New Zealand has two jewels in the crown of public spaces. One is RNZ National, the other is our public library system.
"A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival," wrote British author Caitlin Moran about the tragedy of the "cost-saving" library closures all over England. If we are, as it seems all too likely, at the start of a similar process, why is the Auckland Council going down this path?
At the moment, there are 1151 people staffing our libraries. At the end of April all of these existing positions will cease to exist and from the beginning of May, there will be only 1009 positions offered.
That means 142 fewer trained librarians to work for us, the people who use the huge variety of services provided. This may seem a small number, but it represents two librarians for each of our libraries, and, for some, three.
Unbelievably, those applying for the new jobs will not be able to apply for specific libraries - they could end up anywhere in Auckland. The special contact between the public and librarians, so valued by all of us who use our local libraries, could be lost forever.
This process is largely unknown to those who use these libraries, as are our council's reasons for the change. Is there a clue on Page 9 of the Annual Budget summaries in the March issue of Our Auckland?
Nothing seems to have been explained or widely publicised; people like me who have almost tripped accidentally over the process are left to assume that it must be short-sighted cost savings.
Why the secrecy - unless it is shame that they have accepted the recommendations of the report produced for the last council and accepted by the current council?
Does the answer to these cuts lie in the "additional savings" identified in the review of the financial affairs of the council, which will "allow us to deliver the same things for about $15 million less"?
If so, the council seems not to understand that you cannot provide quality on ever-shrinking funds. What you pay is what you get. Cheap buys cheap.
If this is the rationale for the cuts in library staffing, then the council should be ashamed to put such a low priority on the essential educational and social services that local and central libraries provide. But perhaps the councillors are unaware of the range and depth of these services? Let me list the range provided in my community.
For the young, our librarians provide each week these sessions: storytime, wriggle 'n rhyme, rhymetime, an after-school inter-active reading group (planned for this year), ESOL classes, weekend sleepovers for Guides, Scouts, and other children's groups, minecraft sessions.
Older members of the community are not left out: craft groups, bookchat, ESOL classes for adults, language conversation opportunities and special interest groups such as seedsavers.
Books are delivered weekly to those of a variety of ages who are housebound. Specialised help from librarians is available through book-a-librarian sessions.
There is an iPad group every week, an e-book session also weekly, as are computer classes for those struggling to keep up in the digital world or who do not have access at home to computers or iPads.
The bank of computers available at the library are invariably full, especially after school hours. And this community is relatively wealthy. In many of our poorer communities, libraries could well offer the sole access to computers for families.
In addition, there are the personal services that are offered by librarians who know their communities. I am a post-graduate student at Auckland University. Living in Orewa, it is not always easy for me to access the necessary texts. I have not once in the last six years found local librarians were unsuccessful in accessing the wide range of texts I needed.
Caitlin Moran expresses the value of libraries more succinctly than I can when she writes, "Libraries are cathedrals of the mind, hospitals of the soul, theme parks of the imagination ... sheltered public places where you are not a consumer, but a citizen ... a human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate 'need' for (more and more) 'stuff'."
Cuts to library staff may well be the first sign of barbarians at our gates. We must unite against them, man the barricades and support our libraries.
&bull: Pauline Wetton is a retired secondary school teacher who lives in Orewa.