Local studies librarians: lose them, lose your community

It’s been a pretty grim week in LibraryLand, if you take the headlines richoceting around the BBC et al as confirmation of what the library community has known for some time: that this government is causing long term, irreparable damage to libraries through council budget cuts that translate into closures and redundancies.

I don’t aim to discuss those pieces here, mainly because I’ve yet to process the reports and subsequent reaction fully. But a great piece came out today about the impact council cuts have had on local studies librarians, and that really hit home for me.

Local studies librarians aren’t always known as ‘librarians’. CILIP’s description of local studies librariansย ย can refer to archivists or museums staff too, and this is perhaps why we’ve not heard so much about them in the broader discussion of library cuts. (Archives, particularly local record offices, are also struggling to survive or having to reduce their opening hours in the post-recession-Tory-world.) But the work they do is absolutely invaluable.

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‘Mrs Brown at Brighton’ pamphlet from Smith’s Cuttings: History of Brighton, Chain Pier & Aquarium, BH600434, Brighton History Centre @ The Keep

Have you ever tried to research your family history, or needed to find out some information about when your house was built? If you’ve done this in any public building, chances are you’ll have come into contact with a local studies librarian – and the amount of knowledge these staff is hold is absolutely vast. Local studies teams need to know about everything from OS maps to wills and local parish boundaries. They need to be able to teach newcomers how to navigate complex sites like Ancestry and Find My Past (which are free to use at your local library) or how to load a microfilm of baptism records. Nine times out of ten, local studies librarians are both librarian and archivist, explaining both reference libraries and documents. Sometimes they’ll be curator too, as local history collections will often span items held in museums.

It’s a beautifully complex role, but if these jobs continue to be lost the entire community will suffer and local identity is really under threat. Local studies librarians deal with queries from people searching for long lost family members, or from people wanting to recall an event from their past through local newspapers, or from people wanting to know when that extra wall was built in their house and if it’s possible to take it down.

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A fully booked event on the history of Brighton at The Keep, 2015

Many of the people using local studies resources are people who’ve been living in the area for years. A lot of people using the collections will need time with trained staff to get to know how to find the information they need; users are often (though by no means always!) older and may not know how to use a computer.

Time is often key to helping visitors to local studies collections; it takes a while to understand what your user needs from what they’re telling you, and staff then need time to explain how to access the resources available. Reducing opening hours (particularly during the week) can be so damaging to local studies departments; many users visit to feel at home, to continue with a line of enquiry they’ve been investigating for a while, and it’s often part of their weekly routine.

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Open day @ The Keep, 2015

Local studies centres, particularly if they’re centrally located, help to pin the community together: they’re there to preserve everyday lives and quirky events, and to celebrate the past by sharing knowledge with those in the present. Cut staff in this area, and everyone in the heritage sector loses out. It takes years to know most of the pamphlets, books, parish records and newspaper holdings (and the other many different types of material) within local studies libraries and most of it just isn’t available online or through Google. Local studies collections need people to use them, and people to show them the way. Let’s keep them at the heart of our society.

(I worked with the local studies collections at The Keep from 2013 – 2016: I learnt more about East Sussex from the wonderful staff at East Sussex Record Office and Brighton & Hove Royal Pavilions & Museums in two years than a decade of living in Brighton could ever teach me. If you’re ever in the area, I urge you to go and visit!)

 

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