Libraries are changing, and librarians are adapting heroically. Among their various duties, Philadelphia librarians completed training and now regularly revive patrons overdosing on heroin. Pretty damn kickass and arguably as tradition-eschewing as Juneau librarians overseeing “drag queen story hour,” or even my local librarians, who welcomed Santa Claus one October day. Keeping their mission to serve the system’s information without prying information from their patron’s lives, their only response to my bemusement of why full regalia would be required on a perfectly mild, fall day: “Do we really need a reason for holiday cheer?”
Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, headed up Gotham City’s Library system. And Hermione Granger is librarian de facto—although not de jure—throughout the Harry Potter series. However, neither they, the non-fictional Philadelphia librarians, those who serve by providing shelter in natural and human-created storms, nor any other of today’s community maintaining, media collating, cultural information translating and knowledge facilitating specialists (i.e. librarians) have budged public perception beyond its stereotypical conceit that all librarians are but slight variations of Marian the librarian.
Which is not just #fakenews and disrespectful, but stupid.
America employs an estimated 150,000 librarians, who with support staff serve in more than 100,000 public, school, corporate and other institutional libraries. Managing information has come a long way from the days when a medieval librarian unlocked books from a shelf or even those modern times of the shushing spinster (always shushing, always female) sipping tea and awaiting the day’s end when she can return home to her cats (always cats).
Libraries have always been homes for information, but information could never live in just one home. Now it is stuffed into the nooks and crannies of everywhere, and libraries are portals to a digital age of wonders. The knowledge seekers want is spread among print, audio, visual, digital, and tactile sources, requiring specialized knowledge and an unusual imagination to deal with changing technology and ever more demanding clients. The job requires more than a passing acquaintance with the Dewey Decimal, but also a comfort accessing multiple databases and researching using Boolean logic. With continuing budget cuts at a time when limitless funding still might not provide enough resources, it has probably never been more challenging to be a librarian. The descendants of the great Library (and librarians) of Ancient Alexandria are tasked with being ready to help inform an increasingly broad swath of their communities on subjects that spiral upwards and outwards (and sometimes downwards as well) via a range of media that multiply weekly in form and complexity. Nevertheless, they persist.
Answering questions from Easy Street are a few voices drawn from the many thousands who would like patrons and politicians to update the stereotypes in their minds and understand a little better what librarians do and actually can do. Our own budget considerations kept us from bringing everyone together in one room at the same time. They responded to us, but not to each other (and for reasons of space and continuity some answers have been edited). With that introduction and explanation, it is with pride and gratitude that we introduce participants for a discussion on the changes and challenges for contemporary (and non-stereotypical) libraries and librarians.
Alphabetically situated around our virtual roundtable are:
Natalie Binder (@nataliebinder). Binder serves as director of a library in northern Florida, and is involved with the Jefferson County Literary Alliance pre-school initiative.
Tara Murray (@diylibrarian). Murray is director of information services at the American Philatelic Society, a Fellow of the Special Libraries Association, currently serving as Chair of its Social Science Division, and is also on the editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration while also curating a column on special libraries.
Jill Seidenstein (@outseide). Seidenstein is Senior Search and Taxonomy Analyst in Nordstrom’s Seattle corporate headquarters.
Gina Sheridan (ginasheridan.com). Sheridan manages a public library branch in Missouri and is author of Check These Out and I Work at a Public Library.
Easy Street: Thanks for joining us in this virtual roundtable. To begin, what are a few ways the job of librarian has changed from when you started?
Natalie Binder: I started working in libraries during the recession and housing crisis. During that time there was a lot of anxiety in the field because of the ways technology was changing and the financial pressure on local governments. Local libraries are funded with property taxes, so we are in trouble when home values decline. Sadly, some libraries are still in financial trouble, but I believe public libraries have made a successful transition into the 21st century. You can see the difference in places that have invested in their libraries vs. those that let funding lapse or decline. When libraries are adequately funded and have a community of support, they leap into the future.
I feel like a new generation of librarians is also taking the helm at many libraries. In the next few years you will see young leaders taking over the management of these institutions. One of our greatest challenges for the future will be ensuring that we preserve our institutional knowledge and learn from the experience of those who came before. I think it’s time to stop saying “oh, no, what about Google” or “what about ebooks” or “we’re not your grandma’s library” and revisit the role and function of the library as a community institution that empowers people.
Tara Murray: When I started my professional career in 2000, libraries were already investing in digital collections and online resources, and that investment has continued to grow. I wrote a paper in grad school about the controversial concept of digital preservation; it is now relatively accepted as part of the preservation toolkit. Collection development now involves licensing as much as purchasing, and patrons expect content to be available online. The surprising part of this change to many is that people are still visiting libraries. Academic libraries are moving lesser-used print materials, like bound journals, to off-site storage and repurposing space for other uses, like group study areas, maker labs, AV studios, and reading rooms. Public libraries have found new ways to connect with their communities, through events, displays, local history projects, and more. In the special library world, many organizations are using information professionals in new ways: in taxonomy, knowledge management, data management, and embedded in project teams. My own job at the American Philatelic Research Library is fairly traditional, relying heavily on a large print collection, but we are also engaged in several large digital projects. Email and digital media have opened up new ways to connect with our patrons and to collaborate with other philatelic libraries around the world.
Jill Seidenstein: When I was in graduate school, I knew I wanted to go in the direction of special librarianship. At the time, early 2000s, that meant working in a corporate library. But by the time I graduated, corporate libraries were being closed. While I was in grad school I took a class called “Thesaurus Development,” which focused on developing taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. I am really glad I did, because that has been the direction my career has gone in.
I think the biggest change we’ve seen has been the rise of the internet. Having so much information online, and more getting added every moment, has changed how people interact with each other and information.
Gina Sheridan: In the ten years since I became a librarian, the biggest changes have been twofold. One: Changes in the collection. It’s been a long time since the library has offered just books, magazines, and music, but I’m amazed and excited by the sheer variety of items we circulate. We lend science experiments, ukuleles, community experiences, mobile hotspots, games, and even baking pans and people! I can’t wait to see what’s next. Two: Changes in the amount and variety of community partnerships the library has formed. Librarians get to be more creative than ever when seeking partnerships. We partner with food banks to provide lunches for children during the summer and to collect food donations throughout the year. We also have modified Little Free Libraries at government offices, car service shops, doctors’ offices, and other places throughout the community where we give away weeded and donated books. Libraries have also partnered with social service agencies, museums, historical societies, health and nutrition professionals, schools, artists and art organizations, and many more!
We partner with food banks to provide lunches for children during the summer and to collect food donations throughout the year. We also have modified Little Free Libraries at government offices, car service shops, doctors’ offices, and other places throughout the community.
ES: Which recent patron interaction highlights why being a librarian is the best job in the world?
NB: I definitely think being a librarian is one of the best jobs in the world, but I prefer not to get into specifics about patron interactions. What I like about it is that it’s different every day. You might spend the morning working on the budget, and then supervise a community garden activity, and then work on building renovations, and then work with kids on a STEM project, and then do a grant application. That’s a typical day from the management side.
My favorite moments in the library are when the library is full of people and they are all engaged in a different and interesting activity. Some people are having quiet conversation, and a health group is meeting in the community room, and a young parent is working on online college, and a grandparent is reading to a grandchild, and teen boys are challenging each other at the chess table. That makes me really proud to be a part of this thing.
TM: One of my patrons, who is pursuing a graduate degree in history, has requested primary source materials for his research. He wrote to tell me that a paper he presented at a conference won the award for best paper and thanked me for the help he got from the library. “Just a sincere thanks for doing what librarians such as yourselves do, and are the reason we academics succeed in research.” My career has been filled with notes like this. I love making connections between people and information, and every time I help someone find a resource that has the information they need to answer a question, I am reminded how much I love my job.
GS: This summer, we’ve been offering kids and teens free lunches five days per week in an effort to combat food insecurity in our area. Even when we have 100 children for lunch, the kids have been consistently cheerful, polite, and sweet. It’s been so fun for the staff to get to know many kids and families through this program. It’s been an incredibly fulfilling experience.
ES: Has there been a specific workplace event that made you despair for humanity (or at least the future of literacy or libraries)?
TM: In my public library days, I witnessed things that made me question my career choice: preteens getting into fistfights in the children’s area, kids left on their own with no ride home at closing time, conspiracy theorists who came in to tell me that they knew where Amelia Earhart was, and people shooting up in the restrooms. I was lucky to have a wonderful boss who mentored me through those tough times. One incident has stuck with me through the years. An older man was reading the newspaper in our reference room, and complained that the kids in the children’s area nearby were making too much noise. My boss, instead of apologizing, told him, “Quiet isn’t a service we offer on weekday afternoons. The library is very quiet in the mornings.” I remember this because it reminds me to be kind but firm, and to remember that we as librarians—who generally choose the profession because we are service-oriented—can’t solve every problem. It helps keep me balanced.
JS: Not in my workplace, but the Trump administration’s shuttering of so many websites that scientists use to communicate with each and the public is a cause for despair amongst me and my peers. There has been a trend for decades to defund professional librarians in schools, and that means schools without community resources suffer. The children suffer. Librarians can be and often are the best advocates for literacy and increasing access to materials. Without them, we are all impoverished.
GS: I’ve spent a lot of time deciding how to answer this question. Sure, there are days when there are real challenges. Recently, it saddened me to discover that a teen I’d been getting to know was seen on camera stealing another patron’s cell phone. But the good definitely outweighs the bad. Every day I get the opportunity to help people. Whether it’s showing someone how to polish their resume or take a free online class, or whether it’s working with the teens to create fun library programs just for them, I get more thanks in a day than most people get in a week.
ES: What would you like your community to recognize about the changing role of libraries?
NB: I’d like people to know that libraries offer a lot more than you think and there are opportunities here for everyone. I don’t think print books are going anywhere. I don’t think the stacks are going anywhere, or storytime. But libraries can really stretch a dollar and there are so many programs and activities that you can get involved in for free. I think that’s especially important when so many people are feeling lonely and disconnected, or feeling like their government doesn’t work for them. I also want people to know that a good library is responsive to your needs and the needs of the community. We can’t always do everything but I’m always interested in hearing what patrons want from their libraries.
I also want everyone to know that the best way to preserve and protect your library is to reach out to your local officials. That includes the county or city commission, the mayor, city manager, and your state government. Tell them how much you enjoy the library or let them know if your library is struggling. Don’t wait until your library is under threat of closure. Let them know now that you enjoy the library and that you are interested in its future. Libraries usually need some extra funding for building maintenance, accessibility, technology upgrades and staff. You can ask for that. After doing this for several years I’m convinced that the only things that are an existential risk to libraries is poor leadership or a lack of political support. Libraries can more than handle changing technology and increased access to information resources.
The best way to preserve and protect your library is to reach out to your local officials. That includes the county or city commission, the mayor, city manager, and your state government. Don’t wait until your library is under threat of closure.
Finally I wish policymakers would look at the opportunities available in their libraries to provide services to citizens. Often a library can help implement a project or reach out to people. It can be a neutral place for a meeting or gathering. It can be used to provide services and public information during emergencies. Politicians and community leaders shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t forget about the libraries!
TM: I would like my community to be aware of the role of libraries as publishers and repositories, as public spaces, and as portals to online information that extends beyond the open web. I am encouraged by what I see, and I think if we as librarians feel that awareness is lacking, it is part of our jobs to spread the word, and especially to spread the word beyond our habitual spaces. In the special library world, there is a lot of new research on the need to align information services with organizational priorities and to actively demonstrate the value of information services. I see this in academic libraries as well, with libraries aligning their priorities with university and curricular priorities. I’m less familiar with what is currently going on in public libraries, but again I’m encouraged by what I see. Just the other day, I was listening to a local morning radio show, and the DJ was interviewing a representative from the local (State College, PA) public library about a BookFest they are hosting in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, a huge week-long arts festival that brings many visitors to town.
JS: Even though I don’t work in the public sector, I want people to in my community to recognize that libraries aren’t free. Libraries are “pre-paid” with our tax money. Libraries are tremendous resources, and without them, I firmly believe communities will ultimately fray.
GS: The biggest thing I want people to know is that libraries are busier today than ever before. We are not a “dying” institution by any means. We are a place for people of all backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging. Libraries provide support to new parents, job seekers, struggling teenagers, people who need help finding emergency service providers, and people just looking for a comfortable place to learn or find something fun to do or read. That said, most public libraries are not cutting edge when it comes to innovation. Because we are stewards of public monies, we have to be cautious adopters of new technology. That can be frustrating at times.
ES: What do you advise children who want to be librarians about the future of libraries and librarians?
NB: It’s an incredibly rewarding and interesting career. There are many different options for working in libraries that could suit your skills, interests and education level. We need people who have technology and programming skills. We need people who are willing to work in rural or very poor areas where library services are most needed.
One thing to keep in mind is that graduate education is expensive and it is very difficult to advance in the field without it. Also the job market is challenging, the income is modest and the job can be demanding. You shouldn’t go into a library career expecting it to be quiet and easy. It’s a service job. You will work nights and weekends. Libraries are very public settings where you have to deal with every different kind of person with consideration and thoughtfulness, and without judgement. Sometimes you will have to make decisions that people will challenge and disagree with you about, sometimes even in public. It’s really important for librarians to be even-tempered, flexible and patient. But as long as you understand that, it is a really fantastic job where you get to help people every day. There is a good deal of freedom and many opportunities to step up and contribute to society in general and your community in particular. It’s a very honorable profession.
TM: I would tell a child considering this career that it is about connecting people to information. Libraries have a mission to safeguard information, yes, but also to provide access to it. Over and over again, we’ve seen how librarians have stood up to government and corporate powers and advocated for access to information, freedom of speech, and the protection of individual privacy. In the words of Michael Moore: “I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.” There are, in the words of an FBI official, “radical militant librarians.” While it’s not all fighting The Man, it’s also no longer—if it ever was—a job where you sit quietly and read books. It’s constantly changing, and that’s the joy of it for me.
There are, in the words of an FBI official, “radical militant librarians.” While it’s not all fighting The Man, it’s also no longer—if it ever was—a job where you sit quietly and read books. It’s constantly changing, and that’s the joy of it.
JS: In my experience, whatever I’ve thought about the future has been wrong. I will share a bit of wisdom that was shared with me when I was considering librarianship: If you love helping people and have an affinity for information, this is the right path.
GS: The most important traits of an aspiring librarian are adaptability, flexibility, compassion, great listening skills, and a love of working with people. Understand that you are there to serve your distinct community. A library one town over can be completely different and have different needs. Finding the right fit for you is key.
ES: Thank you all for your thoughts, your time, and most of all for bringing everyday life to the words of author Neil Gaiman that “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”