More thoughts on the future of Local Studies Librarianship

Local Studies Group NW have been hosting a series of discussions about various topics which affect Local Studies.  These are a few points from our first discussion which focused on the role of Local Studies Librarian.

As Local Studies Librarians, we take care of the Local Studies collections. We identify gaps and acquire, or even create, sources to fill them. We preserve ephemera and grey literature. We champion the user’s right to access to our collections. The majority of the collections are secondary sources. Secondary sources are important, anybody studying local history needs to know what others have already written before they start using the primary sources held in record offices.

Local Studies is the “secret weapon of the library service”. Collections and projects can engage new audiences, both in visitor figures and remotely. They can help to challenge perceptions and engage new audiences.  Ways of access to records are becoming more inventive e.g. using social media, outreach, remote volunteering, partnerships etc.

New technologies make this an exciting time for local studies. Using digitisation, the internet and social media local studies collections can be made available to users who perhaps would not visit a library. There are also opportunities with established family history websites to display our collections through their web pages. As budgets are tightened this can be an opportunity for income. Financial restrictions are also making the way we develop local studies collections become more imaginative. Manx Heritage have struck a deal with a publishing company to receive PDF copies of local newspapers.

Local Studies Librarians have to develop strong links and relationships with users including community groups, local and family history societies, schools and  online users. These relationships not only benefit local studies but also the shareholders of an organisation. For example, local authority users may promote the service through word of mouth, local and national press, talking to councillors etc.

Has this debate inspired you to get involved more with LSGNW committee? By joining the LSGNW committee you can help to advocate and support Local Studies by getting involved in helping to organise Day Schools, treasurer responsibilities, doing a talk for an event, organising a networking event or perhaps you have your own imaginative idea. For more information please contact andrew.walmsley@lancashire.gov.uk [or if you are in the South, find out more about LSG South from Tony.pilmer@Tiscali.co.uk].  

This article first appeared in the LSGNW newsletter. The full newsletter can be accessed here.

The future of Local Studies librarianship…….

A few years ago I remember reading an article in Local Studies Librarian and by the end of it I was fuming. The author said that local studies librarians, archivists and museum professionals will morph into one profession. I began writing a furious reply, saying that we had a completely different skills and we looked at “heritage” in completely different ways. Later, deciding that Local Studies Librarian was a serious scholarly place and not somewhere to vent my spleen, I put my pen away.

Four years ago I became a LSG blogger and I started writing a blog post called “Is there a future for Local Studies Librarianship”. It was rather depressing. It started….

Things are getting a bit depressing. According to that “What is the point of…. Public libraries” Radio 4 programme, there are 14% less professional librarians in public libraries than there were a few years ago. I used to hear the refrain, “you’re okay, they’ll never get rid of local studies” but things are not going that way, at least in the South East. Buckinghamshire’s last Local Studies Librarian retired last year, only half of Berkshire’s Unitary Authorities have someone who is referred to as a “Local Studies Librarian” and everybody knows what is going on in Hampshire. With 25% of local government spending being shaved off in the next 5 years, we “ain’t seen nothing yet”.

The Local Studies Librarian contributor a few years before did see Local Studies Librarianship posts beginning to be transferred to archive and local studies units, but as job cuts came, it seemed to me that Local Studies posts were hardest hit. As with much of public librarianship, professional posts were often replaced with lower paid para-professional.

My 2000 blog post was to finish:

I do not know what the future of our part of the profession holds, or even what we can do to influence it. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will not be a “Local Studies Librarian” for too many more years. Please can someone tell me I am wrong.

A year later my Local Studies post was deleted. Mine was not the only local studies post to be deleted around that time.  

It is not just local studies staff that are being given the chop. As branches are being refurbished, town collections are being “streamlined” and material being sent to county archive/local studies units. There is one case where the archive only wants a small amount of the collection and it is proposed that the rest of the collection would be sent to reserve stock – how can you access OS maps from reserve stock, let alone have someone around to show you the right map and how it works? 

I believe local studies professionals make a difference. Archivists and Museum guys do an amazing job, but our training, experience and outlook make us stronger in certain fields. I started to make a list, but last year I saw some notes from a LSG North East meeting, and, to be frank, theirs is much better. Here it is:

Strengths of Local Studies librarians

  • We look at our collections, identify gaps and acquire, or even create, sources to fill them. This isn’t part of an archivist’s remit though they might make efforts to collect material created by other organisations to fill gaps.
  • We preserve ephemera and grey literature, often discarded from archive collections.
  • Our tradition is the user’s right to access to our collection, the archival tradition is that preservation is paramount and access is a privilege. Having people who come from both traditions helps maintain a balance.
  • Our focus is the information, not the document.
  • Secondary sources are important – anybody studying local history needs to know what others have already written before they start using the primary sources held in record offices.
  • Our collections are valuable as the historical record and in monetary terms – what will happen to them without professional custodianship? Will their cash value make them vulnerable to being sold off?
  • How will collections develop without professional input? They need collection policies, active book selection using local knowledge, complicated acquisition procedures. It can’t be left to library suppliers.
  • We come from a library tradition with its emphasis on outreach, promotional events, social inclusion etc.
  • Many record offices, especially in counties, use libraries to make archives more accessible throughout a large geographical area.
  • [missed anything? Please add a comment at the end of this blog].

So, what are we going to do about it? Here are some options….

  • Shout about how great we are. We make a difference to individuals, groups and our communities:
    • We do celebrate through the McCulla “local studies librarian of the year award” and the Alan Ball “best publication” award.
    • Use this blog to record our great project.
    • Write a submission for the Sieghart Commission (we’ve only got a week!)
  • Are librarians, archivist and museum guys going to become one profession? There are a number of Heritage Officer posts, especially in smaller authorities and engagement, enquiry and volunteer management roles are increasingly interchangeable within larger units. Should LSG be talking to ARA & the MA?
  • Team-up with other librarians so we can shout louder. Should we be talking more to librarians in “historic libraries”? Whether many know it or not, they have a lot in common with local studies librarians – some do as at the last LSG Committee Meeting there were librarians employed by the National Archives, the National Maritime Museum and the RUSI Library of Military History. Should Local Studies Group become Heritage Collections Group.
  • Continue to tell our political and senior officers how we are addressing their priorities such as social cohesion, the digital citizenship etc.
  • [missed anything? Please add a comment at the end of this blog].

So what shall we do – all I do know for certain is that we do need to do something.