A Day in the Life of a Local Studies Librarian

It’s something of a cliché in the modern workplace to proclaim that there is “no typical day” in profession x, y, or z; such is the speed of turnover in tasks, roles, colleagues and service-users. Cliché it may be – but it is, even so, an absolute truth for today’s local studies librarian, especially in these days of cross-service responsibilities. My current role, for instance – Librarian-Manager for the Local and Family History department at Leeds Central Library – combines what we might call ‘traditional’ librarianship with the responsibilities of front-line team management.

Leeds Central Library. Credit: librariestaskforce . Licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Even so, certain patterns do emerge in the ‘librarian’ part of that job-title equation. A typical day likely starts with the standard checking of emails and consequent actioning of immediate necessities (whatever that may mean – anything from getting stock ready for customer visits to delivering, at short notice, a heritage tour of our 1884 building). After that, if I am not required to cover our departmental counter (in truth, a frequent occurrence) comes the ‘real’ work: aiding customers with enquiries delivered by phone, email or in person; usually through painstaking research on some obscure matter of regional or ancestral history. 

In-between, or after, the settling of those priorities my attention moves to tasks with longer-term deadlines – organising a programme of public talks on relevant themes, for instance: identifying possible speakers, making contact, and then thrashing out the logistics of rooms, dates, times, the wording and imagery for promotional material. A similar amount and type of work is required for our series of family history workshops and 1-1 sessions.

Our age of the digital catalogue means physical stock work is perhaps less common today than it was 10-20 years ago. Nonetheless, those pleasures are still with us and usually form part of a typical day: anything from identifying, ordering or collecting new books and other, ephemeral material for the researchers of today and tomorrow, accepting (or rejecting!) offers of donations from the contents of your Great Aunt Lydia’s loft, to the comfortingly traditional, tactile acts of rearranging, repairing and reclassifying books. Just this past week, for instance, I spent an afternoon reboxing our (fantastic) collection of 19th and 20th-century playbills from Leeds theatres.

Finally, most days find me engaged in some level of editorial work on the Leeds Libraries’ heritage and collections blog, the Secret Library Leeds (www.secretlibraryleeds.net) – a job that covers everything from replying to user comments, through commissioning and uploading articles written by librarian colleagues or external contributors, to the researching and writing of original content myself.

That is really only a snapshot of I do, with large chunks of any given day spent improvising to rapid developments with staff, stock and the public. While all Librarians I know bemoan their lack of predictable time to devote to long-term projects, I’m not sure, in truth, any of us would swap that for the invigorating reality of never knowing quite what is to come each and every day.

Antony Ramm

January 7th 2020

Antony Ramm is Librarian-Manager of the Local and Family History department in Leeds Central Library

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.