By Sue McKerracher*
Try closing a public library and you’ll have the local community take to the streets in support of this highly valued community service. Just because a government department library is less visible, doesn’t mean it is any less valued by the people who use it, but when the fiscal situation is tight, government library and information services feel the squeeze.
In Queensland, at least three government libraries are under threat of closure – the Queensland Combined Emergency Services Academy Library, the Department of Corrective Services Library and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Library. The Department of Education and Communities Library in New South Wales is under review and there are rumours of job cuts in other states and territories.
Of course, government libraries fulfill very different needs from public libraries. This isn’t about reading for pleasure. Government libraries are run by highly qualified library and information professionals, who are able to find the answer to just about any question a minister, politician or bureaucrat might ask when developing robust, evidence- based policy. These are the people who provide the links to knowledge that cannot be sourced elsewhere. One library user summed it up by saying “our librarian makes me look clever.”
The razor gang will say people can find their own information online, but closing libraries exposes government departments to a higher risk of illinformed decision-making.
There is more information available today than there has been at any time in the past, but much of it (especially online) is out-of-date, commercially-driven, irrelevant and sometimes downright wrong.
Most people Google for quick answers to everyday questions and few ever get past the first page. Ask people to find something online and you will find that: 56 per cent search for under a minute, 69 per cent only look at the first page of results and 98 per cent never use advanced search features. Library and information professionals use specialist databases.
By cutting the investment in quality information, government departments risk dumbing down policy and decision-making.
Our concern is about providing timely access to knowledge that will enable government employees to make better decisions, because their decisions will be based on relevant, current, quality information. The role of libraries and information professionals has never been so important.
Library and information professionals go through e-databases, online journals, academic and industry papers to find accurate, up-to-theminute results. Searches are robust and comprehensive, quicker, smarter and give better quality results.
Government library and information services are critical, if the people who shape our future are to have access to the very latest information, and if government employees are to have access to the knowledge of the past that informs tomorrow’s outcomes. Where libraries close, unique collections of valuable historic and contemporary documents, referred to often on a daily basis, will be, at best dispersed, at worst lost forever.
The irony is that the sum saved by closing libraries and cutting jobs is often miniscule in the scheme of things.
We estimate that the savings made by Queensland government departments through the closure of three libraries and staffing reductions in others will be less than the $5 million Brisbane City Council spends each year on weed control. In practice, any savings will be offset by the additional cost of highly paid government advisors having to do their own research or employ less qualified assistants to do it for them.
Library and information professionals know where and how to search for things; they find them faster, and their time costs less than senior officers, so there is a simple economic argument for employing professionals, who cost less and provide a better result.
In terms of due diligence, professional research staff ensure that the information on which government officials base their decisions is current and comes from reliable sources.
Clients can trust the information that is provided by library and information professionals. It is fully referenced and provides a clear measure of care and attention to detail. Library and information services also provide a significant return on investment in terms of output and resource sharing – American studies suggest it’s somewhere between US$4 and US$7 for every dollar invested.
Departments without libraries will still need information, but instead of it being purchased and managed in one area, there will be duplication, as different teams build up their own information resources.
Politicians like to talk about open data and e-government, but who is going to provide the information to support this? Library and information professionals have the skills and knowledge to manage and organise data for public accessibility.
At a more general level, it is important for the skills and knowledge of library and information professionals in government libraries to be recognised and utilised. They understand data; they understand and work with metadata, and they know how to make information accessible to the public.
Library and information professionals are skilled in classification, content management and stakeholder engagement.
Reducing the investment in these skills, at this time, is short-sighted and a false economy. In November 2012 we published Questions of life and death, an investigation into the value of health library and information services in Australia, produced in collaboration with Health Libraries Inc. We surveyed health library users and asked them what impact their use of library and information services had on their work. The results were:
- 95 per cent said it had helped them progress their studies
- 76 per cent said it had helped them achieve higher marks in their exams
- 83 per cent said it had helped them improve health outcomes for their patients
- 76 per cent said it had changed their thinking and improved their diagnosis or treatment plan
- 95 per cent said it helped them discover new and valuable information
- 86 per cent said it helped keep them abreast of the latest clinical developments
- 82 per cent said it helped them progress their research
- 65 per cent said it had helped them confirm their diagnosis or treatment plan
We are planning to do a similar study for government libraries early in 2013. In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt revealed that every two days we now create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003.
In 2013, can we really afford to lose the very people who can evaluate and filter this massive quantity of information? If we want policy and decision making based on robust evidence, we must retain and invest in library and information professionals.
Let’s ensure that Australian government is based on fact, not fiction.
*Sue McKerracher is the executive director of the Australian Library and Information Association.
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