(Or, Why New Librarians are Valuable Besides Being Cheap to Employ)
SNOW DAY!! (Thurs., taken from skis)
I've had a couple of thoughts bouncing around my head this week, mainly on the idea of a librarian.
The OED says the word librarian ('keeper or custodian of a library') has been used since the 1700s, when it supplanted the word library-keeper. The word library is older, which makes sense because a library had to exist before it needed a person to maintain it. In any case, the idea of a librarian is fully imbedded in our culture at this point -- for better or worse:
-For better because everybody knows what a library is. In America most people grew up with libraries and have been aware of them if only on the periphery since grade school. Libraries are everywhere. They are part of our institutions. The librarian is an accepted role.
-For better because we have this word 'librarian' for someone in charge of organizing and maintaining all of the information essential to our jobs or classes or civic life.
-But for worse because everyone thinks they know what a library is, and so instead of thinking about what libraries and librarians could be, people think they already know.
-For worse because some people -- including some librarians -- still think that libraries and librarians are only about books sitting in a building.
And obviously libraries do not have to be just for books and/or quiet study of books. They can be the center of information for communities and schools and businesses. Librarians are not glued to their physical location and paper pages.
I know none of what I'm saying here about how information is changing is new, but I worry that the way people think they need librarians ISN'T changing.
What I'm trying to say is, although there's been a lot of introspection from within the profession, we as librarians need to be more actively changing the way people think of librarians. We need to understand how people interact with information and the systems they use better than they do. (This comes in addition to the traditional librarian skills and knowledge.)
Basically I want patrons to expect more from their librarians, and I want librarians to expect more from themselves. And it would be great if we could still call ourselves librarians. (-:
Well, it's been a tough week, weather-wise. Route 79 is a really nerve-wracking drive when the roads are snow covered. And tonight they are ice-covered. So I've been having more time than usual in the car.
And it occurs to me, I'm someone who likes libraries enough to regularly risk life and limb to work in them, but I'm a little dismayed at the idea of the library as a friend on these social networking sites. I understand, academic libraries are doing their best to remain relevant (and not just glorified study halls), and they're trying to push into the spaces of patrons who might use library services even if they never step inside the building. But still, c'mon. I'm on facebook now, and even I wouldn't add the library as my friend. I did consider it -- librarians gotta stick together here -- but I remember wincing and thinking no. And I've never heard patrons clamor for more libraries on MySpace. Not because it's unexpected, but in part because what's the point? Obviously for libraries the point is additional exposure online, but what's the point for users? Are they really going to check what the library's plans are for this Friday night? If the answer is yes, aren't we already connected to those people? I can't believe facebook is going to bring additional people to the library. It's possible it would connect with the same group of regulars it already serves, but I thought the point of doing it would be to reach out to a different audience.
There's a pre-facebook/myspace Seinfeld episode where Jerry's on a rant about libraries:
"It reminds me of like this pathetic friend that everybody had when they were a little kid who would let you borrow any of his stuff if you would just be his friend. That's what the library is." Doesn't this sum it up beautifully?
So frankly I'm a little dubious about libraries that have profiles on MySpace and Facebook. It's a happy idea, but really the library is not your friend. At least, there's a difference between your 'in group' and the library. The library on Facebook is there in the same way the advertisers are there -- it's hoping you'll use its services.
Services are different from friends, and libraries are more the former than the latter. Services online are mostly commercial entities, and maybe that's what the problem is here. The library is a service but doesn't want your money; or at least, not directly. (It'll take it through tuition or the government. It is an institution, after all.) So while it needs your patronage to survive, it is unlike most other customer/provider relationships because no money changes hands.
I don't have a conclusion here -- I'll probably continue to think about this for a while. In the car. As I try to avoid snow drifts.
I suppose everyone muses about the absurdity of their jobs at times, but it's so strange to travel as much as I'm traveling in order to passively sit at the library reference desk to try and appear approachable. Librarians moan about how they don't need a master's degree to change paper in the printer, and the amount of time scheduling and maintaining coverage of the desk can be mind numbing, but as a profession we're still upholding this strange tradition of the reference desk.
It's very trendy these days to discuss the alternatives & how to put the library in the spaces that our patrons are inhabiting. (Thus the attempts of libraries at joining Facebook and MySpace.) The problem with that is we're not friends with our patrons -- we are a service and they are the users. Or maybe that's too black and white: It's more like, we're friends at work but would never socialize outside of the job.
So we're back to the idea that physically being there, sitting in the library at a desk signposted 'reference' is more efficient than trying to provide the same services solely via email or online chat or the phone. This is why library theorists spell the end of the reference desk, I suppose -- not only because patrons don't want to have to come to the library for reference help, but also because the alternatives aren't any better. (Maybe the problem is that the tool we need doesn't exist yet. Another thing to think about in the car.)
In a way I'm quite happy about the people who come to the library to write and print their papers and have me refill the printer with paper: Occasionally these people realize that I'm trained and willing and able to help with far more complicated tasks. But I'm not confident that this alone is worth the drive. In the meantime I'll be at the desk if anyone needs me.