I hope you all got to bring the new year in with cheers and sparkling wine. I was supposed to go to one of those public New Year’s Eve parties with a group of friends, but by the time we finished wining and dining and chatting and wining some more the new year was upon us. Had I been one of these dull and obsessively self-revelatory librarians who can’t let a moment go without blogging or tweeting or updating everyone about it, I might have paused and blogged "cheers" to everyone. However, I prefer not to interrupt good moments to inform other people of their existence. It’s better to just live in the moment.
As I noted in my last post, other than an excuse to have a party and drink bubbly, I can’t figure out what significance a new calendar year is supposed to have. The only years that have much impact on my professional life are academic and fiscal, and we’re only halfway through those. A new year, supposedly, will bring new optimism or something like that. Instead, the ending of the holiday season brings me a touch of sadness. I like it when people smile and wish me good tidings all the time.
Fox News out of Los Angeles lost no time in bringing bad news for libraries in the new year, or so it might seem. States Closing the Book on Public Libraries is brief, but sobering. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to librarians that libraries are in trouble. According to the Fox News story, "one Southern California city closed all three of its public libraries, leaving nearly 60 people without jobs." I didn’t take the time to verify that, but I see no reason to dispute it given Fox News’ reputation for fair and balanced coverage.
We can also tell we’re dealing with a reporter who knows about libraries, because we’re told that "they’ve long been a quiet haven for book worms and students." It’s important to give Los Angelenos some context for a story like this, because they probably don’t associate books with libraries.
We’re also told that "experts say the problem is two-fold. With unemployment at an all time high… more people need libraries than ever before… because they’re about more than just books these days." Perhaps these are the same experts who noted that libraries have long been quiet havens for book worms. Libraries are about more than just books these days, indeed. Only people who haven’t stepped into a library for 50 years need to know that.
ALA President Roberta Stevens does a good job of trying to make a bad situation sound even more dire. ""In the past year," she says, "we had 1.2 billion people coming to our libraries across the nation and checking out 2 billion items. So, you get some sense of… closures affect people in dramatic ways." That’s a lot of people coming into American libraries. Since 1.2 billion is roughly the population of the Americas combined, perhaps she means something else, though. Still, even if it’s just the same 50 million people going to libraries every couple of weeks, it’s a lot of people.
Surprisingly from such an august source of news as a local television station affiliate, this seems to be a story without a story. It’s not quite what former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin called a pseudo-event, but it’s close. (I highly recommend his book The Image: a Guide to Pseudo-events in America. It’s an old book, but some things don’t change. They just get worse.) What we seem to have is prettily packaged propaganda for public libraries, in Fox News of all places. Sometimes one must say even of the ALA, well done.
Earlier I noted that it seemed Fox News was launching the new year with bad tidings for libraries, but I’m not so sure about that. Instead, I think for a change the ALA might be doing something right. Perhaps Roberta Stevens is more clever than some of her predecessors, or perhaps not, but she’s certainly changing the public message from the ALA, and making a lot more sense.
The two most common library-related news stories I’ve seen in the past few years are, 1) librarians aren’t just bun-wearing shushers anymore because they play with Twitter/ dress in vintage clothing/ have tattoos/ know about those computer things/ etc., and 2) we will soon have a shortage of librarians (later amended to a shortage of library leaders).
The first category is stupid and annoying. Come to think of it, so is the second one, but the second one seems likely to finally die after being stabbed through the heart by the blade of truth enough times. Library schools and the ALA might like recruiting myriad new librarians into the profession because it’s good for their bottom line, but it’s harder than ever to convince the public that we have a librarian shortage while libraries are simultaneously closing down and restricting hours and access across the country. Even the fickle, unwashed public must realize that closed libraries don’t need more librarians.
So the tune is changing. Given that the ALA leadership changes so frequently, it’s hard to say if the change is permanent, but perhaps it will be. Instead of prattling on about how hip librarians are, or flat out lying about librarian shortages, or for that matter passing irrelevant political resolutions, we would all be much better off if the ALA continued to focus on the immediate and long term value of libraries to actual Americans, and kept the propaganda going even in unlikely places. Propaganda in a good cause isn’t bad, especially if it’s true. And who knows, if the ALA succeeds in convincing enough politicians of the essential value of libraries, maybe libraries will expand instead of contract, and we’ll have that librarian shortage after all.