Tuesday, 12 October 2010


SINTO is running a seminar on personal and professional development in November. It is aimed at front line library staff. But what exactly do we mean by "professional" in this context and why is it relevant to libraries?

Tim Coates in his Good Library Blog takes issue with the MLA over the following statement:

"Change to the library service has to be part of a broader agenda of change and the service has to be seen as part of the whole – integral to delivering the wider ambitions of the (local) authority"

Coates (or his cat Perkins) says that "this is in contradiction to the law which says that 'public libraries are for the benefit of those people who wish to use them' - not for the benefit of the agenda or ambitions of local councils, which are, quite naturally, entirely different to those people who simply want to use libraries". He continues:

"The constant, but silly and illogical, attempts to shoe-horn public libraries into the social service agendas of both local and national government have been what has reduced its qualities to a low level".

The idea that 'public libraries are for the benefit of those people who wish to use them' needs to be treated with care as it might suggest that libraries should focus on the type of person who already uses libraries rather than trying to reach out to excluded groups. However I agree that public libraries should have their own agenda and that this is not just about delivering the aims of local councils. As Bob Usherwood makes clear, this agenda should include developing people's potential through education and the promotion of good literature. It would be hard to imagine that this could be in opposition to the wider ambitions of the council but it is not necessarily integral to its agenda.

I understand why senior library managers want to promote the role of libraries in delivering the council's agenda. For a start they are employees of the council and their job description probably makes specific reference to this role. Also "he who pays the piper calls the tune". When chief librarians are fighting with other departmental heads for limited funds the game rules make clear that the goal is to contribute directly to the councils agenda. There is no National Information Policy or overarching idea that librarians can cite to promote an independent mission for libraries. I don't think that many chief librarians (sorry, Assistant Deputy Directors, Culture and Communities (Library & Information Services)), would stand up in a departmental budget meeting and proclaim that "The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization" as a way of getting a bigger share of the budget.

Finally we know that libraries can contribute to all these other aspects of the council's agenda - but there has to be more to it than that.

One aspect of this is the way in which front line library staff are seen by the council, library managers and themselves. They are often perceived as "customer care officers" or some such term and not as librarians. Of course there have always been library assistants (sometimes called paraprofessionals or even non-professionals) but they used to work under the direction of professional staff. Today few libraries require or even expect professional qualifications for their staff and many people working in libraries do not accept that membership of a professional body or even qualifications in librarianship are essential. Many librarians (and very good librarians at that) question the relevance of professionalism.

I believe that there is a concept of professionalism that is of value in libraries (of value to the individual, to the library users and to the organisation). This concept does not depend on qualifications or membership of a professional body (although both are ways of achieving professionalism). Rather it is an understanding of what libraries are about and a commitment to personal and professional development in order to deliver this. "What libraries are about" is of course the key issue and one that must be constantly reviewed. It must be approached from a core of understanding and values. Customer care does not provide that core - professionalism does.


Anonymous said...

The constant reviewing of what libraries are about in my opinion has led to the confused state that we are in now. Too much emphasis on diversification and the quest for the all new shiny bright 21st century library twinned with the lack of leadership in the sector (MLA, DCMS etc) has left library staff and library users frazzled and angry. I hate to use this quote but it has become my, and others, mantra over the last few years "Back to Basics" - more good quality books, better opening hours, good ICT provision (free if possible), better buildings and trained and knowledgeable staff, this is what, if asked, the majority of library users want. But they are seldom asked and staff are seldom consulted.
On the point of staff managing change in a positive way, it really depends how the changes were implemented, were staff, unions and users fully consulted and are the changes a positive step forward or just part of a cuts package. Managers might desire this outcome but they might just be asking a little too much of staff who have already faced dramatic changes and are facing further re-structurings, cuts, closures etc.

Tim Coates said...


I'm flattered by your inclusion of my comments on your Sinto blog...

My question is what you mean by 'excluded' ? My view is that if only libraries would concentrate their attention on people who read they would do much better. Half people who read regularly choose not to use public libraries- and that is a real concern. We know the reasons: they don't think they will find what they want, the libraries aren't open, or they find them too scruffy and down market.

To concentrate an inordinate share of resource and budget on people who don't read means there is too little left for people who do. It's like trying to sell petrol to people without cars

It doesn't have to be black and white-- and of course encouraging children is important, but we do that quite well anyhow.

Always happy to discuss these things at any time


Anonymous said...


To suggest that supporting the literacy of those in need, encourage a reading habit in those who would benefit from it, tackle social exclusion through seeking to level the educational and cultural playing field etc. to trying to sell petrol to the carless is an inappropriate analogy which misses the point entirely. The history of the public library service has never been to act purely as a free book shop. The market model is inappropriate and counter to the gol, let alone ethics, of public library services.

To claim that "we know the reasons" for some regular readers' choice to not use public libraries may well be grounded in soe truth - but the three reasons you give repeatedly are simplistic and reductive. They do not take into account, for example, people who would *like* to read regularly but cannot afford to buy books, but also do not feel comfortable using the library because they fear judgement from other patrons, or cannot get the books they want to read because the book budget has been spent on multiple copies of the latest best-seller. These are only two examples of significant reasons for non-use that I have come across in research and in the workplace.

Johanna said...

I have to say that your clumsy comparison of the spending of resources to encourage people to read to selling petrol to those who do not have cars rather offensive. I do not have a car because I cannot afford the crazy price of lessons. Even if I passed my test it would be useless as I cannot afford to run a car - cars are a luxury - public libraries are free for everyone! What world do live in? certainly not mine and it sounds like not that of many public library users.
I need not say any more as Lauren has said it all.

Library Web said...

Quoting TC: '"Back to Basics" - more good quality books' (i.e., in libraries)

I have to say I agree with Tim Coates on this one, if libraries bloody well had some decent books on values and not least their own subject (public libraries) then we wouldn't be in this mess ;)

It's not just good quality books that are needed though, those good quality books are put on the shelves by good quality staff, and found for the public by good quality libraries. I myself would have liked to have seen the Conservatives not making cuts in the public sector, but realising that what is going to raise the public sector to the next level (and we could use it and need it[1]) is up-skilling staff. Managers, frontline. Across the full breadth of the public sector as well. But we're not going to get that in this government I don't think.

[1] The unemployed need better Jobcentre managers and staff to get them into jobs; the public need better policing to get the ball and chain that is crime off their ankles; the public need better libraries to take advantage of the information age that we live in - which has the knock on effect of people reading more! (So we need more and better books :)

"The constant reviewing of what libraries are about" though I think has to go on, but IMHO extended into formal research -- nothing complex - simple, straightforward -- organising some of the confusion. (The latter could be a useful research point in itself.)

Maybe the libraries can begin to ferment out the leadership they need in this way. Sue Charteris has an interesting perspective on library advocacy...


The libraries I think can learn from these conceptualizers. And we need these conceptualizers inorder to adapt and thrive. But do public libraries have the leaders to grasp that which is going to be of immediate use, and make use of the new and original thought we have. Is this a catch 22?


Anonymous said...

Let us not forget section 7 para 2(b) of the Act:-

of encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service, and of providing advice as to its use and of making available such bibliographical and other information as may be required by persons using it; and

Now this may not mean engaging with agendas or such, but it does mean 'outreach' and perhaps suggesting to folk they might want to use the library.