, which closed in 2012. Photograph: Keith Morris/Alamy

The closure of libraries due to council cuts has been well documented. But the loss of staff in remaining branches is equally serious…

It is often only when we lose things, or risk losing them, that we realise how much we value them. As public library budgets have shrunk and doors have closed – with around 500 branches shut in England since 2010, and around the same number handed over to volunteers – people who had not given libraries much thought have been stirred to action. High-profile campaigns against closures have been fought, and in some cases won. Cressida Cowell, the new children’s laureate, is urging that school libraries be made a statutory requirement. But the fate of librarians has largely escaped notice.

This is a mistake, because they are the guides and curators without whom a library, whether standalone or in a school or institution, is simply a collection of books. At their best they can reshape not only the skills and knowledge of users, but their whole perspective: “How many times I’ve been told about a librarian who saved a life by offering the right book at the right time,” the American author Judy Blume has said.

Yet 10,000 jobs in council libraries have been lost since 2005, with about 15,000 remaining. Technology has displaced some, with the creation of unstaffed branches, and has transformed the role of others; computer access is now an important aspect of the service, and librarians routinely help people with online benefits applications.

There is no reason why libraries should not offer this kind of support, as long as staff have sufficient resources and training. The baby and book groups, homework and play clubs, English and IT lessons hosted by libraries are a positive extension of their role. But such activities must not come at the expense of the librarian’s task of championing books and literacy, which is even more important in an age of information overload and fake news.

Shrunken budgets inevitably make this service harder to deliver: when libraries no longer have budgets to buy new publications, readers can’t access them, which may in part explain a recent fall in lending. Such cuts affect all sorts of people, but are particularly damaging when children cannot find books to suit them. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Summer Reading Challenge, a scheme offering incentives to children who sign up to read a book a week during the holidays; especially valuable to those who don’t go away or have shelves full of books at home. It is also a reminder of the kind of one-on-one engagement that has become a rarity. The ideal librarian is a skilled maker of recommendations.

Librarians can be much more than book experts. Libraries are community as well as knowledge hubs, and should promote and harness civic activism. The 50,000 people now volunteering in English libraries have much to offer. But any government with a serious commitment to expanding educational opportunities for young and old would invest, not only in libraries, but in the people who work in them.

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