A razor gang at the Auckland Council led to yesterday’s announcement that the city’s libraries are cutting 74 members of staff. Former Auckland librarian Ethan Sills reports.
Libraries are magical institutions. It can feel unreal that they still exist, given how fantastical the idea of them seems. Buildings where you can go and borrow books for free, chat to people with a passion for books and exchange knowledge, all at (mostly) no cost. The very concept of libraries feels like something you’d find in one of the many books they hold.
Yesterday’s announcement by the Auckland City Council provided the cold reality. After months of consultation and media reports, it revealed the results of its risible Fit for the Future programme, designed to “evolve” the city’s library network.
More on cuts at Auckland Libraries:
We now know that 74 staff members have taken voluntary redundancy, while around 100 currently vacant positions have been disbanded. “The same level of service will reduce by approximately $1.8 million a year, meaning better value for money for ratepayers,” chirped the council’s inane press release. Job loss dressed as lamb.
My love for libraries started while at school. Generations of nerds had libraries as our place of refuge, whether it be for reading or playing Magic School Bus on the computer.
Having volunteered much of my high school time at my library, when it came time to find a part time job at university, the central city library seemed like the perfect place. I got a job there as a shelver, and there I stayed for three years.
Friends and family members commented on what a quiet, relaxed job it must be, clearly imagining the trope of libraries as a den of silence where any noise is expressly forbidden.
In reality, libraries – at least this one – are busy, noisy, bustling places. There were very few elderly women shushing people from behind giant wooden counters. It’s actually a fairly eclectic group of librarians of all ages and experiences, most of whom would be open for a chat rather than telling you off.
And the size of the operations was nothing like what I had expected. So many different departments with people constantly working on different projects. The three public floors housing different sections were backed up by a two storey, maddening maze of a basement that houses thousands of old books from across the network.
For a very repetitive job, it was surprising how interesting it could be at times. The people, both in front of and behind the counter, can be entertaining. I had one woman ask me, quite seriously, if I was her son – about the only odd customer experience I had, but I know people who have had far more. As it’s a public building, pretty much anyone can come in, from small children who meow for an hour straight (a sound that echoes in a fairly open-air environment) to one couple who got caught trying to have sex in the public bathrooms.
That’s not to say that it’s a riot all the time. Not only do the librarians have fairly regular difficult customers to tend to, but they have had to deal with a lot of behind the scenes interference long before these cuts were proposed. Over the course of my time there, not a week went by without some new complaint making the rounds: proposals that have been made, changes that were happening, a lack of staff, really anything seemed to strike a nerve.
At first, it seemed like people were just complaining for the sake of complaining. Yet, no matter how often people complained there – and they complained often – I never met anyone who seemed to actively hate working there. Most of their complaints came from a desire to see things changed for the betterment of both customer and employee rather than from hating the job. I never saw anyone take out their problems with management on the customers. Quite often you’d run into people complaining about things while going out of their way to help the customers.
Yet this latest change seems to be taking its toll – a Radio New Zealand online headline reads “Low morale among Auckland librarians.” A passion for the job can’t help you survive uncomfortable, sometimes hostile work environments when people all around you are losing their jobs; there’s nothing worse than having the possibility of unemployment hanging over your head for months on end. One former colleague I recently ran into revealed they were quitting as they couldn’t deal with all of it anymore – they don’t want to go, but feel they have no choice.
The whole Fit for the Future programme – or Fucked for the Future, as some of my ex-colleagues call it – reached its climax this week. Staff still must re-apply for their jobs, and this report of having to work across multiple libraries has been confirmed as well, despite the initial denial. And apparently it’s all been to “future-proof” the libraries, following earlier reports that it was to make the network “digital led”.
What being digital led means exactly is anyone’s guess. The most obvious answer would have something to do with a change to e-books over physical copies – an idea that would’ve made sense back when they were new and exciting, less so now. A recent report from The Guardian shows that e-book sales are on the decline in the UK while physical book sales have risen for the second year in a row. The report noted that it was 16-34 year olds and children’s books that were driving the changes, with physical books being their sole break from electronic devices.
In New Zealand, where numbers have varied from year to year, basing a library network around e-books feels like an attempt to look modern more than anything of practical use. Never once while I was there did it ever seem that check-outs were decreasing. As a shelver, for the whole three years it was the same workload. In fact, by the time I left we had more to do after several shelvers left and weren’t replaced.
The latest staff cuts have been hovering around for some time now. As the council notes, there has been a hiring freeze since last year, meaning that whenever someone leaves, their job has simply been left vacant, leaving the rest of the staff and a small army of casuals to pick up the slack. And when they aren’t there, the absence is felt. There have been many times when I left as the evening shift began and there would only be a few people covering a multiple tasks. And now that they officially will have less than 1000 employees, that problem will likely get worse if changes aren’t made to their workload.
Libraries are magical, but only if they are filled with people to help bring out the magic. Being digital-led may be unavoidable, but as Neil Gaiman once said: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.