IT will probably come as no surprise to hear that I am a passionate supporter of libraries. I visit Hereford city library on a fortnightly basis and am never without a book.
Now I’m no literary elitist – I’d go for an Ian Rankin over Rasselas any day – but reading is my passion. I also, of course, have a vested interest in anything that supports literacy. After all there’s not much point editing a newspaper if no one out there can read it.
Libraries are places of inspiration, entertainment and education. The Books on Prescription Service recommends specific books to help people suffering from a whole range of emotional and psychological problems.
This isn’t just reading for recreational purposes, these books can actually save lives.
Without libraries our society would be an infinitely poorer place, often in ways that cannot be quantified.
And without librarians, there cannot be an adequate library service.
I speak here, not only as a lifetime library member who has viewed the operation from the other side of the counter, but as a library volunteer.
This is the second year I have signed up to help with the children’s summer reading scheme for the school holidays.
The scheme, run by The Reading Agency and this year with a ‘Creepy House’ theme, encourages youngsters to read while away from the classroom, rewarding those who complete the challenge with a gold medal.
Talking with children about books and reading is a brilliant experience, persuading them to try something new or more challenging, discussing old favourites and hearing them talk about characters and plots is so satisfying – and of course they are potential Hereford Times readers of the future.
I love my role at the library, but what it has shown me is that there is no way at all that I could ever sub for a genuine librarian.
Watching a professional help someone who is starting to cook for the first time access simple recipes; assisting someone else research their family tree; directing someone else to legal or consumer advice on the shelves, is not a job for a happy amateur. True, volunteers can assist. They can free up librarians from the more mundane tasks so they can spend more time helping readers access the information they need, but never be fooled into thinking it is merely a job involving putting books back on shelves.
Just as we wouldn’t water down the professional status of brain surgeons by allowing rank amateurs near patients’ heads with a hacksaw, neither can unqualified people become instant librarians.
Which is why I am so concerned at Herefordshire Council’s recently issued impact assessment survey as part of its consultation on the future of the library service.
Firstly it lumps libraries and customer information points together. OK, many have this joint role and even when they don’t, they are a place customers can access information. But what’s most worrying is that by the middle of page two of the documents, the library part of the library survey has been completely ignored, with all the focus on the customer info side of the matter.
Questions such as: “If you could not access a library and/or customer service centre convenient to you could you use an alternative way of accessing the service?”
The alternatives listed are: Online, using the council’s website; sending text messages to the council; phoning the council; visiting somewhere else that provides this service; stop using the service altogether.
None of those options is of any use if your local library shuts down. Whoever heard of returning your library book by text?
Borrowing a book by phone?
We’re asked: “What are the barriers to accessing services in a different way?” But there’s no box to tick saying that not being able to physically pick up and drop off my books is a pretty big handicap – unless the council has the technology to teleport the latest John Grisham?
Herefordshire needs libraries. Big, physical buildings where lots goes on besides, but very obviously including the borrowing and returning of books.
And those libraries need librarians.
There’s little point in a consultation exercise that doesn’t allow those being consulted to make that pretty fundamental point.