Why we need the Back Office: a library assistant speaks


Because the public-facing side of libraries is all that a very large majority of the public (and councillors) see, there is sometimes the assumption that there is no need for the behind-the scenes staff.  In this sadly anonymous piece, a library assistant speaks about why this would be a fallacy.


“The idea that front-line staff can do without back-room staff is utterly ludicrous.  How would councillors be served if they didn’t have the council officers to report to them;  clerks to prepare their meetings; write agendas and minutes; plan the use of venues/buildings; clean the council chamber; pay the staff who do the work of the council and collect the council tax?  You could go on and on.

Libraries, too, are dynamic entities – that is what is so little understood by people who don’t used them and make stupid assumptions about their being static.  Not only do we, as frontline staff, react to what comes into the libraries in the way of questions and queries – but outreach has to be done all the time.  Libraries go with the flow of the world and are constantly adapting – they and their staff are cutting-edge in a very real sense .

Stock has to be considered and ordered; distributed and processed; front line staff need managing, training, paying, supporting etc.   IT is another huge component and has to be managed.  Frontline people carry out the work with the public but how could they take on all the foregoing, plus the planning of events, big and small?

Staff might make a decision about having a story-time or a book-sale or a coffee morning or a particular display, but they aren’t involved with helping to plan a Book literary festival,  co-ordinating national campaigns like World Book Night, the Six-Book Challenge, the Summer Reading Challenge; collaborations with other local bodies, book promotions alongside theatre productions;  poetry slams or special ‘Summer Storytimes’ in the open air.  Consider, as well, that back-room staff are needed to plan author events;  art competitions;  blogs on the official website;  people to handle the Facebook and Twitter communications, and so on and so on.  It is essential we go out into the big wide world and draw people in to see what libraries can offer them.  Last, but not least, consider those excellent Local Studies libraries that must be constantly updated.  You can’t collect, collate and catalogue documents, photographs, books and ephemera while working on the front line:  Aarrgghhhhh!

I wonder how much research council Members for Libraries do and whether they understand this dynamism?  How can Libraries be other than ‘static’ unless they have people behind the scenes to plan all this stuff.  And that’s without even going into the longer-term strategy about how a town or county can be best served by its libraries.  It cannot be done at the same time as engaging with people day to day in the front line.   Of course you need the extra back office staff!

Councillors want to make cuts – so let them acknowledge that there is “no such thing as a good cut”.  The argument for cutting back-room staff is, given the evidence, downright silly.  It will be harmful.  Let them take responsibility for the harm, or be judged as unworthy of their office.

A frontline library worker, November 2013

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