Humans of SOAS – Library Staff

Interviewed by Indigo Lilburn-Quick, BA History and Politics
Photographs by Jeiran Artykova

Vicky in her office.

Over the past week, I have spent time with several of the staff members that are challenging the proposed cuts to the library under the One Professional Services restructuring proposals. It is clear from the interviews that all believe these drastic cuts are going to have huge negative effects on the library, the services they provide, and students and staff alike. Their passion is inspiring and all of them have immense expertise that they want to share with students. Each interview was illuminating and shattered stereotypes of what a librarian does and I hope students reading this will appreciate the value of librarians and how essential they are to our amazing library.

Interviews with:
Debbie Barney, E-services Manager
Erich Kesse, Library Digital Projects Officer
Esther Okwok, Interim Customer Services Manager
Ludi Price, Far East Cataloguer
Vicky Bird, Subject Librarian

What’s your role at the library?

Debbie Barney: I’m the E-services manager and that means I look after all the electronic resources so all the e-books, e-journals and all the databases on the library system and help with training and the enquiry desk and things like that.

Debbie Barney: I’m the E-services manager and that means I look after all the electronic resources so all the e-books, e-journals and all the databases on the library system and help with training and the enquiry desk and things like that.

Erich Kesse: I am the Library Digital Projects Officer.

Esther Okwok: I am the Interim Customer Services Manager. My team is responsible for library access, issue and return of items, inter-library loans, shelving and making sure that all items are in the right places, producing all the learning and teaching resources on Moodle for staff and students, and health and safety whilst you are in the library. We also lead on support to students with disabilities/challenges to maximise their access the resources in the library.

Ludi Price: I’m the Far Eastern Cataloger in the library and that basically means for all material in Chinese, Japanese and Korean I catalogue them and make sure they’re on the electronic library catalogue so that people can find them. Because if there’s no cataloguing no one can find what we have. So I work with everything from really rare books and manuscripts to atlases to CDs DVDs etc.

Vicky Bird: I am the Subject Librarian for Politics, Economics, Financial and Management Studies, CISD and distance learning, and I’m starting to look at transnational education which is starting in February. I’m also currently acting as Deputy Head of Teaching and Research Support.

Esther stands among the books.

What is your favourite thing about the SOAS Library? What makes it special?

DB: It’s got such an amazing vast collection of stuff that you just wouldn’t get anywhere else and you can just wander around and find these amazing things. The other thing I love about it is that people are so passionate about it, it really inspires passion and love in people, which is great. Our archives are amazing as well, we’ve got some real gems in there. I think that’s why we’ve had so many people on board with the campaign as people have a real connection to it.

EK: The collections. Not just the Special Collections. There are research gems in the London general stacks and in remote storage as well. In terms of what we digitise, 40% comes from Special Collections, 60% from General and Remote Collections. Selections are made by Librarians, by Academics, and by Students/Researchers. I am constantly surprised by what comes across my desk!

EO: The staff make it special. They are passionate about the resources and know the collections inside out. Library Inductions are all about sharing these with all our students and staff.

LP: I think SOAS library is just so unique and what it has in it is so special and we have some global treasures. I could go into the basement and just find a box of really random stuff and it’s moments of discovery like that that are what I love about working here.

VB: The staff! The team at SOAS library work really hard to try and deliver a good service and are always trying to do new things, or find a new angle to work from, it might not always come through or be apparent due to various other constraints but we do really try to keep our students and staff happy.
SOAS is not a cookie cutter institution, it is unique and so is its library, that’s its strength.

Libraries are the ultimate vehicle for social justice.

Why are libraries important?

EK: Personally, my grandfather was a bookbinder. When I hold a book, I remember him. I remember where I came from. His work stands as a metaphor. Did you know that the treasures of the Greek world survived the Dark Ages, to be rediscovered in the libraries of Egypt, or, that many are still being discovered alongside treasures of the Islamic world in the living libraries of Timbuktu? Libraries are important in that they hold the voices of humanity, many of which are now otherwise silent. They reveal our greatest thoughts and our worst deeds. Because many are written in now dead or obscure languages and scripts, they force us to interpret, to question, to hypothesize, to believe, and to doubt. To paraphrase Descartes, they call us into being.

LP: I think libraries and information work is really important because we are living in an age of information glut. With Google and so on, we are bombarded with information all the time and we think we know how to deal with it but sometimes it’s just too much. I think that libraries are important because they’re there to curate information and they get the best quality information to you. They’re not only repositories of knowledge there also places where you can go to get information literate and know better how to organise information and search for information in ways that are more useful to you. I think as students and researchers and academics that’s an important thing.

VB: Libraries offer a safe space, a refuge and free access to information and educational resources. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers the right to access information and libraries help to defend this right. One of the core tenets of the library profession is a belief in the right of people to have access to information and libraries provide that. Libraries are the ultimate vehicle for social justice.

Ludi by her desk.

What’s the best part of your job?

DB: I like helping people find what they need and learn things they wouldn’t have got to before. Part of my job is helping people find journal articles and books and helping them to construct searches for their research topics and just guiding them a bit to what’s going to be useful for them and I find that really satisfying. It feels like you’re giving people skills that they can then use in other things as well which is what I like best.

EK: The best part of this job is getting to see it all and making historic materials more widely available. We’re being taught through the work of SOAS academics and student researchers, many of whom are leading their fields.

EO: Seeing the happy students at their graduation, and knowing the Library staff played a small part.

LP: Getting to work with unique material I mean there’s just some stuff that probably no other library in the world has and you’re the one who’s touching it, you’re the one making it available for other people to see and that’s hugely satisfying.

VB: Definitely the students. I love dealing with students and that’s why I became a subject librarian. I like the variety of enquiries I get, I can get anything from water provision in various countries through to commodities to a bit of human rights work, so it’s very interesting, very diverse. The students here are so passionate here about their studies and I really love being a small part in their research and helping in that way.

What are some of its challenges?

EK: Digitisation, though institutionalised in libraries for decades now, is still a non-traditional service. And, it’s hard to ask colleagues to fit us in to already overloaded work queues. Another problem is resources, SOAS has potentially very large demand; but, the Digitisation programme doesn’t have the resource to meet it. We have to work strategically, to favour queues that build a reputation and attract donors or that attract grant funding, or favour teaching.

VB: One difficulty is trying to supply such a wide range of resources to cater for the many different research interests at SOAS which means we have to make difficult decisions in terms of funding.

Did you always want to work in a library/with books?

DB: My mum claims that I wanted to when I was very little but I don’t remember that. I did a history degree a long time ago and then I graduates and thought “I don’t know what to do”, so I sort of faffed about a bit and thought about arts administration, museums and then libraries sort of cropped up and I thought I’ll give that a go. So I got a masters in librarianship and I think that’s one of the things people don’t always realise is that many people in the library will have a postgraduate qualification in librarianship. One of my friends asked, “are you studying shushing and wearing a cardigan?” But there are a lot of us who have got so much specialist knowledge and experience.

EK: Yes and No. I wanted to honour my grandfather’s memory. He trained me to be a bookbinder. My entire professional life – 40 something years – has been in libraries/archives/museums. But, I actually wanted to be a creative writer. I was entering the New York University’s Creative Writing Programme, under Galway Kinnell, when Ronald Reagan became US President. He didn’t believe the country needed writers. My funding disappeared. I fell back on what would have been my money-earning career in libraries.

LP: I actually trained to be a librarian really late in the day and I’ve never looked back, it’s been a great experience. I always loved books and it was always really what I wanted to do. When I was in secondary school I went to do my work experience a library and I really wanted to work in one. But I just ended up on a teaching and childcare career path and I was about to study to be a teacher. I was working as a teaching assistant at the time and teachers that I worked with were always really overworked and in a bad mood all the time and I thought “why am I doing this?” So as a split-second decision, I decided to a Masters in Library Science and it was the best choice I ever made.

VB: No – I was quite resistant to the idea! I studied Archaeology originally, but was drawn into the library world whilst needing to work to support my studies. Once there, I realised the work was in the warm and dry, which is not always the case with archaeology, and it is slightly better paid than being a full-time archaeologist. But I always liked finding stuff out, so it was sort of my destiny. When I was at school I remember the careers advisor saying “why don’t you go and work in a library? You’re curious about finding things out…” and I said “No, I don’t want to do that “ but now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

How are the cuts going to affect you?

DB: I’m one of two staff in the e-services team and both of those roles are going in the restructure. It’s not really clear from the documentation but I think the work is being dispersed among the other teams. We’ve got concerns about whether that’s a really inefficient way of doing things, and how effective that’s going to be.

EK: As currently outlined, they do away with the Digitisation Assistant. I will have even less capacity to get things done.

LP: The thing is that I am one of the few people that stand to benefit from the library restructure in that my role will be moving from part-time to full time. However, my concern is that we’ve been told that this would be to increase the number of hours spent on language cataloguing but we are quite concerned that in actuality, because there are going to be so many staff cuts, we will have to take up the slack of the people that will be lost, so a lot of our work will not actually be language cataloguing but stuff, like working on the service desk, giving tours that kind of thing which we haven’t had any training in and, isn’t part of our remit right now. We’re concerned that the restructuring, and making us full-time won’t actually benefit the library in the way they say it will.

VB: My post will be disestablished. This means I have a choice of voluntary severance, or being fitted to a role in SOAS, probably at a lower pay grade than I am on now, which does not make use of my specialist skills which have not been recognised in the restructure. I commute in so it means that it will no longer be financially viable for me to work here so realistically I have the choice of voluntary severance.

How are the cuts going to affect the library?

DB: I think if it goes ahead with the structure that’s been proposed I can’t see it being able to deliver what the vision is for the library. I think the people who remain will end up with a lot more work and it will be quite stressful and be a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment and I think if the structure stays the same as it is at the moment I don’t think we are going to be able to do what we need to do to help people properly.

EK: This plan cuts the proverbial nose – okay a nostril – off of our face.

LP: I think its a huge issue. It’s going to affect everyone. We’re going to be reduced to basically skeleton staff at least on the bottom level of the structure. We’re having more managers put in but much fewer people on the ground. User-facing staff will be far less so students will get less of a service. There will be fewer people actually working with the books themselves so that will make turnover rates much slower. Less time for shelving, less time for cataloguing and things like that. We’re really concerned about providing a good level of service to our users and I think that’s the main issue.

VB: We just don’t really know how the services will be provided as there has not been a full consultation with library staff, there hasn’t been an open conversation about where our roles are going for people who are being disestablished. The staff that are remaining are very worried about how they’re going to take on the extra work.

What can students do to support the library whilst facing the cuts?

DB: We would just value support, if we’re getting support from the students and the staff that’s got more impact on the administration than us just saying “it’s not gonna work, it’s not gonna work!” So if we can get students being supportive at the rallies and other things.

EK: State your desires and your needs, in terms of services. Think hard about a 24/7 service. And, ask questions about the purpose of last week’s ‘self-servicing’ of the library. Establishing facts on the ground is a good way of putting the student foot in the door. But, was this the right door? And, I’m thinking like a parent here. Don’t give Administration the opportunity to play the role of (your) parents too. Were the students safe? Were the collections safe? What library services did they actually self-service? Can SOAS cut services/staff and yet expand them?

LP: So far students have given us amazing support. Carry on what you’re doing! Carry on being engaged, carry on writing into management and make your voices heard – tell them what you want because as far as we know you haven’t been asked what you want really even if they’re basing the cuts supposedly on what you have told them [referring to student requests for 24-hour service]. Get yourself heard in any way you can and we will support what you want. You are why we’re here.

VB: SOAS management says that they listen to students and are using what they say students want to partially justify the cuts. They’re using longer opening hours, which we would love to give you, as a justification for cutting staff but also they’re increasing the number of managers so there’s that disparity. It’s really difficult for staff to defend against these claims because it sounds like we’re saying “we shouldn’t give students longer opening hours.” So I think the most important thing is to speak up if you feel that your university experience will be detrimentally affected by these changes.

What’s the one thing you wish management would understand about the negative consequences of their proposals?

DB: I just think that if it goes ahead we won’t be able to deliver what management’s expectations to deliver are. I think the way the process is being carried out, there hasn’t been as much engagement as there should’ve been and I think that’s had a really bad effect on morale. So we’re not starting at a point with everyone on board we’re starting at a point with people feeling quite upset and stressed and that’s not a good position for anyone to be in. They haven’t thought about the process and how it’s actually going to deliver.

EK: They don’t appear to be thinking strategically? I also want to know why Administration reportedly rejected a token 10% pay cut among their ranks. They already make more than is needed to live. They’re asking some staff to go without a job, without a paycheck. And, a token pay cut would pay for a few staff. They appear to have no skin in this game. Yet, they manage the budgets and courses of action that have led us to this point.

VB: I think it’s the breadth of these changes and what is going to be affected because ALL of the services provided across the library will be affected in ways that staff have been trying to highlight since they were revealed. We are the experts in our fields, so if we say that the things that are being done will negatively affect services these concerns should be taken seriously and listened to. I wish they’d understand the number of potential issues, and the fact there doesn’t seem to be a firm plan in place to deal with those is really worrying which I think is what’s really causing the unrest.

All interviews may have been edited for the purposes of length and clarity.

Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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