I came upon two articles today about libraries both written by people who are not librarians but both still manage to have an opinion on what libraries should do and be and the work librarians should perform. It is one thing to be involved in your community public library, working with them to provide the sorts of services the community wants. It is another thing to feel as though you can make blanket statements about what libraries should and should not do when you yourself are not a librarian, do not work in a library, and have no real idea about the sorts of things librarians have been talking about for years. The assumptions non-librarians make about the knowledge, skill and future planning — or lack thereof — of librarians is astonishing. Would anyone dare tell a surgeon or a mechanic how to do their jobs? But yet there seems to be a set of careers, mostly dominated by women (teaching is probably number one) that people, many of whom are of the male persuasion, who have no or little specialization in the field, feel like they have every right to say what libraries should be doing.
It’s really frustrating.
Reinventing the Library by Alberto Manguel is a pretty decent article as far as they go. He recognizes that
Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, and the use of their scant resources to meet those essential social obligations diminishes their funds for buying new books and other materials. But a library is not a homeless shelter (at the St. Agnes library in New York, I witnessed a librarian explaining to a customer why she could not sleep on the floor), a nursery or a fun fair (the Seneca East Public Library in Attica, Ohio, offers pajama parties), or a prime provider of social support and medical care (which American librarians today nonetheless routinely give).
And that being forced to function in these ways detracts from the core work of libraries: “to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves.” For Manguel, libraries are and should remain all about the books.
The other article, a book review written by James Gleick on a book called BiblioTech by John Palfrey. Both express a fear that libraries are forgetting their core values in the face of the digital onslaught. Both recognize the skill of librarians in searching for and curating information. But yet they insist, “A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue.” And they are right and librarians care just as much about the physical “embodiments of knowledge” as they do the digital. However, trade-offs must be made. When the library has a database they pay $10,000 a year for to provide access to dozens of journals and they also have to pay sometimes hundreds of dollars a year for a single print journal and no one is using the print journal but people are using the digital one, the print subscription will be canceled. Libraries are nonprofit institutions that rely on the government to fund them and the government these days is rather stingy.
Manguel, Gleick and by extension, Palfrey, do have some valid points, however none of their points are new to librarians who have been discussing them and struggling with them for years. Yet they all make it sound as though their thoughts and opinions are new, that libraries, unanimously agreed to be extremely important, are somehow failing, that if librarians pay attention to their opinions everything will get better. As a librarian I resent that.
I do appreciate feedback and ideas and suggestions. I do think it is important to talk about libraries and the role of libraries in society in widely distributed media like the New York Times. I am glad when someone acknowledges the struggles libraries have with funding and filling needs that we should not have to fill. But I get really tired of people talking so much about what libraries are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead and how we need to operate in order to fulfill our cultural duties.
For once I’d like to see an article in a big daily about what libraries are doing right. Because libraries are doing lots of things right. My neighborhood public library branch is always busy and not just with people using the computers. When I go in to pick up my hold requests there are always people there browsing books and checking out books, reading books. The hold shelves are always stuffed full. It is a vital part of my neighborhood. Why doesn’t someone write about that?