Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing: #1

Thinking about the destruction of the public library service....

My first job as a school leaver was as a pre-professional library assistant. This was a post which took employees with A levels and gave them a year's work in a local authority library before being enrolled on a four year degree course to become a qualified librarian.

I loved library work, but a combination of things made me abandon this as a career. At 18, four years seemed like a lifetime's study; I was busy settling into Little Miss Home Counties Housewife of the Year mode (I had a serious boyfriend who, like me, hadn't gone to university). What really did it, though, was the pay. After four years, a qualified librarian's salary was pretty rubbish by the standards of, say, a classroom teacher, and by definition there would always be fewer librarians than library assistant posts to go around. In addition to this, it involved a lot of unsocial hours (evenings and weekends on rota), and the prospect of an office job looked more appealing in terms of hours and pay.

Librarians are massively undervalued - the ones I worked with were all fiercely intelligent, resourceful and committed (and, possibly unusually at that time, mostly female). The pay's a little better now but, given their expertise, still not brilliant. The prospect of our libraries being run by a combination of ladies-who-lunch and retired people (literally, a dying breed) is depressing. No matter how well-meaning they might be, they will not have the skills to unearth what's not on the shelves. This is fine if you want to borrow the latest Dan Brown, but not if you need the little-remembered, out-of print novel which is probably lurking in the stacks somewhere, last taken out in 1936, which the trained librarian would probably be able to unearth for you. Contrary to popular belief, there's more to knowledge than Google or Wikipedia. 

And what of 'editorial control'? How long before a Daily Mail-reading volunteer decides that a book is 'unsuitable', based on some opinion piece from one of their regular contributors - you know who I mean - and copies disappear from the shelves? With money for acquisitions minimal, what chance does a lesser-known author stand of having his/her works purchased if the alternative is to buy additional copies of the latest bestsellers to meet 'reader demand'. Very soon, libraries will come to resemble a railway station WHSmith rather than a place where one can discover new (or even old!) writers.

It doesn't strike me that the current cabinet has much intellectual heft, so it's unlikely that they will miss public libraries much (and of course they're far too busy running the country to have time for things like books). For the rest of us, though, it's another case of our cultural lives being diminished by the intellectual pygmies who now hold the purse strings.

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