In the beginning there were libraries

Blogs are on the way out – right? So it’s  a good time to get on the band wagon and “let it all out” and no one will read it, right? My musings will be about music, about libraries, family and maybe with luck, some travel. Sometimes two worlds even collide.

Yesterday at work I watched council colleagues rallying around and forming a command centre in order to deal with and manage issues related to the weather, and grave predictions of flooding and mayhem. I felt at a bit of a loss as I lurked helpfully on the fringes. What could libraries do to support this effort? More particularly, what could I do? I know in some regions library staff are highly skilled Civil Defence responders, but not in my region. And definitely not me. In a crisis I run around hopelessly wringing my hands for the first ten minutes, but inside my head I am formulating a plan. It’s just not obvious to anyone but me. So keeping true to form, I blundered around generally getting in the way and annoying Very Important People all with key roles, like the roading guys, communications staff, the mayor – all the key players you need in a weather crisis of some magnitude.

I was struck, as I have been a couple of times lately, by the fact that public libraries sometimes just don’t fit. Council activities won’t grind to a halt if we close early, or if the computers crash. Some colleagues seem to see us as a bit of an add on – nice to have, but gosh, some of the customers are a bit grotty and dodgy looking  – not unlike a laundromat really. How do I shake that image before I start believing it too, and bringing my whites to work for a freshen up?

I’m proud of the way libraries cater to the wider community and that we don’t judge people on appearance, social standing, race, or any other attribute. And unlike laundromats, our services are largely free. But my dilemma is how to share this with my colleagues and get them feeling the love too. How do I show my Very Important colleagues that we too are an essential service?

Some of the most committed and passionate people I know work in libraries. They work for relatively low rates of pay well below the living wage, but they are passionate about the role of libraries in their communities and the public good that they do. They perform their tasks and serve the public with perpetual good humour, and are the people that make the difference in the lives of others when times are tough. Public librarians are a hybrid mix of tech support, social worker, child minder, non-judgemental counsellor, and (often), toilet unblocker. They are the patrons saints of equality and equity.

Sharing this passion with other branches who provide core council services is not quite so straightforward.  But we need to do it.

I think the way forward lies not so much in the digital competence that many libraries are focusing on, but on the community hub that we are becoming, Yes, digital is absolutely important, but it’s not everything, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, as I’ve pushed digital skills to the fore in recent times. The Central Library in Auckland has grasped this ideal firmly in broadening their offering by showing movies for the homeless, and other awesome initiatives. Can we do this in the regions where homelessness is not such an issue, but where people lack the places to hang out and just, well, be…? Yes, but the question that we need to work out is how?  Watch this space. Or better still, help me brainstorm with this, bearing in mind that, as always in libraries, there is no budget!

For me the key part of “getting” libraries just has to be spending time in them. It would be easy for me now in a largely administrative role to sit in an office away from my six libraries and plan great things and tick LTP boxes. Frankly this makes my brain bleed, but it does also have to be done. But how do I know what our customers are doing and wanting from a distance? I’m making an effort to spend time in the branches, work the desk and connect with these people. Hey, it’s fun, and it’s why I got interested in libraries in the first place. But that’s a story for another day….

Above is the beautiful Birkenhead Library where I spent four happy years, as manager of a very strong, and high performing team. But that’s also a story for another day. 


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