Monday, 3 October 2011

Thing 16: Advocacy, speaking up for the profession and getting published

I moved from the academic sector to the specialist sector back in 2005. The service had just gone through a high  impact management change from being a 'national and regional' service supporting the workforce in offices throughout the UK to being a online library. Local library centres were closed and stock moved into a central location only available to browse via library staff or the Library Catalogue. Other print resources were replaced by online resources making them more accessible to a wider range of staff.

We had to work hard to remind people that despite the lack of a physical library presence, we were still there, we were still relevant and we were still able to give them access to the information and knowledge they needed to do their job. An emphasis was placed on making information findable. We had a team of information specialists, supported by a traditional library team, managing serials, inter-library loans and acquisitions. We were a team of around 18 people, supporting a workforce of 13'000. We maintained a presence in the regional offices with visits, information skills training. We assertive in getting invites to staff meetings, demonstrating our services and highlighting our skills. We embarked on a high profile marketing strategy, with a clearly thought out plan to ensure we were kept in the staff newsletters, keeping in contact with our customers, highlighting our successes to senior managers. If advocacy wasn't in our job description, it should have been. The service expanded, and with the publication of Information Matters, we embraced Knowledge Management. We were starting to be embedded into the heart of the 'way of working'.

Two years ago, along with the rest of government, we were squeezed through another high impact change. We lost our information specialist team to another part of the business, along with records management and knowledge management. The specialist and technical roles have been lost. There is no longer a qualified cataloguer on the team. Our 'core library service' is a team of three people.

No one could argue that we weren't advocating for our service. But somehow it felt like we failed to convince the people at the top that the library could add value to the business and help save time and resources. Whilst many internal customers voiced a concern about the loss of services, in a culture of redundancies, job losses and voluntary early retirement, no-one was in a position to shout too loudly.

I'm still a strong voice for our services. Although we no longer use the word 'library', I make sure that people I meet know where I come from, and what I do. I ensure that they understand how my work can support theirs, make it easier, offer to take a job off their hands and add value. I aim to rip apart the idea 'anyone can Google' to find the answers. I contact customers, ask for feedback, encourage them to tell us what they use the service for, how it's had a positive impact on their work, what they've done with the information. I collate this, I put it in my quarterly reviews, ensure my managers hear the good stuff and when it's negative, consider what we can do to respond. I've started a workplace blog, keep an eye on various 'Communities of Practice' forum discussions and add messages to draw attention to our services where appropriate. I've invited Cilip 'back to the floor', not just to support the work that Cilip are doing, but to use the visit to raise our own profile within the business. Look! We have a professional association too! As the only 'librarian' left in the service, I'm working hard to make sure we don't just become another administrative team and that the skills of library and information professionals are recognised as being essential to the success of the business.

I once overheard my mother talking on the phone to a friend about 'how I was doing'. "She's got a problem really. She became a librarian at the same time that Google was launched and her skills aren't really needed any more". It's this kind of attitude that I'm challenging, both at work and in the wider profession. In a culture where libraries are valued and understood, the library should be the heart of every organisation. In the schools where they support the development of literacy, social and community awareness. In the public sphere, in colleges and academic libraries where digital literacy and information literacy work continues. The workplace library should be a natural place to continue this role, and the 'Googlisation' of the workplace doesn't remove the need for literacy, it only adds to the range of workplace literacies needed. Perhaps that is another blog post though.

The announcement at the recent British Library Document Supply Service roadshow that 'anyone would be able to put in a request for an item' came as a shock. And provided further fuel to my motivation to prove that a central workplace library service still has a place. Unwittingly, the British Library seemed to have provided a way for our users to navigate round our services. It's a message that we will need to handle carefully. If there are any other workplace librarians considering their own response to this news, I'd be interested in your views.

So I very much see advocacy as being a core part of my role, whether it is explicit in my job description or not.

As for the wider library world. My son has recently started school. I've raised questions about the school's library, and their reading programme. I've volunteered to become a 'Better Reading Partner' and actively encouraged my son to use the library, both at school and the public library.

Locally, I've voiced concerns about the proposed removal of our mobile library service. Asked questions about the introduction of self-service. Is it to free library staff to spend more time dealing with enquiries, or is it to replace library staff? I'm a big believer in 'use it or lose it'. I visit on a regular basis, and encourage others to do the same. I challenged a family member when they wrote on their facebook status 'Passed my college course without ever going in the libary' [sic]. But I'm aware that it's small stuff. Challenging people's perception of what they can gain from a library, on this scale, feels like standing at the foot of a giant and jumping up and down on his big toe. I'm aware I could do more.

If this Thing has done anything, this Thing has encouraged me to get more active. Checking my local library service, it doesn't seem to have an active 'Friends of the Library' group. Maybe now is the time to set one up. Rather than to wait until further cutbacks to the service are announced...

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