Sunday, 11 December 2011

Public librarianship - a whole new world...

I recently went on a tour of the Barbican public library - which functions as a fantastic lending library bang in the City, and was really struck by the diferences between this kind of librarianship, and the kind we practise in the law library. Now obviously the environments are worlds apart - I realise that! But I have to admit I was quite struck by the differences in the skillsets needed by a corporate librarian, and a public librarian.

In some ways, however, our priorities boil down to the same fundamental issue - proving our worth in a very tough economic climate. The corporate law library within a law firm is always going to be very profit-orientated - and even more so than ever in the current shaky financial climate. We are trying to keep our spending down but our profits up. Our fee-earners want us to provide them with the best possible service in the most cost-effective way for their clients. As a service, we need to prove our worth, however, therefore we also want to carry out as much chargeable work as possible.

Talking to the librarians I met at the Barbican, the public library is equally, if not more, vulnerable in the current financial climate, and so they are trying to find ways of providing an excellent range of services to their users and encourage more and more people to join up, so that they can prove their worth to the local council who provides funding.

The key difference, I guess, is our users. A corporate library is rarely used for pleasure! A public library, although often used for research and so on, is often aiming to encourage people to use it for pleasure, or perhaps to learn a new skill. Therefore there is a far greater opportunity to be creative; to think up new ways to encourage people to use their library. The corporate environment will never be like this, and of course I accept this - but it doesn't mean I am always happy about it!

One other thing that struck me was that in the public library, I think you need to be far more adept at dealing with people from all walks of life, because your users are from a whole spectrum of backgrounds. In the law library, we obviously only deal with lawyers/trainee lawyers, who for the most part, tend to be more than capable of expressing what they want and when they need it. In the public library, however, we were told that when on the enquiry desk you really could be asked anything and everything! Plus, you need to be able to communicate effectively with people of all ages, in order to fully understand what it is they are looking for. I think working in this environment probably makes you a lot more open minded. Of course I don't speak for all us corporate librarians, but from my own perspective, we are probably at risk of becoming a little bit used to only dealing with a certain kind of person. Although dealing with lawyers undoubtedly requires a lot of patience and tact at times, dealing with the general public is a whole different ball game.

One thing that we do share is our outlook on e-books. The librarians I met said that there are no plans as yet to implement e-book lending in British libraries, and furthermore, that they do not foresee the oft-talked about 'death of the book' - but rather a world in which the two different kinds of book co-exist. At present we are encountering the same feeling...e-books are not something that every fee-earner would use; in fact there is a large proportion of our fee-earners who simply refuse to use anything other than a hard copy text. At present, we do not see ourselves venturing into the e-book quagmire any more than we do already, simply because the take-up of such a service would not be high enough to justify the costs involved. This may change as the older fee-earners retire and are replaced by a generation of lawyers who were accustomed to using mainly e-books at law school - but for now, we approach the area with caution and only have a few looseleafs and books available online. Where we have this, we also have the key ones in hard copy anyway.

Some of this post may sound like I am being a little bit negative about my own profession, so for the record: I'm not! All I am doing is critically analysing the kind of librarianship I currently practise. While I enjoy my job for the most part, I think everyone benefits from learning about other kinds of librarianship from time to time - and realising that although we may carry out very different kinds of work, we can still learn from each other, not just those who work in the same field as we do. Again it stresses the importance of good old networking and how we become far more rounded individuals when we have a greater awareness of all the different facets to librarianship.

Image courtesy of: healingdream /

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