End of the librarian? Council cuts and new tech push profession to the brink

The role of the traditional “librarian behind the counter” is under threat in a drive by councils to cut staff hours using self-service checkouts. Officials in some local authorities are proposing that libraries can be operated at times without any professional librarians, relying on self-service technology, smartcards for entry and CCTV.

This has been criticised as a “mad idea”, limiting access to librarians’ advice and expertise for the young, vulnerable and many elderly people.

Buckinghamshire council outlined plans at a cabinet meeting in June to save about £550,000 a year and reduce staffed hours by up to 30% with the technology. Library users with smartcards will be monitored by CCTV to ensure people do not “tailgate” into the buildings.

Martin Tett, the council leader, told the meeting he felt “a bit uncomfortable” about the “library flex” proposals, which are due to be implemented at eight county libraries from next year, subject to consultation.

“I liked the old library service,” said Tett. “I liked the librarian always behind the counter. They performed not just a library service with their knowledge of books and literature, but also a social service. I would also say, though, we have got a very tough financial settlement.” He said the council also had to accept “change is going to happen” and the need to recognise new technology.

Officials hope that, during unstaffed hours, community organisations, friends of libraries and council services will use the libraries. They say there is a potential to increase total opening hours by 50% with the new technology.

Kari Dorme, a former area librarian for Beaconsfield and High Wycombe, said professional librarians loved getting to know readers and also acted as a social service. “It is a mad idea. You can’t replicate the knowledge and skills of librarians. I’m not against self-service machines, but the whole ethos and character of library work is being counted for nothing. A lot of elderly people would much rather speak to a human being.

“Councils want to use these machines when there are no librarians, and I’m worried about the security and safety of these buildings.”

Buckinghamshire council says it will implement measures to ensure public safety, including use of the libraries by community groups.

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Self-service technology such as that used in Bristol Central Library is increasingly being employed by local authorities. Photograph: Charles Stirling/Alamy

Self-service technology has been introduced by many libraries to provide convenience for users, but is being increasingly deployed by councils under financial pressure to cut costs. Haringey council in London said in its budget consultation for 2024-25 that it was examining self-service technology, saying that it had “the potential to reduce staffing by 40%”. This weekend, Haringey said it had listened to residents and was “not proceeding” with the technology.

Croydon council in south London introduced self-service last year at only two of its libraries, Selsdon and Norbury, but faced significant challenges. It found “current trends indicate a strong preference from library users for face-to-face services from library staff”, and that the service did not provide access for people without a library card or under-16s, who cannot use the service without an adult.

Croydon found initial take-up of self-service access hours was “disappointing”, and concluded it was necessary to pay for a security guard on site in the event of an emergency evacuation.

Self-service technology is being examined by councils as libraries across the country come under the threat of closure or face cuts in their services. Birmingham city council has announced plans to review funding of its 35 libraries, which could lead to closures, Nottingham city council plans to close four libraries, and Havering council in London is also proposing the closure of four libraries.

Laura Swaffield, chair of the charity The Library Campaign, which supports library users’ and friends’ groups, said libraries were under attack in many parts of the country. “Libraries have a wider role as community resources. We oppose self-service technology where it is being used as a means of leaving libraries unstaffed.

“If you just want to pick up some light reading, or you know how to use the computer, that’s fine. Many people need far more than this. The library is the most accessible front door to a whole range of information and support.”

High-profile writers have warned of the impact of cutting library services. In an interview with the Observer in April, David Nicholls, author of the novel One Day, said: “I get very angry about that. Libraries closing, the way the arts are not accessible. That makes me really furious.”

Clive Harriss of Buckinghamshire council said: “The traditional and much loved library service has really changed and evolved over time. We need a modern library service that reflects these changes and continues to provide face-to-face contact for the people who still value this in their local library. Library flex allows us to do this.”

Croydon council said usage of self-service had slowly increased and that it was now part of a review. Havering council said it already offered self-service technology and was not proposing further investments. Nottingham city council said no decision had yet been made on the proposal to close four libraries. A spokesperson said the library service already operated self-service systems and would examine its use “to help people use libraries beyond core staffed hours”. Birmingham council said its consultation on its library service review was ongoing.

The Guardian