Last week we spoke with Barbara, who has worked in Nottingham's libraries for many years. In this interview she voices her anger over the decision by the City Council to introduce uniforms for library staff. More so, she talks about the ever degrading library service and the bully tactics deployed by City Council managers to keep its staff in line..
Q: Could you tell us what it is that you do in your line of work?
Barbara: I work as a library assistant, which includes quite a lot of jobs. We stamp out books and take them back in again when people bring them back. There is also a lot of physical work. We have to shelve the books which could be on the bottom shelf or at the top so bending and stretching. We have to carry crates of books which can be quite heavy. We also do a lot of work on the computer. Both our own computer work and helping the public which involves sitting [next] to strangers and showing them what to do. [This also] includes hour long training sessions. And then there are all sorts of bits and pieces, some of which can get quite dirty, its amazing how dirty some of the books that come back can be. We answer enquiries and help users to get the most from their libraries.
Q: How long have you worked for the library service?
Barbara: Well over 5 years..
Q: Have things changed much in the time that you've worked in the library service?
Barbara: Things seem to be getting more centralized, I now work in a community library so we're quite often left to our own devices which is part of what I like about the job. You see something needs doing and you get on with it. But there seem to be more and more directives coming from central [management] at the moment. For example, we've just had an email telling us to count how much stationary we have and if we have 3 printer cartridges or more than 5 rolls of cellotape, we've got to send them back because the system is running out of money. [...] When I started things weren't computerized. Now we are, which makes work easier and gives us more time to talk to people but it's interesting to note that records are kept of all the books that people borrow so you have to be careful of what you borrow. We're also now helping people with their computer problems and tuition. The library service is getting [a lot of] people's skills that [it is] not paying for. You're paid as a library assistant but some people know foreign languages or have display skills or knowledge about particular subjects, all of which the library service benefits from.
Q: So there have been developments in the libraries in recent years with a lot more computers being available for people to use, so there's probably good things that have happened to the library service and perhaps other things that people aren't so happy about?
Barbara: Yeah, I mean people using the computers is pretty good generally, but were getting more and more directives from above for example we used to make our own posters, 'sorry this computer is broken' or 'we're closing over Easter' or a little notice like that. But now you can't have them without saying that you're proud and ambitious and cleaner and safer. You've got to use all the logos. [...] The things [that] are stuck in books they've got to have the city councils logo. It's all becoming far more corporate.
Q: How does this make you feel?
Barbara: It means we can't use our initiative as much and it makes us feel like clogs in a machine. And the ultimate of this is that they want us to wear uniforms. Which means we will be just part of a machine and there will be no individuality left at all. And I think the informal, individual atmosphere of the libraries is one of the good things about them. It also means that people who are excluded from a lot of other places feel more comfortable in them. Teenage boys, asylum seekers, people like that who really don't want to be in places where there are uniformed staff. [...] They feel comfortable now but not anymore if we are uniformed.
Q: So you think that it might affect people who use the libraries?
Barbara: I don't know if this is true but I've heard a story of one asylum seeker leaving the library saying 'aren't you gonna search me'? because he was used to that kind of treatment where he came from. That is the kind of atmosphere that uniformed staff will provoke. One of the lovely things about the job is the relationship we build up with the users, some of whom we've known for years and years. Some of them were children when we started and now have children of their own. And there are old people who've been coming in a lot. A lot of the old people come in for a chat rather than for books, that's one of the lovely things about the job. It's the personal contact and we feel that they're friends and we're their friends and it won't be like that if we're wearing unforms. We won't be ourselves, we will just be the face of the council.
Q: Can you say a little about how you think this decision might have come about and how you were told about it?
Barbara: I was told about it through rumours which is how we get all our information. Somebody will say; 'have you heard that, have you heard that'? But that was over a year and a half ago. And we kicked up a stink and were told to 'write what you feel about it', so we did, but it was ignored. Unison have now [issued] a grievance which means the uniforms have been put back by 2 months, while there’s supposed to be a consultation.. Apparently there’s been a report on how to make Nottingham City council a fantastic council. One of the things in the report was that everybody ought to be uniformed. It's not just library staff, I dont know if you've noticed but all the reception stuff at the Guildhall and where ever, they've all been uniformed. We're in the last phase of it. And other people aren't happy but they've at least been consulted. We weren't consulted, we were just told this. And apparently they really gotta do it or they'll just loose face.
Q: Would be interesting to find out who has run their consultancy.. I wonder if the freedom of information act could produce that.
Q: A lot of your feelings about the issue are about the users of the library. Do you know how other library staff feel about being told to wear uniforms?
Barbara: Well we don't all feel the same. There are some people who think its great and they'll be really important wearing uniforms. The big feeling is that it's ridiculous. I thought the whole thing was a joke cause it's degrading, its humiliating, its completely unnecessary. The public can find library staff easily enough. We're the ones behind the counter, we're the ones shelving the books, we're the ones wearing badges saying 'staff'. And in the smaller libraries anyway, they know who we are. [...] So it's completely unnecessary. It's a waste of public money and its humiliating for us. It could also be dangerous for us because some members of the public don't like people in uniform. The uniform itself, is described as a suit. A grey shapeless suit made of artificial fibres, with a blouse that isn’t completely opaque so your underwear can be seen through it. [And we] have to sit next to strangers.. The skirt is a pencil skirt so it rides up or you can wear trousers that are apparently itchy. I don’t think the women have to wear scarfs or anything but the men have [to wear] clip on ties. They have to be clip on because the council actually realises that it could be a danger that somebody might pull them at their ties so [now can] will come off.
Q: It’s the same with other public sector workers..
Barbara: Yeah, so the uniforms will be completely unsuitable for the work we do. [...] Possibly, you can be comfortable doing just reception work if you’re just sitting, but we move around a lot and we have to carry things. So they are completely unsuitable. Apparently they’ve made arrangements for culturally 'appropriate' uniforms for certain groups presumably for Muslim people in particular. But my culture is of not wearing uniforms so I don’t think they’ve made any allowance for that. Errrr, I can’t remember what the question was but these are some of my feelings.
Q: What can library staff do if they basically disagree with being told to wear uniform?
Barbara: Well, we’ve been told to do it all through Unison. A lot of staff has actually left Unison and have joined the GMB because there was a period when we couldn’t find any Unison rep. So we’re now in two different unions. Which doesn’t help coz if there is ever a ballot the people who feel most strongly are spread across two unions so that’s not gonna be good if there is a ballot which there may be. Really what we can do is all refuse to wear them.
Q: How serious have the unions taken this issue?
Barbara: I haven’t spoken to anyone from the GMB but I suspect that they’re certainly making it look like there are taking it seriously which is why people joined them. [At] Unison, they say that they are and they have put in a grievance and there may be a ballot but I think we need to do more that just rely on the unions. Some colleagues have produced a petition for the staff and a lot of staff have signed it.
Q: Of course this is part of the bigger picture of the council going in a more corporate direction. How do you feel when looking at this bigger picture of where our city is going?
Barbara: Well, when I walk through the city and see all those signs they just make my blood boil. The ones I especially like [are] the ones that say 'cleaner' in the middle of a heap of litter. I think it's intimidating with all these pretend coppers walking around, I do find that intimidating [...] Sometimes they are useful if they can come in the library when we’re having a hard time but otherwise it is intimidating. The money seems to be spent on all the wrong things, its all the big showy things. Like the new square which is you know its ok but the old square was fine. Its all big showy things to make an impression and they’re not bothered about the neighbourhoods.
Q: As a member of staff have you ever experienced the 'bully tactics' from senior management, that other council workers have spoken out about in the past?
Barbara: We do feel bullied. We do feel bullied because we have been told we are not allowed to talk to the public about the uniform issue. Officially the public isn’t suppose to know about the uniforms coming in. However, it is actually on the council's website and is part of their libraries plan but I suppose they’re thinking [that the] public aren’t going to look at that. There have been some letters in the Evening Post. But yes, we are told that it will be a disciplinary matter and we could be sacked if we discuss this or had any kind of protest about it. Oh yes, there have been emails [going] around saying that if any media come in and want to discuss anything to do with the council library service we must not talk to them, we’ve got to direct them to management.
Q: Hmm, lets go talk to management..
Barbara: We've signed no official secrets act, we've signed nothing to say 'we have to keep schtum'.
Q: Have you ever signed a confidentiality agreement?
Q: You haven't?
Q: So are you implying that potentially what they are doing this just to try and intimidate you, with no actual backing?
Barbara: Well, Unison think they could get away with it [...] they advised us not to talk to the press.
Q: If anyone reads about this, (and might be outraged by it) what could they do?
Barbara: There is a petition which is available on Indymedia (see links below). They can [also] write to their councillor. They can write to the Evening Post. They can do a phone in to radio programmes. Most libraries have got a leaflet called something like 'tell us your views' or 'tell us what you think' or something like that. So [you could] put a complaint in on those. And tell more people, make it [an issue]. Cause as big a stink as you can please. Email your friends, ask them to forward it you know, cause a big stink and write to everybody. And maybe come into libraries and tell the staff that you support them aswell. Because a lot of people are very dejected, and feel very disempowered.
Q: Can you think of any other questions? This covers most of it doesn't it?
Barbara: I'll tell you a bit about the consultation.
Barbara: Management claim that they consulted Unison, and that's why it was all going ahead. When we got hold of Unison they said 'no, no, no' that's not true' and, at the moment Unison are waiting for the notes from this consultation that never happened to come from management [background sniggering]. Meanwhile, consultation is taking place. There is a group been set up, to discuss uniforms. A group of staff. We were all asked if we wanted to be on this group, [and] over twenty people said yes, so management picked out who was to go on it. Half of them weren't actually supposed to be wearing uniforms. It's only library assistants who have to wear them, managers and librarians, qualified librarians won't have to.
Q: What?! It's only the library assistants?
Barbara: It's only the library assistants, yes.
Q: But surely, I mean, am I right in thinking that librarians, and to some degree the library managers have, a similar kind of contact with members of the public?
Barbara: The libraries are basically run by library assistants, of whom the library manager is one. They're just one step ahead of library assistants. And then there are librarians who are qualified, and then there's the management team, most of whom have never actually worked in libraries and haven't got a clue. So library assistants will be expected to wear them. We're front line staff, so the public see us. Librarians actually come in and out of libraries a fair bit. They're the ones who order the books and liaise with schools or with old people's homes or whatever. They do various activities in the libraries so they do work with the public, and sometimes in [the] central [library] they'll answer enquiries and stuff. So they are seen on the frontline sometimes, but it's just the scum, the unqualified scum who are gonna be humiliated like this. But this group that's discussing it, half of them won't be needing to wear uniforms anyway, and then there's a couple of libraries where the staff are in favour, so their staff have been picked to be on this group. And [the way] this group has been consulted is [that] they're allowed to choose between the grey suit or a fleece and polo neck. That's the two choices and whatever is chosen everybody will have to wear. So this is what's called 'consultation'; choosing between shit and shite. But they can say oh yes we're being consulted. As only library assistants having to wear the uniforms, I think that's really discriminatory and especially as library assistants are doing more and more of the work of librarians, because to save money, we get paid less than the librarians do, so to save money we're doing more and more of their work. [This] involves working with the stock and working with enquiries mainly. [...]
Other: Can I just say something?
Other: You missed something very important out. In addition to all your library assistants extra skills that the council are not paying for like languages and computer skills and things like that, you lot are also responsible for the building. You open it up, and you shut it down at night. So you're responsible for council property, which is a responsibility that I don't think is reflected [in the wages] or gets recognised.
Q: And I guess closing a library at night is a safety isssue?
Barbara: It is a safety issue. Being seen in public wearing the uniform is a safety issue, but the Council seems to have given up caring about health and safety now.
Q: Hmm indeed. Let's leave it at this then. Thanks very much for talking to us Barbara.
* Petition link: http://indymedia.org.uk/media/2008/02//391257.doc