The Library User Comes Second

The phrase that ‘staff are an organisation’s most valuable asset’ was at one time so ubiquitous that it became accepted as a truism. Unfortunately, this belief was fundamentally undermined by globalisation as companies outsourced and focused on short-term gain and maximising profits, with employees seen as an expensive overhead and therefore expendable.

Despite this public services were to a certain extent protected. That was until five years ago and the introduction of the Government’s austerity programme and a political agenda that viewed centrally funded public services as a burden rather than an asset to the state.

That staff are a valuable resource is still accepted in principle, with plenty of lip service being paid, but in practice, particularly in local authorities, the reality is somewhat different. Over 500,000 workers having lost their jobs since 2010 and according to the Office for Budget Responsibility a further 500,000 more jobs are still to go, making the loss of a million jobs between 2010 – 2020.

Budgets have also decreased significantly with central funding to councils reduced by 40% and the spending review in November set to scale the grant back even further. The National Audit Office has warned that some councils may struggle to provide services they are legally obliged to and no doubt this will include libraries.

Nowhere is the perceived value of staff in principle and their replacement by untrained amateurs in practice more evident than in libraries, with views from some councils bordering on the absurd regarding the capacity and capability of volunteers. This approach is underpinned by the unevidenced belief that it is communities at the micro level that are best placed to determine the needs of that particular locality. Despite the fact that this very rarely applies to any other council or outsourced service in the area.

This is not to preclude the local community from having influence into the service via appropriate fora such as friends groups, but there is a fundamental difference between input and actual responsibility for delivering the service.

Despite the primacy afforded to communities I would argue it is the opposite; that it is staff and not the user that is most important. This has long been recognised in the commercial sector with many advocates of the approach of it’s staff who provide customer satisfaction so by keeping staff engaged a better customer experience is delivered. There are many books on the subject with perhaps Hal Rosenbluth The Customer Comes Second being one of the best known.

If this can be true in the commercial sector it is particularly true for the public sector delivering as it does vital public services. Many councils have a ‘vision’ and ‘brand’ that they expect staff to translate into practice. However, it is difficult to support any vision while at the same time being under constant threat of restructuring, increased workloads, reductions in conditions and pay, and redundancy. And in the case of library staff, replacement by volunteers.

What is perhaps surprising is that library staff actually do remain engaged despite such threats hanging over them, which is testimony to their resilience and belief in the social value of what they do. It is paid staff that deliver on services which include social equality, economic benefits, health & wellbeing, digital skills, learning, and literacy. It is not enough to have a passive service where the doors remain open, you need trained staff and qualified librarians to engage in outreach and activities that encourage people to come through the library doors in the first place. The work delivered around the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, and the Carnegie Library Lab are shining examples of this.

While volunteers do their best to keep services running they lack the skills, knowledge and experience to develop and deliver such strategic and innovative programmes for the good of the wider community. Offering a passive service, with the expectation that users will come to the library without continuous innovation and maintaining high-quality services, is one reason why many volunteer libraries struggle to maintain visitor numbers.

Library staff and librarians offer a whole range of skills and knowledge that ensures a service is professionally managed and developed. Importantly, they offer a service for the benefit of the whole community and not just for a local ward or parish. For an extensive list of the type of work carried out see ‘What Librarians Do’ on the Voices for the Library website.

Many volunteers recognise this fact and even when forced to take on libraries regret the loss of paid staff as demonstrated in Lincolnshire.

Library users are incredibly important, as are their views on libraries, but it is paid staff and librarians that are essential to the running of an comprehensive and efficient service. To use business parlance libraries are not a start up scrabbling to place an untried product. Libraries are an established business with recognisable products, services, and a brand, and most importantly customer base. The challenge is to maintain and grow that customer base by offering products and services that customers want. Not that I agree with commercial terminology being applied to public services but for comparison purposes it’s useful in this particular context.

Thus, it is staff that are best placed to manage, develop, deliver, and innovate services that will keep the public coming through the doors and ensure that libraries have a long-term future.


9 thoughts on “The Library User Comes Second”

  1. What local and central government also need to realise is that public sector roles are fundamentally different than commercial/private sector.

    I don’t particularly agree that the commercial sector has long recognised the value of staff: just from personal experiences (and many people will have different), the private sector is still behind on staff recognition. If anything they are where they always were (your first paragraph on short-term gain and maximising profits summarising this), while the public sector is fast going down to that level.

    Adoption of commercial terminology has long been a cause of the steady decline of public services, and the value of staff – and this goes back much further than austerity (which has taken advantage of the general decline in opinion of the public sector).

    I’d also question the terminology just in the article. Libraries are not an established business, nor do they have products, or a customer base. That is a large part of their value. If the important thing were to keep customers coming through their doors then most libraries by now would be glorified coffee shops with a few books on the side. If they were looking for a business model (rather than a public service one that they already have) then it’d most likely end up a paid subscription one for loaning books (with a free trial where you give your credit card details up-front and get caught out when you don’t cancel).

    This doesn’t often go down well with those in government that want to see all public services running as a business with customers, and stakeholders, and profits – but they’re throwing away the value of public services and the workers that go with that. Much of that has already happened in other areas of public service, outsourcing is still a rarity to some extent in library services, whereas in some areas of public service the devaluation of workers has led to a huge amount of outsourced departments.


    1. David you are absolutely right about the terminology but it was done deliberately to make easy comparison with the commercial sector. I usually reject such language around public services but felt it was right in the context of this particular post but certainly not as an argument for commercialising libraries. However, I take your point and have amended the post to reflect this.

      The commercial sector has changed and some companies are better than others in the way they treat their staff but the idea of employee engagement is still a sound management principle. How well you believe it’s enacted will depend on your experience of the private sector. Personally I believe employee engagement was undermined by globalisation in general and by the austerity agenda for the public sector in the UK.


      1. Fair point, I appreciate the pragmatic approach to that business terminology (and didn’t suspect it was an argument for such commercialisation). It’s just that I believe that ultimately without pushing the unique nature of public service work, and rejecting that terminology, we won’t be able to achieve:

        1. Real investment (i.e. anti-austerity) in those services.
        2. Publicly employed staff in those services (non-volunteer/non-outsourced)

        But anyway, otherwise pretty much agree with it all!


  2. I am a retired librarian running my local library with about 70 volunteers. A library with no links to the local community is now a local hub, with talks, clubs, many kids events and displays, trained volunteers, who have just won an award for the tiptop service they supply to the community. I love it , having always worked miles away I know so many local users and volunteers. Some libraries were great but not this one – we have together made it great. I am proud of this Community Library created by the local population. And Surrey regards us as one of their own they fully support their community libraries.


    1. Which shows how lucky your volunteer library is to have the services of an experienced and qualified librarian. A librarian who I assume was fortunate enough to enjoy the paid career opportunities currently being denied to fellow librarians by volunteers and retired librarians.


    2. No, you are not a “retired” librarian; you are actively running a library, but nobody is paying you to do it. You deserve credit for what you have achieved, together with your numerous volunteers (lucky to be in Surrey where you can get so many people involved), but what happens next? Is professional development being prioritised so both you and your team can keep up with developments in technology and the book trade and social trends? Where will your budget come from when local authority support is cut?


  3. “The involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff, and should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service.” — Charter for Strengthening Relations Between Paid Staff and Volunteers.

    Charter | Agreement between Volunteering England and the TUC:

    When a retired, qualified librarian decides to volunteer as part of a volunteer-run library set-up, there will be consequences. The *intended* consequence is what Pauline describes as “Making it great”. The *unintended* consequence is that (beyond her own backyard) there is a propaganda war where that example will be used by the cost-cutters to justify the displacement of paid staff in the library service throughout the country. To look no further than one’s own backyard does a disservice to all users of the universal service, particularly those struggling to retain staffed libraries in the most Deprived Areas. For Pauline, and others similarly inclined, to continue not to recognise that their choices affect the bigger picture seems very short-sighted indeed.


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