ASSOCIATES (2007, July, v. 14, no. 1) -

Bob McKee
Chief Executive of CILIP
(Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals)
United Kingdom

When I arrived at Ridgmount Street as Chief Executive I made two promises to CILIP’s Affiliate Members – to recognise their skills within our Framework of Qualifications and Accreditation, and to give them full voting rights within our professional Institute.

The first promise was kept with the introduction of ACLIP certification which gives front line staff the opportunity to benchmark their skills and – if they so wish – to progress to the Chartered MCLIP status of fully qualified professional practitioners. The second promise will be kept when CILIP’s new system of governance is introduced on 1 January 2008 – by which time (I hope!) the CILIP AGM and the Privy Council will have agreed with the recommendation, already endorsed by CILIP Council, to give full voting rights to Affiliate Members as well as Chartered Members of CILIP.

Keeping these promises is important because CILIP sees front line staff as an integral and vital part of the library and information community. Front line staff make a key contribution to service delivery and so it is appropriate that their skills should be recognised within our broad framework of accredited qualifications. Front line staff play a full and energetic part in the library and information community and so it is appropriate that they should have parity of esteem reflected in their right to vote and participate fully in the governance of our professional institute.

The work of professional associations like CILIP can be categorised in three ways – supporting members, promoting the profession, and advocating the value of library and information services in society. Indeed, these are the “three pillars” (membership, the profession, society) on which the work of IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, is built. Just as front line staff are integral to the first pillar – membership of the library and information community – so they are equally integral to the second and third pillars; promoting our profession and advocating our value in society.

From my time in local government as a Chief Officer with responsibility for public library service I know that front line staff are key to the impression of the library service gained by local people and – critically in the case of public libraries – by local politicians. Front line staff are the “public face” of their service and it is by engaging with front line staff that most people get their experience of the quality of customer care provided by that service. When, as a Chief Officer, I was sitting in a Committee Room arguing the case for libraries it was certainly helpful to hear politicians with positive stories to tell about their own experiences of library service – and it would have made my job much more difficult if those politicians had told negative stories about poor service on the library front line! This holds true – that views on library service are conditioned by personal experience of library service – whether I’m in a Committee Room in the Town Hall or appearing before a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament.

I also know from my time in local government that front line staff are key to service improvement. After all, who better than the people who deliver the service at the point of use to know how to improve the quality of that service? I have two good examples of this. One concerns the process of fulfilling requests for reserved books. Statistics had shown that we were not very good at this – so a group of front line staff got together, reviewed the operational processes involved, reduced the bureaucracy, and produced a marked increase in the efficiency of our reservations system. The other concerns adjusting opening hours to meet local needs. Surveys had shown that our opening hours in part-time local libraries did not meet the preferences of local people – so a group of front line staff got together, reviewed their hours of working, changed their shift patterns, and enabled local opening hours to be adjusted to match local need.

There is a direct link between this sort of service improvement – seen and appreciated by library users – and advocacy activities at all levels: local, regional, national, international. Actions do speak louder than words; and messages about the value of libraries are best conveyed by stories from real life about positive experiences of libraries. All the tools of advocacy have their place – lobbying government, speaking through the media, working to influence employers, building advertising campaigns, carrying out research to underpin our arguments, writing compelling strategies and powerful policies – but the one thing that can do more than anything else to change the way people think about libraries (and talk about them to their friends) is their personal experience at the front line of library service.

That’s one important reason why front line staff need to be included – with parity of esteem as full and equal colleagues – in our professional community. That’s why the skills of front line staff need to be recognised and celebrated within our framework of accredited qualifications. That’s why sensible and successful employers and managers seek to empower and enable their front line staff - because they are the ultimate ambassadors for the service they provide.

We all know that there’s a real need to change the way that many people think about library and information services – politicians, employers, the media, the general public. We need an advocacy campaign to get across to people important messages about the value of libraries – and front line staff are key partners in that campaign. I can talk about the value of library service – and I do, at every opportunity, to any audience, at any length – but only front line staff can demonstrate, by the quality of the service they provide, that there is evidence not simply assertion behind my words. I can “talk the talk” - but that cuts no ice unless front line staff “walk the walk” as activists, advocates and ambassadors for their service and their profession.

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