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The hybrid librarian

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Public libraries

In the UK, the New Labour Government has been keen to modernize local government by sweeping away bureaucracy and developing services in partnership with communities. Public libraries are part of that local government structure, and have embraced the theme of community engagement.

Some services, notably ones based in Kent and Cumbria, have gone a step further, and appointed community development librarians. These have a role very similar to that of field or outreach librarians described in the previous section, working with communities, particularly those which are unlikely to come near a library. To an arguably even greater extent than academic field librarians, they are making attempts to reach out to non-users and turn them into users.

The job involves not only promoting the library and trying to understand the needs of particular groups, but also developing new projects with them. The community development librarian will need to attend a lot of meetings, develop a profile of the community, and then work with them on projects where the library can help: one Kent-based librarian was involved in developing an ABC for adults (having found that there were none suitable) which was available in libraries (Kearl, 2008).

In the English county of Buckinghamshire, the objective is to develop access points across the county, with libraries working in an integrated fashion with other services. This has resulted in the innovative Headspace, the teenage library at High Wycombe, developed in partnership with teenagers and The Reading Agency, a charity which tries to get young people to read more.

One librarian works specifically with vulnerable communities which are unlikely to come into a library as they would feel intimidated, assessing their needs and working on initiatives in adult and family learning.

The role of community development librarian calls for a considerable array of skills:

  • networking
  • marketing and promotion
  • project management
  • creativity
  • customer service
  • enthusiasm
  • patience
  • the ability to talk to a wide range of people,
  • the ability to work with other groups who are operating at different speeds and under different priorities.

Because this is such a new area, there is little specifically targeted training; Kent librarians attended an action learning set run by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, as well as courses run specifically for anyone doing community work.

There is a strong overlap between this role and that of a social worker. However, Goulding (2009), in an interview-based study of public library involvement in the community, quotes one librarian as saying:

"We are not community development officers. So we do work with partners, but there is a limit to what we can do."

And Darren Kearl of Kent Libraries describes how he always has to remember that everything he does has to come back to the Library and its priorities, so it's important to focus on activities that are going to get people to use its service, such as literacy.