This week's post from Andrea Griffiths, Community Outreach Officer at Vale of Glamorgan Libraries feels very timely. I'm sure many of us will be able to identify with the difficulties of trying to continue to provide services we can be proud of in the face of so many cuts.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work in a library. As a child, all my bookshelves were strict-ordered and subject categorised. Some children played Doctors and Nurses – I played Libraries, and even charged my younger sister for returning books late.
At 19, after a false start at Art College, I started work as a Library Assistant at Cardiff Central Library, transferring 18 months later to Barry Library, where I am still based. Over the following twenty or so years I had a number of promotions and secondments, spending so many years in the Reference and Local Studies section that I was helping children with school projects whose parents had also come to me for help!
I loved this job. I was given a lot of scope to make the Local Studies information more accessible and built up a good relationship with schools and organisations such as the Glamorgan Family History Society and the local Volunteer Bureau, with whom I compiled the Community Directory.
If the library was invited to have a presence at Careers Fairs, Youth Information Days, Lifelong Learning events, etc. I was the one who “took the library out” – I still am! I have always believed that the Library Service has to be pro-active in maintaining a high profile within the County Council and with the wider public, so I still make sure I sit on various committees in order to keep abreast of community developments.
What I didn’t like so much about the job was the loneliness. I was in a department of one for many years and it was only when we had a new librarian that I had regular staff to assist and train.
When the library was moved wholesale to the Leisure Centre during refurbishment, I found the environment very uncomfortable and started applying for other jobs. In 2004 my perfect job came along – to catalogue the Vale’s complete Local Studies collection! We were still in the process of computerising our stock, and Local Studies was the last section to be attempted. It was a big job, but having done lots of cataloguing in the past I was up to it and a spent a very pleasurable year’s secondment, under Helen McNabb, the Vale’s brilliant Bibliographic Services Officer.
I then saw advertised the new post of Community Outreach Officer and discussed whether it was worth applying for, as I didn’t have any professional qualifications, other than an Open University degree, completed some four years earlier. I was advised to “go for it” and got my application in on the very last day. Thank goodness I did! I was successful in the interview and offered funding to follow the MSc Econ distance learning course at Aberystwyth. I was so grateful – at last I would qualify, after nearly thirty years working in libraries!
The Outreach Officer’s post included line management responsibilities for four village libraries and two Mobile Libraries, almost all single-staffed by experienced Senior Assistants I had known and worked alongside for many years. I was in a very happy place – I had staff I liked and respected, an approachable line manager in Christopher Edwards (now the Vale’s Chief Librarian), admin staff I could depend on and colleagues that were a joy to work with. No two days are the same and it’s impossible to be bored in such a varied job.
However, the Council found a way to burst my bubble. Cuts, cunningly disguised as “savings”. The Mobile Libraries are taken off the road. The schools’ visits were the first to go, all the little village schools out in the Vale, too far from any of our libraries for regular visits – I had arranged it so that all the schools were getting a visit once a fortnight, now there are children in those schools who may never see the inside of a public library. Six months later the public visits stopped – the Care Homes and playgroups we visited, the tiny villages, farms and Home Borrowers. It was devastating. I had already set up a Home Library Service using volunteers, so when the Mobiles went we were at least able to continue a service to the Home Borrowers, but as for the rest …
Unfortunately, in the last year, the “V” word has become a contentious issue in the Vale of Glamorgan. A staff and public consultation was carried out in order to identify savings that could be made. The first recommendations that came out of it were for three of the villages to have their libraries turned over to the community. The latest version of this is for all four villages and one of our full-time branches to be volunteer-run. Coupled with this, various posts look set to be discontinued, including my own, though we have to go through a second round of consultations first.
This has understandably led to very low staff morale across the board. At 57, I’m not ready to retire. I know I have been very lucky in my working life; I’ve often been in the right place at the right time for advancement and have always made the best of things, keeping myself busy, taking on a variety of new projects in order to keep my job interesting.
I’m not sure I’d recommend public librarianship as a career to anyone these days, though, and certainly not by the circuitous route I took! The money’s not that good, your status within Local Government is continually being eroded and while we are supposed to be responsive to the needs of the public, we increasingly have to devise ways of making money – service to the community seemingly taking second place to profit. That’s not my sort of library service.