Fit for the Future or a Widening Digital Divide?

According to Auckland Council, our libraries have just undergone an exciting transformation as the Fit for the Future reforms better align service to digital realities. But at the coalface, Fit for the Future is a contender for the worst restructure in all of Council history. A hiring freeze kicked off the process over a year ago and signaled its actual, less lofty, purpose: to realise a pittance of savings on the backs of some of Auckland's most dedicated and underpaid public servants, our librarians. Hundreds of these workers endured the prolonged uncertainty and stress of not knowing exactly how their jobs would be affected. Ill-served by their PSA Union, staff consultation was perfunctory, and librarians were cautioned not to discuss the coming changes with the public. There was no public consultation at all. Staffing matters--even of Fit for the Future's magnitude--are evidently operational matters which are strictly under the purview of unelected bureaucrats, with $600k+/year Auckland CEO Stephen Town at the top of that particular food chain.

It seems frustratingly irrelevant that last October Aucklanders in the main elected a mayor and Council who promised no diminishing of library service. That mayor and certain other elected officials have instead taken to parroting the reassurances of the Libraries General Manager Mirla Edmundson: no libraries closed, no hours reduced, no change in level of service. The Love Our Libraries community group has grown around the premise that staff expertise is an integral part of the service--although staff barely warrant a mention in the definition of Level of Service we obtained as an official information request.

Last month we reached a point where under-staffing started undeniably denting the service library patrons have heretofore enjoyed. Deliberate cuts to staff plus others jumping ship meant some branches had to resort to bringing in temporary workers just to keep their doors open.

One complaint Love Our Libraries has heard often about Ms Edmundson and her lead team of managers is that they have little experience and have spent no meaningful time merely observing our community libraries at work before cooking up allegedly cost-saving ideas like pooling staff and rostering their shifts centrally using flash new software. Footfalls through doors and the number of books checked out give only a limited view of library usage. Also, two possible causes of fewer check outs unacknowledged by management are that 20% of the collection has been withdrawn so there are fewer books to check out and that overdue fees have risen to $1/item/day for adult patrons, prohibitive for those of modest means and unpredictable schedules.

Meanwhile, staff report that the digital divide means many patrons require intensive one-on-one assistance:

There's a lot of people out there who are struggling to cope in the society we've created where everything is online. If computers passed you by then you are at a real digital disadvantage in even the most basic life skills....finding a home, a job, a car, everything.
A lot of people out there need help to access that information and we are their last option.
You wouldn't believe how many people come and ask me to print out airline tickets, concerts, and say to me that they wouldn't be able to buy them if the library wasn't there to help.
WINZ send people to us; Immigration tell people to go to their library for help with the forms. This week I helped a newly released prisoner write a CV and apply for jobs. I helped a retired lady go on Trade Me to find a new unit she could afford to rent because her landlord has put her current home up for sale - she didn't know where to start and had no family here to help her. What will these people do if we don't have the staff to help them?
(A library staffer who asked for anonymity)

Clearly, today's library work is far more than recommending, checking out, and shelving books, but since staff don't record tasks such as "x minutes teaching Mr Q to pay a bill online" this sort of work goes unmeasured, unacknowledged, and unaccounted for. The recipients of this customised digital tutelage cannot even log their gratitude on a paper form; you can only submit feedback about library service via email now.

Thanks to 95 acknowledged redundancies plus 131 resignations since last August, there are fewer experienced librarians on hand to provide this vital personal service. Some of our branches are so short-staffed that formal programmes have been cut as well, for example digital device sessions at Birkenhead and a computer and iPad class at Orewa. Thus Fit for the Future is actually working against its stated purpose. It is widening the digital divide.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.