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 librarians  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.

‘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.

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.

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!)



On Paris

I originally posted this on Facebook, but it had such a friendly response I thought it should probably live on the blog too…

Cheryl Strayed quote

It’s really difficult to know what to feel or think after the events in Paris on Friday ; the first time I visited Paris (with two of my best friends) in 2005, we stayed in the 11th arrondissement very near where the attacks took place. It’s a beautiful area, peaceful and multicultural (well, so far as mostly-white central Paris can be), tree lined streets contrasting with the stone buildings. Paris is a city of contrasts, but for anyone who’s British it often feels like the first ‘properly foreign’ city you’ll visit, even though it’s only about two hours away from the UK. It’s pretty much impossible not to fall in love with some aspect of it; the musical tones of the metro, the architecture, Shakespeare and Company .

Canal St-Martin, Paris
Canal St-Martin, Paris

I keep returning to this quote from Cheryl Strayed: “love with a mindfully clear sense of purpose, even when it feels outrageous to do so.” And when I keep Paris in my thoughts, I hope we can all have the bravery to love in this manner; to be strong enough to push aside our desires to hate, to be scared, to close our physical and metaphorical borders, and look at how we want the world to be instead. They want us to be scared, they want us divided. We’ve got to be better, smarter and stronger than that. And we’ve got to love harder than that. (Even when it’s really not easy to do so.) Whilst remembering the victims, I also want to remember how, this weekend, social media came together to help Parisians needing a place of refuge, and how this morning people were queuing up to donate blood in French hospitals. Those acts of compassion and solidarity are how we’ve got to get through these dark times, not by closing the drawbridges and pointing fingers.

It’s easy to say this; I know very little about UK foreign policy, even less about France’s. I am not in a position to actively change things in any way; few of us are. But I’m going to try harder than ever to triumph love, compassion and understanding over hatred and fear, even when the world feels like a really scary place. I’m going to try to be braver. For Paris, for Beirut, for everyone who’s suffered as a result of terrorism. It’s not easy. But they don’t want us to love. So, love and compassion and tolerance have to win. There is so much brilliance and life in our society; let’s celebrate that rather than giving into fear and letting them change our society into one of intolerance and prejudice. ❤

B and Me, Disneyland Paris, 2007
B and Me, Disneyland Paris, 2007