CILIP Vice President Ayub Khan talks to Update about some of the key challenges facing the profession: non linear careers, advocacy and how he juggles his responsibilities as a father with a young family, the leader of a team of 500 local authority employees, and his voluntary commitments at CILIP.
Ayub received an MBE for services to libraries in 2013, and will take over the role of CILIP President in January 2018 as the organisation implements radical changes in its business model. Here he explains how his experience has pushed his career beyond libraries and beyond the UK.
Update: Do you think the career path that you followed exists any more?
Ayub Khan: I started my library career as a Saturday assistant nearly three decades ago. I never thought, back then, that I would ever be President of our professional body. In the early days I worked in school and college libraries, and was the Principal Project Officer for the Library of Birmingham – working on the business plan and early concept designs for the new library – before moving to Warwickshire. I’ve worked at every level – which I think is important because it gives me a hands-on feel for the services we provide, and the issues facing staff in libraries large and small.
It’s not the sort of career path that really exists any more. There are a number of different routes nowadays but they are no longer linear. However, it is still possible to rise through the ranks.
U: What’s involved in your current job?
AK: Not so many years ago I was Strategic Head of Warwickshire Libraries. My responsibilities have gradually widened. I am now Head of Face to Face Services for Warwickshire – which means I’m responsible for the council’s primary, universal, front-facing services – such as Registration, Nationality Services, historic records, One Stop Shops, Family Information and brokerage services, as well as Libraries and Information. It’s like managing a big business – staff, buildings, income targets and so on.
I manage around 500 multi-disciplined staff, and a multi-million-pound budget.
I’m not one of those people who hark back to ‘better days’. Libraries of all kinds have seen a lot of changes, and big budget cuts, over the last few years. But we are where we are. We have to keep doing the very best job we can – for our customers and colleagues – and keep moving our services forward. To paraphrase Ranganathan – whose fifth law of library science described the library is a ‘living organism’ – the one thing we can be sure of, in our sector, is that change is constant.
U: You dedicate a lot of your time to work beyond your job. How do you manage that? Do you have sympathy for others in the profession who struggle with the time and volunteering required?
AK: The short answer is I make time. The honest answer is I’m ambitious – for myself, for Warwickshire, and for libraries. I have a young family – including a five-year-old son on the autism spectrum – so it’s sometimes hard to juggle everything, and achieve anything like a work-life balance. So I do appreciate that voluntary roles are not for everyone, and I quite understand why.
Actually, I don’t treat my professional activities as separate. My employers see it as part of my job to help influence national policy that affects the wider sector and yields benefits for Warwickshire at the same time.
For me, going beyond the day job has always been important – and incredibly rewarding. It may sound like a cliché but I meet so many interesting people, and I get to make a difference. That said, I do try to discipline myself – and not take on too much. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do things well, or be effective.
U: Will the new more open model for CILIP membership change the role of President?
AK: I have to admit I found the CILIP Presidential election process nerve-wracking. I would much rather be Presiding Officer at a local election station (which I am occasionally) than a CILIP candidate any day. Hats off to the people who put themselves forward for election. For me to be elected is quite something, given who I am and where I’m from.
It will be exciting to become President at a time of change for the institute. CILIP staff and Trustees have been working behind the scenes over the last couple of years, looking at how the organisation can be at the forefront of policy debate, providing leadership for the sector, and giving members the best possible support. All this will culminate at the start of my Presidency early in 2018, with the introduction of a new membership model, and new-look CILIP – including a re-designed magazine. I do feel that our professional body and sector as a whole do need to do more to champion equality and diversity, and I am encouraged by the recent launch of the Equality and Diversity Action Plan – which includes steps to tackle the lack of ethnic diversity and the gender pay gap, in particular.
U: How well is the profession understood by politicians and the public and how could this be improved?
AK: I’m not a party political person but I think being politically savvy is crucial. The library sector has made great strides in recent years towards gaining Government recognition for the work we do and the importance of our role in, and value to, society. CILIP and SCL are two of the key bodies which have worked to raise libraries’ profile at the highest levels. But I am not – and never will be – complacent.
I do get fed up of hearing that library usage is down. Traditional borrowing maybe, but in digital terms there’s plenty of growth and so many exciting things happening in libraries – both physical and online. We need to make sure the powers that be, and the public, get that – big time.
I’m not the first person to say that library people tend to be too modest – and not naturally adept at self, service, or sector promotion. The bottom line is – it doesn’t matter what wonderful work we do, or what great services we offer, if no-one knows. We need to ensure libraries get the recognition, funding and support they deserve, instead of politely joining the back of the queue.
Decision-makers, at local and national level, may sometimes take some persuading, but research shows how highly libraries are valued and trusted by the public – even by those who don’t use them.
U: How has CILIP coped with questions about its equality and diversity policies?
AK: I’ve been involved in equality and diversity since I joined CILIP as a student, many years ago. I’m a Ugandan Asian by birth – my family came here when I was very young, as refugees. So, naturally, I’ve had a strong focus on diversity and inclusion throughout my career and it will certainly feature in my CILIP Presidency.
I remember attending a Library Association (now CILIP) conference on the black contribution to British librarianship in the late 1990s – and I’ve been involved ever since. Now I’m ready to translate discussion into action.
Much has been made of Carla Hayden being the first African-American – and woman – to be appointed Librarian of Congress. We have firsts here, too. I will be CILIP’s first black and Muslim President – and the first public librarian to hold the post in a very long time.
U: What do you think are the most important lessons you’ve learned from professionals in other countries?
AK: I’ve worked on several international library developments for the British Council and IFLA, which have taken me to far-flung places – from Jerusalem to Johannesburg. This reminds me that we are a global profession, with so much in common and so much to learn from each other. It always humbles me to see just how challenging providing library services can be in other parts of the world. I’ve seen first-hand how libraries in other countries adapt to their environment, circumstances and customers. In Durban I went into the townships – where libraries were giving out free condoms to combat AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases – and in Jerusalem (IFLA 2000) I visited refugee camps. By contrast, in Milan the focus was on books, heritage and culture.
U: How are libraries coping with changes in technology?
AK: Many of you will know that I am Digital Universal Offer Lead for the Society of Chief Librarians. I don’t see ‘digital’ as a threat to traditional library services or values – quite the opposite. Technology is helping libraries to improve both physical and online services, and I’m convinced we will soon cease to differentiate between the two. The Victorian concept of public libraries was pretty radical in its day, and the founding principles are still relevant in the digital age. Albert Einstein once said that the only thing we absolutely need to know is the location of the library.
That’s as true today as it ever was. As a profession I believe we have huge potential to help people gain knowledge and skills, and progress from digital literacy to fluency.
U: What roles will libraries and librarians play in the future?
AK: Suggestions that libraries might be past their sell-by date are, I suspect, often made by people who haven’t visited one in a while – and I’m not just talking about technology. Like vinyl records, real books are making a comeback. Recent figures from the Publishers’ Association show they are gaining significant ground against their e-competitors. As Stephen Fry remarked: ‘Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.’
Libraries are uniquely placed in modern society. With a workforce of natural ‘enablers’, they can create the ideal conditions for engagement opportunities to prosper – places where local people can be anonymous and safe. Libraries need to continue to change. The pace of change is speeding up, driven by disruptive technologies, new business models, rapidly increasing user expectations, and political change. Whatever library sector you work in, this applies to you.
I am optimistic about the future for libraries, and for the library profession. We have a lot going for us, but we do tend to undersell ourselves.
Staff are libraries’ most valuable assets. In these days of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, we need to emphasise our role as trusted information professionals – who can help people access quality, credible online resources from the mountains of material available.
It’s worth noting that public libraries in this country still have more outlets than Boots or McDonalds, we move more items then DHL. Last year 250 million visits were made to public libraries – more than cinema and theatre trips, excursions to the UK’s top tourist attractions, and attendance at live music gigs combined. This equates to 477 visits per minute to our public libraries. Does this sound like a service in decline?
Libraries offer a wider range of services – both physical and digital – than ever before, and are uniquely placed in society. As a profession, we need to grasp the opportunities of a changing world, and make sure the power and importance of libraries is never underestimated.