De-professionalisation of librarianship and library provision in Suffolk libraries has been going on for years. At the major restructuring (one of many) of around 1990, librarians – that is, those who have studied to achieve a professional qualification, often a degree in the subject – were taken out of branches. ‘Library Managers’ were created to run each branch, usually recruited from the existing ranks of Enquiry Officers. This made some sense as day-to-day management was largely taken off the shoulders of professional librarians, so that they could use their skills as part of a team, serving a number of branches. What it meant in practice, of course, was that there was a marked drop in the number of professionals employed as they left/retired and weren’t replaced and this process has continued. In the CIPFA (The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) statistics which provide comparative provision and measures of service across the country, Suffolk has occupied a very low position in this regard.
By around 2006 after other restructures the largest number of professional librarians in Suffolk libraries could be found in middle and senior management posts (they’ve all gone now), which didn’t seem to require many librarianship skills. The only librarians actually using their professional skills were a handful scattered across the Schools Library Service, Surestart, doing website, information and reference work and under four posts in the Stock Team. Since then, professional stock selectors have been cut in Suffolk and their functions exported to commercial companies employing librarians who select remotely according to formulas. The last we heard there were one-and-a-half professionals in the Stock Team. Now we see further evidence that professional work is being passed to non-professionals and, worse still, unpaid non-professionals. One wonders what would happen if you pitched up at your doctor’s surgery and had a consultation with volunteer “Health Advisor” about your hernia. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the public’s educational, recreational and cultural enrichment via public library services is different from their medical condition, but the point is still valid.
The driver in all this is, needless to say, cutting costs – “efficiency savings” sounds better. Saving the rather modest salary of a professional librarian is always going to be tempting for senior managers. However, the ‘innovative’ and ‘imaginative’ use of unpaid, unqualified ‘stock advisors’ does have its problems. Someone has to train and manage the output of the people who are offering suggestions for stock. Presumably the one-and-a-half Stock Librarians. Does the introduction of unpaid volunteers imply that the stock procurement process put in by the county council is inadequate?
This looks like an example of volunteers replacing paid staff, something the IPS said it wouldn’t do. Indeed job losses as illustrated by this example mean that fewer salaries are being paid to properly employed staff and therefore no proportion of their salaries is available to be transferred to others in buying local goods and services. This policy prolongs the recession. If volunteers can do this work, how many of the other paid jobs in Suffolk libraries will disappear? Perhaps we’re being paranoid in thinking that:
volunteers choosing stock = poor choices = fewer loans = good reason to close a branch?