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Save our librarian: a case study.

As more and more school librarians come under threat from budget cuts, here are some details of a campaign in East Ayrshire. This is not by any means a definitive action plan, and certainly gives no guarantee of success. However, perhaps some of these pointers may help fellow professionals facing similar pressures.

East Ayrshire Council has nine secondary schools; each has a permanent full time qualified or chartered librarian in post (apart from one school, where the post has been vacant for over two years). In November 2010, as part of the council's 2011/12 budget proposals, it was announced that the nine positions would be replaced by two chartered librarians and seven unqualified term-time library assistants, to produce a saving of 60,000 [pounds sterling] p.a. Overall, the council had to save 7.7 [pounds sterling] million, and this proposal was one of over 50 affecting almost every area of the council's activities. Those librarians who did not secure one of the two new librarian's posts, or felt unwilling to apply for one of the seven library assistant posts, would be offered redeployment within other council departments. Early retirement was also an option for some, but not all. The salary scale of the two new positions was to be similar to the current librarians' salary, but those employees switching to term time library assistant level could look forward to a reduction in salary of approximately 10,000 [pounds sterling] pa.

East Ayrshire Council set up a two month consultation period through December and January, allowing all interested parties and indeed, the general public, to comment by letter, email or using an online feedback form. Anonymous comments would be discounted, but there was no requirement to live or work in the area to qualify as a valid contributor.

As can be imagined, hastily convened meetings were arranged between the eight librarians, to which union representatives were invited, to discuss the situation, and available options. It was decided that for maximum impact, each would write their own personal submission to the council. A brief, joint letter was produced from the group en masse, but each librarian felt they had different areas they wished to highlight. Each submission, therefore, was very much a personal statement, made relevant to the particular school served by each librarian. Some submissions took the form of a diary, highlighting exactly what the responsibilities of each librarian are; others used more academic research to illustrate the importance of a qualified school librarian to the well-being and relevance of a school. Some concentrated on the demands of Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish Government's new ethos of literacy, numeracy, health and well-being.

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Most librarians sent their individual submissions to the Chief Executive of the council, with copies for the Executive Director of Education and Social Services. Some copies went to all 32 elected representatives of the council, and to other interested bodies, such as Parent, Student and Community Councils. It also became very apparent that most local councillors have very little knowledge of the duties, responsibilities and capabilities of school librarians. Meetings were arranged with councillors who sat on the local cabinet, and two of them shadowed one of the librarians for a day.

It seemed important to have these submissions as visible as possible, and some of the librarians used the following channels.

* Facebook. If you are a member of Facebook, try to acquire as many friends as possible who have an interest in school libraries, literacy or children's literature. Many authors are avid 'Facebookers' and almost all will accept you as a friend if your profession is shown on your profile. Some of them post several times per day, and if nothing else you will get valuable insights into their lives and thoughts, and quite often learn interesting snippets about forthcoming projects. They are real people, not just names on a book spine, and most welcome feedback from school librarians concerning what 'real' children are reading or looking to read. My own submission was sent to approximately 70 authors, and many were kind enough to send their own protests to the council. If you are asking authors to do this on your behalf, request that they send copies of what they have posted back to you. Such responses are really useful to circulate to other librarians within the group, to keep spirits up and to help everyone realise that there is support out there.

* Campaign for the Book. As soon as Alan Gibbons heard about East Ayrshire's proposals, he mobilised his considerable publicity machine into action. Within two hours of him receiving it, my whole submission (all 5,500 words of it) was posted on a new tab (Save Ayrshire School Libraries)--http://alangibbons.net/?page_id=4103 on his blog. This man deserves a knighthood, although I know he wouldn't accept it.

* MPs and MSPs. The council area is served by two MPs, and fortunately neither of them belong to the same political party that currently holds power at council level. They were both therefore happy to take up the cause, and one of them kindly spoke to the chief reporter of the local weekly newspaper, who then ran an article on the threat to local children's education.

* SLA, SLA (Scotland), CILIPS and SLIC (Scottish Library and Information Council) all wrote excellent letters to the council, highlighting recent surveys on the importance of school librarians to children's literacy. Do not assume, however, that these organisations will automatically intervene on your behalf--the situation has to be highlighted to them before they will become involved. It is believed that submissions from independent, professional bodies such as these are most important, and decisionmakers will take more notice of protests from regulatory and expert organisations than from any number of personal submissions.

* Teaching colleagues. Each librarian's personal submission was sent to all school colleagues, with a plea for help and support. Teachers are, as we know, incredibly busy people, but I just kept on highlighting the threat during every conversation I had with a member of staff. Every time I had professional contact with a teacher, supplying them with a piece of information, recommending to them a book or other resource, allowing their class to come into the library, filling up the printers or unlocking a keyboard, I said 'You won't get this level of service from a library assistant. In some schools, teachers began their own petition; in others, many copied their librarian in on their own emails of protest.

* School Senior Management Team. Request--nay, demand!--the opportunity to visit an SMT meeting to state your case and ask for support. It was pointed out to SMT that the proposal was akin to telling teachers that they would forthwith be classroom assistants, would have the pay and conditions of classroom assistants, but would be expected to carry on teaching as before.

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* Pupil involvement. Do not be afraid to talk to pupils. Once I had highlighted the proposals to a group of my S6 (Year 13) pupils--making sure that I did not tell them that the library would be closing, just that I wouldn't be there to help, advise, cajole and nag them--they had put up posters around the school highlighting my plight, and organized a pupil petition which collected over 200 signatures in the first week.

As the campaign moved forward, other avenues for publicity presented themselves. When Renfrewshire Council announced plans for primary school children to be taught for 2% hours per week by unqualified/non teachers, the Glasgow Herald reported the news that this would be to the detriment of pupil's education. Rhona Arthur, of CILIPS/SLIC, contacted Mary Hoffman, one of the authors who had submitted to East Ayrshire Council, and the next day the paper printed Ms Hoffman's letter pointing out that East Ayrshire Council were planning to provide pupils with 25 hours per week of unqualified school library supervision. I even managed to get an interview posted on a locally based website: http://urstv.com/archives/2011/01/30/keep-our-librarians/

Thinking 'outside the box' produced more submissions to the council. Who do you know who might be interested? We contacted retired teachers and librarians, suppliers, publishers--all of whom happily 'put their heads above the parapet' and submitted to the council.

Alternative proposals

However, perhaps one of the most important areas of the campaign was to produce credible alternative proposals. A majority of the school librarians agreed that to just campaign simply for retention of the status quo would be to invite failure. With the scale of budget cuts required by the council, it was felt that some compromise had to be reached, and a number of differing scenarios were investigated. Finally, it was decided to offer that the school librarians became term-time employees, in order to save professional status and quality of service. This option would mean a reduction in salary of approximately 3,000 [pounds sterling] pa. Other options included a three librarian/six library assistant split, or four or five librarians to cover the nine schools, similar to that being established in Glasgow.

Vital to this process was the ability to be able to put some firm figures of cost savings to these proposals. Further meetings were requested with, and obtained from the decision makers within the council. The Schools Manager agreed to undertake costings concerning the alternative proposals, and it appeared that with reduced pension and NI contributions, the term-time option would save nearly 40,000 [pounds sterling] p.a. against the original proposed saving of 60,000 [pounds sterling].

Once this figure had been established, we concentrated on the other, more difficult to quantify savings that a switch to term-time would produce. We highlighted the fact that if all eight school librarians were left in post, there would be no redeployment or early retirement costs, vacancies in other departments would not be used up by disgruntled ex-librarians, and there would be no re-interview administration and advertising costs.

Finally, in mid February, two days before the cabinet met to discuss the whole raft of budget proposals, we were informed that our revised proposal had been accepted, and would be recommended for adoption. We were informed that not only were the savings of the term-time proposal acceptable, but that the sheer weight of responses could not be ignored. The school librarian issue had elicited more comment than any other proposal, apart from a nursery school closure and a reduction of school bus provision. Emails and messages of support had been received from as far afield as Japan, Bolivia and Greece. Of the seven publicly signed petitions received, three of them had been about school librarians.

Most of the librarians were relieved that our jobs had been saved, and we were very careful to thank all those individuals and organisations who had supported us. If we missed anyone out who might be reading this--thank you so much for your support!

During March, a number of meetings were held to thrash out the intricacies of term-time working. Our job specifications were re-written--by us--to reflect more accurately our current duties and responsibilities. We tried to negotiate five days' paid work during the summer holidays to undertake stock takes, etc. However, as this would have increased our salaries and thus reduced the savings made, our request was unsuccessful--but again, in the spirit of compromise, we had written into our new contracts the right to either declare the library closed for five school days for maintenance, or to take five floating vacation days through the year, to produce a week during the holidays.

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Lessons learnt

So what can be learned from the East Ayrshire experience? A number of points spring to mind.

* Don't take it lying down--campaign, campaign and then campaign some more. Make noise, get people involved, think outside the box for potential supporters. Go national, international if you can

* Highlight to your teaching colleagues what they are going to lose and how these proposals directly affect them

* Contact Alan Gibbons at the earliest opportunity

* Learn as much as you can about how the council works and who the real decision makers are. Get in front of them and educate them concerning how vital qualified librarians are to schools

* Keep talking to each other. Many authors copied me in on their comments to the council--spread these out to colleagues, to keep spirits up and help avoid despair and gloom

* Come up with counter proposals, and get them costed. With the savage nature of budget cuts, the chances of retaining the status quo might be slim. Compromise is always better than coercion

* If you are successful--celebrate and thank everyone involved.

I do hope that this article has given some pointers concerning how to fight a campaign. What I really hope, though, is that none of my school librarian colleagues will need such advice. I have a feeling that cuts will get worse in the future--so be prepared. Imagine what you will need to do if yours is the next authority to threaten--and start making contacts and plans now.

Stephen King is School Librarian at Kilmarnock Academy in Scotland
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Author:King, Stephen
Publication:School Librarian
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:4EUUS
Date:Jun 22, 2011
Words:2189
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