From Alaska, we get another depressing article on library woes, which asks the question, "Are local libraries in process of checking out?" Yes, that’s bad, but at least there’s nothing in the article about librarians breaking out of their shushing stereotypes.
Library branches have cut back hours. The city has to choose between closing the library some or firing firefighters or something worse. Times is hard.
The article does a pretty good job of laying out the issues, which is surprising in a news article about libraries. We hear nothing about stereotypes or the librarian shortage. Two things stuck out for me in particular. They’re not related, but I want to mention them anyway.
First, there was a statement by the Anchorage Mayor, Dan Sullivan, quoted in a portion about computers in libraries:
"That the public library should be a place where the poor and unconnected can get online, learn and hunt for jobs is a common thread throughout national library associations.
But not everyone agrees that Anchorage libraries need to be that.
‘We are the most wired community I think on the face of the Earth,’ Sullivan said. ‘Between all the different cafes that offer wireless … I don’t think that the library is particularly the only source that people might have for Internet access. There’s lots of choices out there.’"
Not being one of the poor without computer access myself, I can’t say what it’s like. But it seems to me the Mayor is missing the point here. He’s confusing access to wifi with access to computers. "The different cafes that offer wireless" aren’t going to be of much help to someone who can’t afford a laptop computer. How typical is it to have a laptop, but not be able to afford Internet access?
I would think it’s not that typical, but the Mayor is still missing the point. If there are poor people who have no computers and use the library for worthwhile purposes, then those people are harmed by library closings, regardless of the abundance of wireless cafes. It’s like telling the students who need books for their school research that Amazon has all the books they need.
Second, from another point of view about computers in libraries comes this bit from one of the librarians:
"Librarian Stetson Momosor works at the Muldoon branch. Her job has changed a lot since she began working in the Anchorage libraries 20 years ago. ‘It’s a fine line in terms of trying to guide people to the technology that they need,’ she said, ‘and yet, we’re not equipped, I’m not equipped, to be a troubleshooter on a computer.’
She thinks the libraries need to hire more tech-support staff."
Leaving aside the fact that "Stetson Momosor" has got to be one of the coolest librarian names I’ve ever heard, what are we to make of her problem? The twopointopians and oneohonions would say that she’s an inferior librarian because she doesn’t have the adequate techie knowledge to help her patrons. They wouldn’t just come out and say it in public, of course, because they’re so nice and all, but they think it and say it in private.
But why should librarians have to become computer troubleshooters at all? Or explain the latest shiny gadgets? Why shouldn’t they just hire tech support people and let the librarians focus on issues of education, literacy, and access to information? Why waste all this time promoting skills to professional librarians or believing that this is some necessary librarian skill set? Why not just hire some teenagers for $10/hour and be done with it?
At my library, we have tech support people to deal with these issues. If my computer at work breaks down, why should I spend my time trying to troubleshoot it? I have other things to do, so I call in Janie the Tech Wiz and she fixes me right up. Likewise, if I need any fancy gadgets for presentations or traveling or whatever, I simply pop down to the basement and have Q outfit me. I don’t need to spend my time thinking any more about it. I have people to do that for me. They do an outstanding job, and I’m very appreciative of their work, but they aren’t librarians.
We must ask, is tech support professional work at all? Does it really require an MLS to do most of the things that the twopointopians and oneohonions think we should be doing?
I’m not trying to defend librarians who refuse to learn anything new. That’s what my critics sometimes claim I do, but they only think that because they can’t read very carefully. I’m defending librarians who have a lot of other worthwhile professional things to do. Why should every librarian learn the skills of relatively low level tech support people? Is there no division of labor in libraries? Or do the proponents of tech mastery think there’s nothing else going on in libraries?
At what point do librarians just say, you know what, I have higher level things to do. That college kid we hired can fix our computers and show the elderly how to use a flash drive. If we followed this model, we could cut a lot of professional librarians from libraries. We don’t need professionals with master’s degrees clearing printer jams and explaining how to fill in web forms.
Momosor is quoted at the end asking, "What is our core? What’s our purpose?" She’s talking about libraries, but we should also ask this of librarians. What is it to be a professional? What should the concerns of professionals be? And just how professional are some of the things librarians are being asked to do?