Love your librarian

Plans for volunteers to run libraries are not viable, as the technical knowledge and expertise of professional librarians is irreplaceable

Batgirl was a Librarian

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: gaelx

Libraries are facing an unprecedented assault from local councils up and down the country, and the government appears unwilling to intervene despite library cuts that may be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act. Some 400 libraries are threatened with closure over the course of this year, with services in Doncaster, Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wight amongst many threatened with devastating cuts. Many councils seem to believe that volunteer run libraries are an adequate solution to funding issues. In the age of the digital library this is a gross error.

But it’s not just internet searching which makes digital literacy a key skill, the increasing prevalence of digital materials presents a number of problems. Digitisation is becoming an important part of the modern public library service. Across the country libraries hold a range of materials that many people never get to see. Locked away in filing cabinets out of the reach of the general public, there are materials of local importance that both library users and non-users are completely oblivious to. Many public libraries have started digitising such materials to ensure that they can be shared on the Internet and therefore be viewed by people who would normally not have access to them. Tools such as Flickr are currently being used to share collections (such as Plymouth’s Barbican collection) as well as embedding collections on library websites (such as the National Library of Wales’ collection).

As JISC—the Joint Information Systems Committee—outlines, there are many considerations before embarking on a digitisation process. For example—just as with books—preservation of digital items is vital. Central to the issue of preservation are file formats which, as JISC highlights, can prove ‘overwhelming for someone new to the world of digital imaging’. Failure to save a digital image in an appropriate format, for example, can result in that image becoming inaccessible at a later date as new formats emerge or as new technologies develop. This would ultimately result in resources wasted as digital images are re-created at a later date or worse, the image is lost forever due to loss of the original. It is a costly error that can be avoided if trained staff are responsible for such a complex project rather than untrained volunteers.

But it is not just the creation of the digital image that is important; how the public access it is also crucial to the success of a digitisation project. Careful consideration needs to be given to where the image should be stored and how it can be accessed. As with file formats, understanding of the different tools can ensure the success or failure of a digitisation project. Using Flickr is a popular choice, but what happens when Yahoo! pulls the plug (as has been rumoured – though strenuously denied)? And if hosting on your own website, how do you ensure the digital images are accessible to as many people as possible? What techniques do you employ to ensure that library users can access the image quickly and easily?

There are also a number of other considerations that need to be taken into account when developing a digital library collection. Questions around copyright, for example, need to be resolved before any project can proceed for obvious reasons. Obtaining copyright clearance can be time consuming and costly as both Hampshire County Council and the University of Swansea discovered upon embarking on their respective digitisation programs. Again, these are complex (in this case legal) issues that volunteers are not best placed to deal with. 

All of these considerations make it hard to see how volunteers are in a better position than trained professionals to take libraries into the 21st century. Aside from the issues outlined above, there is the issue of the prohibitive costs associated with online resources (such as Encyclopaedia Britannica), let alone organising content and troubleshooting. Truth is, even those that run volunteer (or ‘community’) libraries believe that they provide a second class service when compared to council run libraries staffed by trained staff and professionals. Councils across the country seem to believe that there is an unlimited supply of Wired reading, technologically savvy, digitally literate volunteers out there waiting to be given the opportunity to lead their library service into the digital age.  For libraries to truly prosper, however, they need skilled, highly trained librarians who understand the issues that the digital world presents, and can ensure libraries are central to the digital revolution.


Ian Clark is currently completing an MSc in Information and Library Studies at Aberystwyth University and is a founder of Voices for the Library. He tweets as @ijclark.

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By Ian Clark on Feb 04, 2011

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