Friday, March 16, 2012

Is Librarianship a dying occupation?

For the first time, I fear for the future of Librarians.
I've long been aware of the pressure on school libraries - particularly in the UK - to close, and thus release "resources" (read "money") for IT.. Check out this article on The Times Higher Education website (formerly the Times Higher Education Supplement), which Wikipedia tells me is UK's leading higher education publication.  And yes, I know there's something wrong with a Librarian writing on the decline of Librarians, using Wikipedia as an authoritative source.

Many, many UK primary school libraries have closed, and the books relegated to an untended corner or even cupboard so the room can be used for other things, and the money that was spent on books and library staff wages can be spent elsewhere - usually on IT.  Here in NZ Cambridge College tried it some years ago, turning their library into a cafe, but the outcry meant the project was short lived and the library returned.

In general, libraries have always been abreast of trends and up with the play.  You can download the latest book to your eReader from most NZ libraries, and you don't even need to leave your home to do it.  But it is not this that is the problem for school libraries.

At the moment most School Librarians in NZ are investigating eBook possibilities for their libraries, and networking with each other about all aspects of this.  Many of them own eReaders themselves.  Do we buy eReaders and lend them out?  They aren't robust enough to cope with some of the "activity" that school bags are part of.  Do we become a BYOD  (bring your own device) library, and if so, what about the majority of our students who won't have a device or if they do, won't be allowed (primary school) to bring it to school?  And what if they do, and it gets lost, stolen or broken?
Becoming an eBook lending library is quite different from owning a device and purchasing or borrowing an eBook for your own use.  To be a lender of eBooks a library has to pay a fee to a bookseller for the rights to their ePlatform, which will host and facilitate the lending of eBooks to library patrons.  There goes $1000.  Then the library has to purchase the eBooks.  Some are out of copyright and are free.  Most that school children want to read are not.  And not a whole lot cheaper than buying the paper copy.  Each eBook the library purchases, can, as with a paper copy, only be on loan to one borrower at a time.  Borrowers have to wait their turn, as with a paper copy, or the library can purchase multiple eBooks of the same title.  Each time the eBook is downloaded to a device, there is another fee.  I would like to think this is a copyright fee that goes to the author, but I'm fairly sure that it isn't.  Libraries have long escaped paying copyright on loans (ergo, so have borrowers) and I fear that the 24c per download fee may stay with the booksellers.  A school library can pay one annual download fee of $750 instead of the per-item amount, so already the cost to the library is more than many schools can afford for new books each year in these difficult times.  So do we still buy new books?  Paper copy real books?  Well yes of course.  Most of the titles our kids want to read aren't available as eBooks, and while you can curl up with a Kindle anywhere (except not if it's a library book you're hoping to read on it - Amazon and Libraries are as yet not singing from the same song eBook) there's still something delicious about a Real Book that is quite aesthetically different from a device.

With all of this new stuff hitting our school libraries, wouldn't you think this would be just the time that Real Qualified Know-What-They're-Doing Librarians would be worth their weight in books?  Doesn't seem to be the case.  I went to a School Librarians' Network meeting on Tuesday.  Present were about 30 or so librarians from local schools, both Primary and Secondary.   In the Primary group, the librarians (unfortunately here I use the term loosely) were of three types -
  1. a whole host of new people who each introduced themselves as a "librarian" having no training or experience in any library, and each was hired to replace a qualified, experienced Librarian
  2. teachers with Library Responsibility - they are paid generally One Management Unit (about $2500) per year to oversee the library.  They are teachers.  They generally spend little time in the library.
  3. Librarians, generally with over 20 years' experience.  Qualified Librarians, who are passionate about kids and know the difference between great kid-grabbing books and the rest, who advocate for literacy and the library, who listen to kids excited about a book they've read or are reading, who listen to kids who hate reading and try to find them something appealing, and who as they resign or retire, as being replaced with cheap labour.
I was gutted.  For the first time in my life I thought that next time a child tells me they want to be a Librarian, I would sadly hope they find a career more likely to still exist by the time they leave school.  Usually I enthusiastically tell them how cool it is to actually be given money and HAVE to BUY BOOKS with it!  And then, to HAVE to READ the books so that I can recommend them to the right kids!  Coolest job in the world!

The guts of the problem is the underfunding of schools.  There isn't enough money to run a modern school, and the reason modern schools need so much more money than they used to, is, quite frankly, the enormous amount needed by IT.  The number of computers, the interactive white boards, the video cameras, sound gear etc, the programmes and their annual licence fees, and then the very regular replacement of computers, interactive white boards, video cameras  etc etc with even more expensive ones that can do more, faster and better, but whose life seems to be ever shorter - therein lies the problem.  And school libraries are struggling not to be collateral damage.  Every now and then an article pointing out the problem appears - this one is a year old but sadly, accurate and typical - but the problem just gets worse.

And so Librarians are, I fear, a dying breed.  Society will be the worse for it, and unqualified, untrained, and inexperienced people will be paid basic minimum wage and expected to be all that the Real Life Librarian they replaced was. And children will never know what a Librarian really is.