Tuesday, 2 October 2007

What they say about us

It's always interesting to see ourselves through the eyes of others. When it comes to how outsiders see libraries ans librarians this can be uncomfortable - especially when outdated or unflattering stereotypes are used. Youtube is always a good source of deeply unflattering representations of librarians. A recent example is The Librarian Dialogues which features a staff meeting in a US public library where four "librarians" bicker about the minutia of running a library. As far as I can see, it is completely pointless, not very funny, not satirical, not even a training aid. Someone has created some two-dimensional caricatures and is trying to raise a laugh by making fun of them.

That is not to say that humour can't be found in the portrayal of the peculiarities of the library world. Stuart Maconie is a broadcaster and journalist well known for his work on Radio 2 and other stations. he has recently published Pies and prejudice: in search of the North - an exploration of the landscape and people of the north of England. Stuart admits to a love of libraries:

"I love libraries. As a kid I practically lived in Powell Street Library in Wigan, devouring everything from Norse myths to football reference books to Richmal Crompton's William stories to books about Romania, a country I was strangely fascinated by...

"Public libraries in the afternoon attract a certain kind of melancholic misfit whom life, it seems, has somehow passed by. I don't know if this is a good description of me but I do like a nice public library of an afternoon."
p44

Later he visits Oldham Library and Art Gallery, as described in previous postings.

"Gallery Oldham turns out to be pretty marvellous. A classy bit of modernist steel and glass in the midst of tat and run-down Victoriana. It's the only library I've ever come across which seems to have a nightclub inside. It was taking deliveries of crates of those flavoured vodka drinks (for people who don't like alcohol but want to get utterly trashed) and seemed to be called Rude or possibly 365. A large banner proclaimed 'IT''S ALL ABOUT HOUSE MUSIC'...

"Inside, pretty much all of the actual galleries are closed but I'm starting to get used to this kind of minor disappointment. The girl who politely explains that I can't use my wireless laptop link because I'm not a library member has an accent that's broad 'Lanky' with an exotic descant melody in Francophone, a pretty winning combination, I have to tell you. I begin to ask increasingly redundant queries just to listen to her voice. Nearby, an elderly lady is asking about a local history book on an Oldham factory: 'I do hope you have it. Both my grandfathers worked there.' Sadly they don't but she reserves it for 80p. 'Can it go to Lees library? I live there, you see.' In the Local Studies section a loud cheery man seeks help in his quest to investigate his Irish roots. 'My grandfather was born in 1818. But that's all I know. Would you do the research for me?" With unfailing courtesy the librarian points out that he has to do the actual research himself but that two nice ladies from 'the Society' come in every Wednesday from two till four. Also, she gently advises that the marriage certificate he's brought with him is in fact a death certificate. 'Green one's marriage, love, black is death.' As I travelled around the north, I saw hundreds of these small everyday acts of kindness and they never failed to cheer the spirit and make me quietly proud. Some of the clich├ęs about us are true. We are friendlier and more helpful. And if you don't agree, we might glass you, of course."
p171

Sheffield Libraries, Archives & Information have just issues a special edition of their Staff News to mark National Customer Service Week. This features some of the nice things that have been said about the service recently:

"Sometimes services in our city do not get the thanks and acknowledgement they deserve - one such service is Sheffield Libraries... we have found the staff to be exceptional in their kindness and helpfulness, nothing has been too much trouble for them, so would you, on our behalf make sure they are aware of our gratitude"

"Sheffield libraries are brilliant, so are the staff. Much better than in ..... where I come from"

"Using the books and Internet in this library helped me pass my exams. Thank you"

"I am 72 and have just learned to use a computer. Thank you so much for your patience and help. Marvellous"

"This must be one of the most helpful places in Sheffield. It's always a joy to come here"

"Libraries can always help where others fail"


None of this must blind us to some of the serious problems that we must deal with. Nor must we ignore the "silent majority" who don't use of library services - perhaps because they have had a bad experience in the past. But we can celebrate our successes. If anyone else has similar feedback from other library services in our area please let me know.

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