Librarians aren’t usually in the habit of name calling (unless you catch us before we’ve had our coffee or when the catalog is down), so it’s with a bit of trepidation that I’m writing this. But then I thought, what the hey--even librarians should be able to take a moment and vent our frustrations!
We’ve become pretty comfortable getting up on our soapboxes to protest in the face of budget cuts and layoffs, but sometimes it’s hard to actually express some annoyance about common viewpoints towards libraries. After all, we truly are here to help people. It’s our passion. Nobody chooses to become a librarian for the money (because there’s never very much of that to go around). We choose this profession not just because it’s our calling but because we believe in the power of access to information to transform people’s lives.
Yet too often, no matter how many times we may repeat that mantra to ourselves, it seems that the same tired misinformation is what gets regurgitated in the media and even occasionally by our friends and families: Libraries are outdated. Nobody reads books anymore. You can find anything you need to know online. As any librarian will tell you, we’ve heard it all before.
Just recently there was Michael Rosenblum’s HuffPost piece, “What’s a Library?” that set off something of a firestorm among librarians. Rosenblum is a television journalist, founder of Current TV, and self-professed “Father of Videojournalism” who “has led a drive for video literacy, and the complete rethinking of how television and online video is made and controlled.”
He also happens to live across the street from a New York Public Library branch, the Donnell Library Center, whose building was demolished to make way for a high rise/luxury hotel building.
Just what the world needs more of, right? Honestly, when I first read Rosenblum’s post, I thought he was being sarcastic. Predictably, he wasn’t, and it was also clear that he hadn’t visited a library in quite some time. So in the enduring, helpful spirit of librarians everywhere: in case you or someone you know might need a few reminders of why libraries are so awesome and how to treat librarians, please read on:
Don’t tell us you can “just Google it” or find everything you need to know on the Interwebs.
“Frankly, I will not miss the library,” Michael Rosenblum wrote. After all, he can find anything he needs online, the web is free, instant is easier, and “the notion of a physical library still has some emotional pull for those of us who grew up with library cards and card catalogues and such.”
Thanks for invalidating my job and my profession as a whole, dude! Thankfully, all is not lost in the case of the Donnell Library because it will indeed be housed on the first floor and in the basement of that new high rise. I’m happy for that, of course (is this the beginning of a new and somewhat horrifying concept, the boutique library?), but what really concerns me is Rosenblum’s attitude towards libraries.
He talks a good game, after all--the same one that any librarian or library worker has heard countless times. Trust us, we know that libraries aren’t only about books because WE WORK THERE! As I like to say, literacy is about more than just books. So let’s take a look for a moment at just a few of the services that libraries offer in this, the 21st century, shall we:
- Job labs
- English for non-native speakers classes
- Adult reading classes
- Technology education for seniors
- Art classes for all ages
- Cultural events
- Community resources and research
- Entrepreneurship classes
That’s only some of what’s offered at the library where I work. Other librarians can provide an even longer list of unique services provided at their own libraries. As far as finding everything online, well, tell that to the countless researchers who visit public and special collections libraries everyday. Or tell that to the children who discover books by their favorite authors on our shelves.
There are also many, many things such as maps, genealogical information, databases, land title details, and on and on that are not and probably never will be available online for a variety of reasons. Librarians can tell you where and how to find these things. Just ask us. Also, you know, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t make it true.
Don’t say things like “Who even reads anymore??”
Yes, libraries have also become cultural gathering places and community centers more than ever in the past decade, but that is in response to the ever evolving and unique needs of our patrons. At my library in particular we also continue to offer books, audiobooks, CDs, and DVDs and our circulation statistics are solid. And yes, there are iPads and Ereaders, but that’s a topic for another day.
Although, as a cataloger (that means I assign call numbers and subject headings, which is just one part of the process of making materials available for check out) I can personally attest to the fact that we are acquiring just as many books as ever. The bottom line is, people ARE reading, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s on paper or a screen. Librarians respond to and adapt to change better than almost any other profession (if I do say so myself). It’s a big part of why we’re still here and why we continue to fight for our jobs, for libraries, and for those who use libraries everyday. Even for those, like Rosenblum, who might one day decide to give libraries another chance.
But what irks me the most is this idea that the Internet is free. I would invite anyone to tell that to the folks who are lined up outside my library everyday waiting to use our computers to fill out job applications, something many of us take for granted. Why do they need to use our computers? Because many of them are homeless and most job applications are online these days. Because many of them live at or well below the poverty line and cannot afford the Internet let alone a home computer or a smartphone.
So, yes, the Internet is “free” because we provide it (thanks, in part, to taxes that even Michael Rosenblum pays. Oh, the irony!). We even provide telephone reference services for those that simultaneously aren’t able to visit the library in person and also don’t have access to a computer. How’s that for service? Pretty amazing if you ask me.
Don’t talk smack about libraries if you haven’t even set foot in one in the past ten years!
Michael Rosenblum actually closed his HuffPo article with this gem: “In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's novel of the dystopian future, (and also an excellent film by Francois Truffaut (1966)), Oskar Werner plays Montag, a 'fireman' whose job is to burn books. We seem to have bypassed all that nasty burning stuff. But the result is pretty much the same.”
I must admit I’m a bit dumbfounded because I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone miss the point of that book quite as much as he did. Although, thanks to the efforts of my fellow intrepid librarians who engaged with him on twitter about the relevance and importance of libraries, he admitted that he “probably would have done much more research before writing!” if he had it to do over again.
It’s a small victory, but we’ll take it. Okay, so we kind of badgered him there for a few days, but we wanted him to know that you can’t just write an offhand blog post like that about libraries when you haven’t even visited the one across the street from your house in the past ten years and expect librarians to let it go. Don’t talk about us like we’re not here!
But the good news is that large organizations like the Gates Foundation are starting to pay attention to the need for libraries in communities everywhere. Last year they made a series of really wonderful videos about libraries across the country that highlight the unique services offered at each one.
Which brings me to the real answer of how not to be a dick to a librarian: use it or lose it! There’s that librarian humor again. But seriously, start using your local library for some of the services I mentioned above. Then I sincerely hope that you will write a letter to your local representatives and tell them about your personal experience at the library.
If you’re in the United States, you can use this link to find your representative and their contact info. Tweet at them and post on their facebook pages also if available. It really does make a difference. Urge them to visit a library, too, and remind them that libraries are vibrant, evolving repositories and dispensaries of information for people from all walks of life.
Follow Claire on Twitter at @clairesayswhat!