Save Our Super City Librarians

Presentation I gave today at Auckland Governing Body. You can also watch it and the brief Q&A which followed with Councillors Collins, Lee, and Simpson here.

Kia ora Mayor Goff and Auckland Councillors. My name is Julia Schiller and I represent a grassroots community campaign called Love Our Libraries.

Our group arose in support of our excellent library system, amid rumours of drastic changes to that system. I request permission to table this document, which is a selection of testimonials we gathered at libraries plus some comments left on Action Station and in our Facebook group.

Whilst visiting libraries, we were struck by the uniqueness of each branch, how it reflects and responds to its community’s needs and aspirations. Many people mentioned their library’s role as a community centre. We also saw that our libraries are especially important to vulnerable people in our society.
The Love Our Libraries Facebook group has over 450 members and at last count there are about 3200 signatures on our petition which I will send to you later today via Sarndra O’Toole.

You might think these numbers are low and perhaps you can ignore them, but let’s be honest, the bulk of the community still doesn’t even know about the changes to our libraries. With the media attention over the past few days, we've had over 2000 signatures added just since Saturday.

Council’s Fit for the Future programme, which was launched last year, was meant to be “a programme of work to evolve libraries to better meet the growing demand for digital and online services, and at the same time make sure that the services offered at each location are based on the needs of the communities they serve.”

Coincidentally, Fit for the Future will also save $1.8 million per year. Perhaps the reality of this program is more to do with saving money than with modernising the library service.

We have learned that Fit for the Future machinations began almost a year ago, a few months before this body was elected, and included a hiring freeze that's been going on since then. Who instigated this program and why?

Many librarians are talking to our campaign. They raise serious questions around the staff consultation process. One person described receiving frequent emails which felt like a box-ticking process, with no detail about what new positions would actually look like. It also seems the library’s HR department has had a lot of turnover and they were unable to manage the process professionally. One former HR employee told me that nowhere in the consultation were employees told that most of their current positions would be disestablished.

Surely this is not how our country’s largest Council is operating?

The ongoing job uncertainty has caused unacceptable levels of stress and loss of morale for library staff. It's a bad sign when over 10% of a work force request voluntary redundancy!

The library profession is all about sharing information, yet our librarians were instructed not to tell the public what was happening. They were even supplied with a script to follow should any member of the public get wind of the plans and make inquires.

I understand some of you tried to make inquiries and were told it was an “operational matter” so you shouldn’t concern yourselves. I've also been told that the public has no right to weigh in on staffing matters. However when I spoke to the Libraries General Manager Mirla Edmundson, on March 24, she categorised Fit for the Future not as a staffing restructure, but as a service restructure.

In which case there should have been proper public consultation. The Council is changing service levels within our libraries and the community has a right to be consulted.

So far 74 librarians have agreed to redundancy arrangements and all of them will be gone by July 1. When all is done, we stand to lose the immeasurable community and institutional knowledge of 15% of our library system’s workforce—the equivalent of seven libraries’ worth of staff. But it doesn’t stop there.

Because as we speak, the remaining staff are playing a demeaning game of musical chairs requiring they compete for the work that has been allowed to remain. Our communities will be further damaged by dismantling well-functioning teams of staff and yanking employees across local boards as if they were parts in a machine.

Council administration has now sought to reassure the public that there will be no branches to close or hours to be scaled back and that's great. But they also claim we’ll have no reduction in level of service. How can this be when 74 staff have gone? Surely you are not saying that libraries were previously overstaffed?

This administrative approach cynically disregards the work, the knowledge, and the love our librarians provide their branches. It is impossible not to reduce service when staff are cut and juggled around.

When I spoke to Ms Edmundson she told me the staff who agreed to redundancy "didn’t wish to be part of the future". Here is an alternate view, from a former employee:

Knowing that my position and extra hours were going to be axed, not knowing what the new positions would look like, where they would be, what hours or on what days. The unknown created too much anxiety in me. Also the thought of going up against my colleagues was something that made me feel sick. Going to an interview to justify my existence without even knowing the details? – couldn’t stomach it. And maybe above all, the lack of respect I felt throughout the process around how everyone is being affected. Just FTE’s not people.

Mayor Goff and Councillors, recently we had some justice for caregivers. Today we are asking you to intervene on behalf of another largely female and underpaid workforce, a workforce employed by all of us and paid for by our tax dollars. Our city should seek to be a model employer, not to emulate the worst of a private sector that deprives employees of a living wage, job security, and opportunities to upskill to meet changing needs.

Our message is that libraries are not a business and should never be run as such. That there is a business case justifying these changes will never make them the right thing to do.

We trust you have the power to stop the current process, review it, restore the library budget, keep the remaining staff in their jobs, and to direct that any new changes in service and in staffing be instigated in an open, inclusive, bottom-up, and transparent way.

Stand with us, thousands of us have your back. Love our libraries, save our librarians.


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.