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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Fears of Staffless Libraries

A Kind Reader sent me some articles about a staffless library experiment in Toronto.

The idea isn’t to replace librarians, but to extend hours, or so the story goes. Nevertheless, some people are concerned about safety, but aren’t they always, and of course the library union is against the whole idea, because nonexistent workers don’t pay union dues.

The safety concerns are hard to evaluate. Supposedly, during a pilot in 2014 at three libraries in Ireland, 111 people “had their open library membership temporarily withdrawn” for various reasons, “including incidents of tailgating, giving their card to another person to use and opening the door to allow access to another person.”

That does sound pretty dangerous, unless tailgating means something different in Ireland than it does in the United States. I hope it does, because the thought of people driving their cars recklessly close to other cars inside the library is a frightening thought.

Assuming that tailgating means something relatively innocuous, it doesn’t sound like safety was that much of a concern.

One person did lose membership privileges permanently for drunkenness, but otherwise things seemed to be fine.

Oh, and there were also six children left unsupervised, but there was no word on the age of the children, which seems like it would be important.

On the other hand, as this article makes clear, staffed libraries in Toronto aren’t exactly problem-free themselves, so it’s hard to say that the staffless ones will be worse.

Even if the staffless libraries were perfectly safe, the union would still oppose them, though. The problem is that the union can’t just come out and say they’re opposed to staffless libraries because nonexistent librarians don’t pay dues.

The union released the results of a survey that told them just what they thought they wanted to hear.

The big finding: “The survey found that three in four respondents (73%) would not send their children or parents to a library without librarians or security staff, and more than six-in-ten (63%) would, given the chance, tell Mayor Tory to stop this idea from proceeding.”

That leaves a big question, though, besides the question of who would be “sending their parents” to the library. Why, if so many people wouldn’t use the staffless libraries anyway, is the union so opposed to them?

If nobody is going to use the staffless libraries, then there won’t be any problems with safety or anything else. The libraries will just remain empty, and at the end of the pilot they can be closed again.

But we know from the pilot in Ireland that the libraries were used during the staffless hours. If 111 people had their memberships revoked, that probably means that a lot more people used the libraries with no problem at all.

These findings emerge as the Toronto Public Library readies a pilot project to test the idea of opening two branch libraries – Swansea and Todmorden -with no on-site staff or security during early morning and late evening hours when the branches would otherwise be closed.

The survey is no argument against the pilot, though. The union is trying to preempt the pilot by claiming that people don’t want to use staffless libraries, but the only evidence that should matter could only be assessed after the pilot. Librarians should know stuff like that.

If people really don’t want to use the staffless libraries and have access before and after the usual library operating hours, then they won’t use them, and the pilot will show that. Except that’s not the likely outcome and the union knows it.

There’s more shakiness to the survey. It “found that 55% of respondents do not think it’s possible to have a good library with no librarian, just 21% said it is possible, the rest were not sure.”

The head of the union loves this. “I agree with the majority of people in this city – it is not possible to have good libraries without librarians.”

Let’s examine this more closely, though. First of all, 45% of the respondents didn’t think it was impossible to have good libraries without good librarians. Spin it however you like, but if almost half the respondents in my library survey didn’t care whether there were librarians or not, I might keep those results to myself.

And the spin is everything, because what the press release is trying to downplay is that there will be NO LIBRARIES WITHOUT LIBRARIANS.

What? Isn’t that what this pilot is all about?


Unless I’m seriously misunderstanding this pilot, and unless the press release from the union itself is lying, the libraries won’t lack librarians. There will just be some hours before and after the traditional staffed hours when no staff will be in the building. During the regular staffed hours, librarians will presumably be doing all those things librarians do.

Does that really count as libraries without librarians?

It’s hardly the same as the numerous school libraries I’ve written about where there really are no librarians, and as a result the libraries either close entirely or don’t develop in any way.

The union isn’t opposed to libraries without librarians, because that’s not what’s happening. The union is opposed to the public being able to access libraries during hours that librarians aren’t there.

The union head is quoted in this article as saying, “Toronto Public Library has one of the highest, if not the highest rate of precarious work in the city, and I just think this is a wrongheaded way to improve things…. And I just, I don’t think there’s a need for it, I think…the senior management needs to advocate stronger for our library service.”

That’s really the crux of the union’s argument, and all the rest is spin. Opening the library during unstaffed hours is a test to see just how much staff are really needed.

The union naturally wants the things unions want, like job security, which it sounds like the library doesn’t provide much of with its high rate of “precarious work.” Library service provides job security for those providing the service. And it seems pretty easy to argue that library service is necessary, just not every moment libraries are open.

The “senior management” might have other ideas. The real test of whether you can’t have libraries with librarians isn’t this pilot. The real test will be when the librarians all go away and the libraries with them and they do another survey to see who notices.



  1. Aaron Goldbird says:

    “Let’s examine this more closely, though. First of all, 45% of the respondents didn’t think it was impossible to have good libraries without good librarians. Spin it however you like, but if almost half the respondents in my library survey didn’t care whether there were librarians or not, I might keep those results to myself.”

    Let’s examine this more closely, though. I am a huge library nerd and I don’t think its impossible to have good libraries without good librarians, but I think its very unlikely that a good library will be unstaffed and I care intensely whether there are librarians at my local library or not. Spin it however you like, it is a complete non sequitur to suppose that because 45% of people don’t think it is impossible to have a good librarianless library, that they don’t care about librarians at all.

    • Most of the public doesn’t know what librarians do, and they often think that anyone who works in the library is a librarian. Many also think libraries could be run solely by volunteers. Until we market our profession better, people will think we aren’t needed. It will be interesting to see how this experiment works out.

  2. It is heartening to see comments from people who say ‘let’s try it and see how it goes’ . Libraries cannot remain traditional with traditional opening hours when the public expect more. Given good behaviour from patrons, it should be beneficial to some of the community to open the library such that the users can browse and select books. Sure, an unstaffed library will not provide as complete a service as a staffed library. This is an excellent way to demonstrate the worth of library staff – by their absence! There are still opportunities for library users to go to another library branch (there are more libraries within miles of the proposed trial unstaffed libraries) which open longer hours complete with staff. No-one should end up disadvantaged from this trial (given good behaviour), not staff, not the library user.

  3. I agree with you Angie.

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