ASSOCIATES (2011, July, v. 18, no. 1)


When School Libraries Close: Library Technicians in the Role of Asset Managers

Vivian Walker
Library Technician
Vancouver, Canada

I am a library technician in an elementary school in a small Canadian city. My official job description is a simple one. It describes tactful work with a variety of stakeholders, the minimum educational and job skill requirements, and the ability to lift 20 kg. Nowhere does it describe an essential component of most library jobs—we are the keepers of the gate. We are the asset managers responsible for a huge investment in books and equipment. When assets go missing we track them down. When they are damaged, we fix them. In schools, we make rules and enforce the rules to ensure that students are properly trained in how to be good citizens and treat these publicly owned assets with respect. We do inventory every June to track how well we’ve performed this task and sadly note where we’ve failed and items have disappeared. So what happens when nobody is at the gate? Who then to guard the assets?

May is a prickly time of year in most Canadian school systems. Schools work to balance budgets for the next year, staff allotments are juggled, and inevitably, the list of library technicians with hours cut or even eliminated comes out. Then the bumping starts. Top down, we bump our colleagues along until the bottom person on the seniority ladder gets laid off. For two springs I’ve been on tenterhooks, waiting for the May 31 deadline. For two springs, although my hours have been cut and I’ve lost a term position at a neighbouring school, my job at a small “inner city” school (so designated because of our transient, low-income population and low literacy scores) in a Vancouver, British Columbia suburb has been saved. This year I haven’t been so lucky. The library that I have revitalized will no longer be mine. The school library rebuilt with no budget money but with great support from foundations and service groups will be passed on to someone with more seniority. I’m sad (and unemployed, to boot!) but at least our school will have the benefit of being staffed three part days per week. Someone will remain to be the keeper of the gate for almost $200,000 (Cdn) in assets. However, that asset of $200,000 will be unattended for 27 of the 40 hours that our school’s front doors are open each week. A manual sign-out book will ask people to let us know when they’ve removed those assets. Basically, we’re putting seven brand new cars in our school parking lot with the keys left in them and asking the community to use them on the honour system.

Other schools in our board are willing to live with even higher risk. We have an elementary school of 500 students that was staffed by a library technician for 30 hours a week and now only by a vice-principal when she has the time, a school of 300 students that lost its library technician and then had its teacher librarian cut to a .2 shared position, and a high school library that lost a full-time teacher librarian and part-time library technician in the same year. It is supposedly being kept open two hours a day by a part-time teacher librarian supplanted by one untrained clerical worker in the library four hours a week. One of our high school libraries will be closed completely next year. I’ve done inventory in high school libraries. The replacement value on books alone would be close to half a million dollars. I’ve been called in to do inventory in schools without regular library staff and noted the huge annual loss in overdue books not followed-up on and in the large “missing” list of books that just walked out the door. Thousands of dollars worth of assets lost through poor stewardship. I wonder if the school would be so sanguine about laptops or printers walking out the door.

And pity the staff, parents, and students of the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board in Windsor, Ontario, for their upcoming asset loss. The Windsor Star reported on May 18, 2011 that 40 library technicians were to lose their jobs as library access was changed. The headline reads “Catholic school libraries will be ‘retooled’: Picard.” Evidently Mr. Picard, the Director of Education at the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board, had an epiphany one day while at a Starbucks of what a library could be. He wants the vibrancy of a Starbucks brought into the school system. Never mind that most staffed libraries already have that vibrancy! He wants libraries closed, envisions classrooms as “flex rooms” and if successful will divvy out all library books into packets of 1000 housed in classes. Who will be responsible for these asset packets of $20,000? Who will track the losses and carefully update the collection to match curriculum and technology changes?

Perhaps the best way to justify our jobs isn’t to talk about literacy levels and instilling a love of reading and all those other factors that apparently aren’t respected by bean counters. Maybe we need to show how we are uniquely qualified to protect and preserve assets. If it’s dollars and cents that is costing us our jobs, maybe it’s dollars and cents that can save us.