Voices for the Library - communicating impact
If the profession fails to communicate its value, then the march of 'amateurisation' will continue, argues Ian Clark.
As we are all too acutely aware, librarians suffer from a bit of an image problem. I'm not talking about those stereotypes we all wring our hands over but about the perception that policy-makers have of professionally trained librarians. Whether we like it or not, there's a fairly commonly held view that we are over-qualified and the job of a librarian is, effectively, to stamp and shelves books. This certainly seemed to be the view of consultancy firm KPMG who, in a report on the reform of public services [PDF], claimed that:
"Giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on overskilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock."
When Joe Bloggs down the road thinks your job is irrelevant, that's one thing. When it's the view of a consultancy firm with links to government, you have a bit of a problem!
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that what we contribute as a profession is somewhat intangible, or at least the benefits of what we do aren't always immediately apparent, whichever sector we work in. One could argue that this perception is particularly virulent across the public sector, particularly in the existing economic climate. Given that our work is both intangible (in terms of immediate outputs) and, apparently, irrelevant due to the emergence of the internet (which, of course, every single person has access to), it is no surprise that librarians are increasingly finding themselves in the frontline.
Certainly, the impact of KPMG's words are being felt at a local level. Across the country, libraries are being closed and trained staff replaced with volunteers, volunteers who often have no wish to run the library service themselves (at least some people still understand the value of a professional managing the service!). There's no doubt that the KPMG report has had a substantial impact upon how the profession is viewed and how the service is being radically altered.
I would argue that a central plank in the amateurisation of the library service has been the failure of the profession to adequately communicate its value. We have not become irrelevant overnight (indeed, our role is possibly more important now than ever), but we have failed to communicate our relevance effectively, coherently and in a way that challenges some of the myths that have been allowed to grow.