What it’s really like working in libraries

27 million books, 9,000 workers and 800 libraries cut by Tories

Library worker

Senior management’s business, profit-driven outlook prevents us from providing the service we could. The closure of libraries during lockdowns appeared to add weight to management’s argument, as only online library services seemed accessible.

But the decline in physical visits to a Leeds library during lockdown was offset by “postal and delivery services for members that [was] greatly welcomed and well used… and as lockdown has lifted, members have returned to the library”.

Cipfa accountancy auditors blamed the decline in library visits “on the increasing paucity of stock held by UK libraries, which has shrunk to 73 million books. In 2008, it was over 100 million”.

Discourage visitors

Now, management at my library say that any book not taken out since August 2016 must be removed and disposed of. If libraries reduce their stock, the likelihood that we have the resources visitors need is reduced, discouraging more visitors from using the library. Who could have guessed other than everyone who works in a library!

Far from adapting to the changing role of libraries, management policies contribute to fewer people using the service.

Public funding for libraries fell by another £20 million to £725 million in 2020. It previously topped £1 billion.

Almost 800 libraries have closed since the start of Tory-led austerity. No wonder there were 226 million visits to libraries in 2018, compared with 315 million in 2009-10. And the number of paid staff in libraries went down from 24,000 to 15,300.

The need for ever-increasing profit drives capitalism and capitalists to commodify, cut and privatise everything.

Libraries remain one of the few places which provide free access to books, e-books, journals and other sources. We are priced out of the alternatives. Without libraries, working-class people – already in insecure work, with rising costs and stringent limits on their time – would be further cut off from free access to knowledge.

Library staff don’t just catalogue books, and monitor their issue and returns. We do the same for laptops and mobile phones. We provide IT support, and answer enquiries via email and over the phone. We produce material for events and awareness campaigns, and more!

Libraries provide a safe place for visitors to quietly relax, think, and meet friends. We support visitors’ mental wellbeing, and are on the lookout for signs of visitors with safeguarding issues, such as abuse. Students gather in our library as, in their own words, “there is nowhere else to go to hang out”, and they are right.

Outside of work hours, librarians have to do our own performance evaluations, all just to be paid £1,300 a month – barely enough to cover the rent of a one-bedroom flat where I live.

A colleague applied to management to get a reduced working week on the same pay to help a family member with dementia. Management initially responded: “Do you really need three people?” Our response: “I don’t think senior management really knows what we do”.

Management finally backed down. But they wouldn’t hire anyone to fill the gap.

New tech

At a recent training day, we saw a video of another library created in consultation with its visitors. All the new technology hadn’t been acquired during a budget freeze, as we were initially told, but by getting access to a grant. If we were to get all this new tech, without the funds to hire more staff, who is going to help manage the visitor’s interaction with it?

As long as workers have no say in how a workplace is run, so long as profit is put before everything else, including workers’ needs and pay, work will remain what it is today: an alienating experience where the working day is taken up by cyclical repetitive tasks.

It doesn’t have to be like this. When workers are organised together in unions that fight for their members, we are powerful. If library workers link up with communities opposed to cuts, we can stop the destruction of our service.