Wednesday 19 May 2021

Funding cuts to libraries

are again under the spotlight. Our state government spends about $25m on libraries each year. 

That might sound like a lot until you realise that is about $1 for each resident. How on earth do our libraries function so well?

I have said elsewhere that our local library is excellent - and it is.  At the same time I know it would not function nearly as well without the volunteers who help to care for it. Yes, I am one of those volunteers. I look after the knitting and crochet group. I put books back in the right places on shelves. I help students with problems. I listen to some of the lonely people even when I am anxious to get away and get on with my day. If they are busy helping someone else the staff know they can ask something like, "Cat, can you show this person where to find....  and I'll be there in a moment to help if they need it." I don't mind in the least doing any of this. I am not exceptional. Other people do the same thing. It is what libraries are for.

What genuinely puzzles me is that all this is so obviously important and yet our government doesn't seem to recognise it. Librarians are not paid a great deal, nothing like the amount footballers are paid. At the same time they are doing something far more important than kicking a ball around a field. There is even the belief that they are so unimportant that untrained volunteers can do their job. 

Knowing where to find something in our library is not just about knowing something about the Dewey Decimal system or that fiction is arranged in alphabetical order. It is about knowing what they actually need to find. It is about knowing how much information the person needs, what they need it for and how they will use it. How well can someone read? How much reading are they prepared to do? Do they want an entire book on a subject or just a page? If they enjoyed that author will they perhaps like this one? There is so much to all of this. 

Despite all that is involved there is still that thought lurking in the minds of those who fund libraries that none of this is really important. There is that awful belief that "if you want to find out something you can look it up on line". No, you can't. Yesterday someone wanted to know how to name something in the Shetland dialect. They asked me to check what they had done. I looked it up on line on a popular site and then, to check, I went and looked in a Scots thesaurus I happen to have. The two things were quite different. I trust the thesaurus. It is printed by a reputable publisher. The site on the internet is run by well meaning amateurs. I told the person asking me what I had done and why. She has gone for the word in the thesaurus. "Lucky you had the book or I would have made an idiot of myself." 

It might be an extreme example. I don't think our state library system would have the necessary thesaurus but it does have a lot of other valuable and important information. At $1 a  head the government is getting a bargain. 

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