A journal called Neighborhood Life suggests that neighborhoods might improve if there were fewer crazies in libraries. "Not Your Grandmother’s Library" discusses for non-librarians what a lot of librarians already know but rarely discuss in public – that some libraries are de facto homeless shelters and all sorts of other things that they’re not really prepared to be. "In the worst cases librarians spend their days in a gallery of society’s ills, expected to be social workers, psychiatrists, surrogate parents and police officers, all without the additional funding or training to do the job."
The article is sympathetic to all sides, but does slightly criticize librarians for their silence on the issue.
Librarians rank among the most open-minded, patient and compassionate people around. Most saw their choice of this career as a true calling but can find themselves pushed to the limit, going home at night depressed and overwhelmed. Yet despite these obvious stresses on both the librarians and many patrons, no one wants to talk about it.
That is to say, no one wants to talk about it publicly. All but a few messages left and emails sent while doing research for this article, to points all across the United States, went unanswered. While anonymous blogs by harried librarians abound on the web, official spokespersons offer uniformly careful and reassuring statements, if they respond at all. One candid representative, not wanting to be quoted, asked, “Would anyone actually talk to you?” Libraries want patrons as much as any business wants customers.
A kind reader sent this to me with that last paragraph quoted in the email. Obviously the AL isn’t an anonymous blog by a harried librarian (those critics intelligent enough to make the distinction might call it a pseudonymous blog by a self-satisfied librarian), but it’s one of the few library blogs that deliberately looks through the rosy glow of official library propaganda. The official line is that libraries are all hunky-dory, and that the only problem is that they often don’t have enough funding to continue their good works, like distributing DVDs and hosting videogaming nights.
The ALA certainly never talks about any of these issues. Their Issues and Advocacy are purely about libraries, and not about the problems of librarians. Access, intellectual freedom, literacy – these are all good things – but there’s no advocacy by the ALA on behalf of librarians (or at least no effective advocacy, since I suppose we’d have to include the inconsequential rumblings of the ALA-APA). Yet it’s clear from blogs such as the Mofo Librarians that even in libraries not encumbered by malodorous drug addicts or violent young thugs rudeness and incivility often reigns. I’ve heard annoyed stories from friends working in public libraries about loud arguments over pittances in fines, abrasive patrons treating librarians and library workers like slaves, unattended rambunctious children careening through the stacks. Librarians must view this as a calling to put up with very much of this behavior.
If there were an American Librarian Association, it might advocate on behalf of beleaguered librarians. It might propagate the increasingly rare notion that with rights come responsibilities. It might argue that free access requires civility. If the American Librarian Association Council wanted to take on political causes, it might pass resolutions calling for increased funding for homeless shelters, saner drug laws, or more accessible treatment for the indigent mentally ill. These are national issues that affect plenty of librarians on a daily basis, though they’re less sexy than ending genocide in far off countries or demanding the impeachment of Presidents who stood not a chance in hell of being impeached. Ending genocide in Darfur would do absolutely nothing to help struggling librarians in the worst-off libraries, but resolving that it should end does show we’re on the side of the angels. The Annoyed Librarian Association would like to help with these issues, but we’re chronically underfunded because we don’t charge dues.
Some people think I pick on the ALA too much, or that I pick only the most egregious examples of Council idiocy to criticize, but I don’t think so. There’s a huge blindness at the ALA, and because of that blindness there are national discussions that never take place. The ALA is blind to librarians and their needs, and one discussion is of the topic addressed in "Not Your Grandmother’s Library." The irony is that improving the worklife of librarians would probably improve the library experience for patrons as well. Most library patrons don’t want hostile patrons around, or to be driven from a reading area by filthy odors, or to find hypodermic needles in the restrooms. Addressing these issues head-on, rather than hiding them, would engage librarians and library patrons alike in a discussion of what libraries are for, what freedom means, and why civility matters. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that discussion.