Librarians under threat

February 11, 2005

Cost-cutting plans to replace university librarians with computers and lower-grade library assistants have caused alarm across the sector in the UK and worldwide.

Subject librarians and library managers at the University of Wales, Bangor, who are fighting redundancy have received support from library staff and organisations as far away as Hawaii and Australia as well as across England and Wales.

The level of support for their cause reflects concern that Bangor's proposals, drawn up in a bid to save the cash-strapped university £300,000 a year, could begin a trend towards replacing university librarians with lower-grade staff whose only role is to help students and staff use technology to search for books and journals.

A consultation paper issued by Bangor argues that as part of an effort to rescue itself from a "precarious" financial position, the university needs to axe its subject librarian posts and remove a layer of library management.

The paper says the services provided by librarians have become less important with the development of technology that enables students and staff to conduct research with relatively little guidance.

It says: "The support given to academic and student communities from qualified subject librarians, whatever its contribution to the teaching and research roles of the institution, is hard to justify in value-for-money terms at a time when the process of literature searches is substantially deskilled by online bibliographical resources."

With neither students nor staff working regular office hours, and many students working off campus, technology is the most flexible answer to their needs, it adds.

"Services must more closely match the increasingly diverse working practices of their users," it says.

The paper has met with an angry response from the library profession, including its representative body, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip).

In a letter published today in The Times Higher , Andrew Green, honorary president of Cilip Wales, says Bangor's plans are based on a misunderstanding of what librarians do and endanger the library's acknowledged pioneering work.

Bob McKee, Cilip chief executive, said: "The consultation paper does not appear to take into account the modern mission of a university library service.

"It is taking a very old-fashioned view of a library as a book and document supply service, and ignores academic liaison and issues like widening participation.

"The suggestion that subject librarians are not needed and that Google can do it all is simply facile."

Eileen Tilley, a subject librarian at Bangor, said the university's argument that it needed to make savings to help its bid to gain degree-awarding powers made little sense when its proposals would reduce its library service to the level of a further education college.

She said: "We have received an incredible number of messages from librarians across the world who are concerned about this. Obviously the worry is that if Bangor can do this, other universities might decide to follow suit."

A Bangor official said that the consultation paper arose from a "general pursuit of value-for-money in all our activities and as a response to changes in information and learning technologies".

She said that the university would be consulting fully with libraries staff, users and campus unions before any decisions were reached.

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