Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Case for Librarians

This is either going to get me into hot water or create the opportunity of further discussions within the library world. It is my hope that it is the later. For too long now, the profession of librarians has suffered an inferiority complex. Librarians struggle with the image of what it is to be a professional in today's libraries. That struggle has impacted the image of the library as a whole. Some library associations have gone so far as to a publish a calendar photographing librarians' on the wild side with tattoos. This is not the image we need to be concerned about. The image as a professional is more important.
As professionals, librarians will select materials, answer reference questions, plan programs and balance budgets. It is amazing to see all the programs that libraries host on a day to day basis. Literally, the library has tried to become a place for everyone. From genealogy to gaming, and computers to crafts, with everything in between. In any given day in a library will have visitors coming in for all types of services. Is it any wonder that no one knows exactly what librarians do? Is it any wonder that patrons have come to expect additional non-library services? In a nutshell, Librarians entertain and educate patrons using a variety of tools that will aid the patrons in gathering information. Unfortunately, this does not get translated well to patrons or in financial crunches to government representatives.
The State of Michigan is experiencing a economic crisis that has been going on for almost eight years. To say that budget is tight is an understatement. Currently, Governor Jennifer Granholm has issued an Executive Order to eliminate the Histories, Arts and Libraries from the state budgets. Needless to say, this has caused a firestorm in the library community. However, in order to look at the problem realistically, it is easy to see that every sector of the government is going to promote itself and asked not to be cut. Someone has to make the tough decisions and somethings have to be cut. Libraries and their professional associations have dropped the ball when it comes to giving good solid reasons to invest in libraries. These reasons should have been promoted before the money started to run dry. Let me explain.
First of all, by trying to be everything to everyone, we fail to define ourselves. In the mistaken quest to be like bookstores, video stores, arcades, and computer labs, Libraries have lost their souls. It is not enough for libraries to excel in research and reading, instead excuses are made for why tax dollars should be spent on library programs that will get people into the building. It's almost as if we are conceding that libraries are not worth going to unless we have a gimmick. Any library worth it's salt can bring patrons in with quality materials and good customer service. The definition of a librarian is not they have tattoos, or dress cool or even have green hair. The definition of a librarian is someone who aids in the quest for information and learning. If we entertain during the quest, well that's just icing on the cake.
Secondly, the associations have been preoccupied with other agendas in the library world that are not important. Censorship issues is an example. While it can be agreed that it is important for children and adults get to read the materials they want, it is not a crucial issue in America. In case I have missed it, if one school board bans a book does that mean the title in question is not available for purchase through a bookstore? Or at another library? The books will still be available to the reader at other sources without library associations claiming injustice. If the freedom to read is important, then take up the cause of the blind and physically handicapped who will have their freedom to read restricted when the materials they need to help them read will no longer be available to them.
Third, the trend over the last ten years by library administrators in staffing their libraries with part-time employees is frightening and an admission that the profession is not a necessity in the community. For a profession that is barely able to define itself, this is committing suicide. How are libraries going to attract the next generation of librarians working for a Master's Degree if there is only part-time work available? Becoming a librarian is a profession not a hobby. With this dangerous trend, we are risking losing the bright stars of the future, as well as burning out the stars currently working the field. One has to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of a profession. The Library Journal must believe this is true when they are promoting other job routes for librarians.
Public libraries may become a luxury of the past. If we want to see libraries thrive and grow, then we must take a fresh look at funding, staffing and promoting our cause. Libraries should no longer claim that they are "free". In monetary terms, free is similar to saying no value, no investment. Patrons should know how much it takes to run a library and how it benefits the community. Is now the time that the library would should be considering privately funded or managed libraries? Are there other alternatives in staffing that should get a new look? It seems that a new approach to defining and funding our mission is an important step to take at this time. We need to take a step to secure our future. Taking no actions may result in the profession and libraries suffering a slow a painful death.