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There’s a buzz in the info pro twittersphere this morning about the KPMG appearance on R4’s Today programme (library discussion starts about 8 mins in). Alan Downey from KPMG was talking about how the public can effectively run services that are currently run by the council, and was challenged specifically on the point of libraries. This was based on a KPMG report that came out today.
I’ll come on to discuss his claim that libraries could be run by volunteers, but my first warning that I was going to disagree with this man came when he said that ‘libraries are hugely important in the national psyche’. Oh, just in the psyche then? Not maybe actually important? It appears not. According to Alan Downey, we just think they are important. This is echoed in the written report, where they claim that ‘The level of community resistance to closing a library is usually disproportionate to the level of local usage’. Nothing overtly wrong with this sentence, perhaps, but oh! those nasty weasel words. ‘Disproportionate resistance’ is what stands out, and you can feel the condescension in every syllable.
The overwhelming impression I got from the interview was that Alan Downey’s idea of libraries is that they are buildings full of books. If library services can be run by the same people who are queueing up to sell books in charity shops, that strongly implies that he equates the two skill-sets. In the written report, libraries are condemned for having ‘over-skilled staff’. Well, if all library staff did was check books in and out, then perhaps they could be considered to be overskilled. But librarians do so much more than that – most ‘library services’ are based on the expert skills and knowledge of librarians. KPMG clearly do not have a clue about this.
KPMG clearly do not have a clue about a lot of things. I wanted to see where their assertions had come from, two in particular: that ‘in North America libraries are often run by volunteers not paid council staff’; and ‘much of the public space in a library is badly used storing infrequently used books’. Has there been a recent report about borrowing levels/circulation stats I’d missed? Well, quite possibly, but there’s no way of finding out through KPMG, because they don’t have any references. I’ll say that again: a report from a top advisory firm, aimed at reforming UK public services, contains not a single reference. Not one. Nary a hint of a reference. The press release about the report contains what could – with a generous stretch – be seen as a reference, in their ‘note to editors’, but is really just another unsubstantiated assertion. It looks like KPMG could have done with the help of some information professionals in compiling their report.
But they don’t know what information professionals do. They don’t know what libraries do. They don’t even really seem to know what libraries are. It looks like we need to go back to basics. Forget educating people about the value that information professionals add. Forget telling them how we can help them to find better, more authoritative sources of information. Let’s go right back to the very beginning: librarians facilitate information finding. Nope, too vague. Ok then: without librarians, there would be no books on your library shelves. If there were books on the shelves (‘study local needs for our acquisition policy? Nah, let’s just order the Amazon bestsellers list’), you wouldn’t be able to find the one you wanted. Oh yes, volunteers in charity shops do manage to organise the 50-200 books they have. Sometimes they even organise them by colour! That looks pretty, right? And we all have time to stand there and read every single spine in case the book we want might be there. No librarians? No catalogues. The reference desk? Will actually become just for lending pencils and directing people to the toilet. The computers? Well, you can try and use them – all depends on how IT-savvy your volunteer of the day is.
Yes, volunteers can be trained to do everything librarians do! Of course they can. This can be done in a number of ways – the most common is a post-graduate course at a CILIP-accredited library school. If you work in a library, and you’re trained to help users find information, then you’re a librarian. Maybe not a professional librarian, but a librarian nonetheless. But volunteers without specialist library training? I can think of no quicker way to reduce a library to a building full of books.