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The ALA Changes Its Tune, for the Better

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.

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annoyedlibrarian@gmail.com

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Comments

  1. texasmls says:

    Since public librarians are funded via municipal government, when sales tax and other revenue is down like in Plano, TX where the city has a 50 million dollar shortfall, some services are going to be cut. And although librarians like to think they are the saviors of the world, I’d rather have cops on patrol and trash pickup than be able to watch Japanese anime on my laptop all day at the library.

  2. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    *sniff* I’m a tattooed Twittering eclectic clothes wearing librarian.

    Ok, personal issues aside… One thing I’ve been commisserating about with other young-ish librarians is that the profession is NOT marketing itself properly. I’d argue most librarians do not know how to market themselves or their library to the community properly, but the ALA then proceeds to focus on the same old song over and over again about what libraries are and what they can do.

    They’re awesome powerhouses full of knowledge and entertainment, high culture and pop culture. They’re doorways to resources that most people don’t have ready access to (journals, databases, librarians who can help with research, etc… and they also appear to be completely inaccessable or irrelivent to most people. Why would you want to pay tax/tuition dollars for that? Most libraries/librarians only make a big deal to the public when things are dire (branches closing, etc) and the public only hears when there is a bad thing happening (librarian kicking someone out, a book being restricted or NOT being restricted, etc).

    If we live in an age of pseudo-events, then librarians should be making their own press. This includes doing attention-worthy things, not just your same run-of-the-mill program that attracts two grandmothers and a crazy cat lady. We live in a world where no one cares what you’ve done historically, or what you CAN do in the future–the world wants to know what you’ve done FOR ME, LATELY. maybe not the way it should be, but that’s reality.

    If we were truely a vital part of the community, I think we’d have to show up a little less often with our hand out, and spending less time justifying our own existence. I agree with texasmls that policing and trash pickup are a little more vital than a reliable source for House DVDs, but I think better community relations and better horn tooting in good times would mean less work and justification of our mere existence during leaner times.

  3. Astrobrarian says:

    I would only add that librarians need to explain themselves better. There have been plenty of times where my library system has announced a new service or collection only to be trounced for “wasting” tax-payer money. Instead of saying “we just got wifi” we need to say “we just got wifi because it will save us money spent on buying new public computers and will make us more accessible for people who need that service.” It flat out amazes me that we shoot ourselves in the foot on a regular basis. Spent money on a new cataloging system? Better include a statement that the old one was 14 years old and leaking at the seams. It is sad that we make ourselves look like business-stupid people on a regular basis, especially since we have books on the subject.

  4. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    Amen, Astrobrarian. We’re the custodians of the library resources, which means we’re accountable to the people whose hard-earned money we’re spending, be it tax or tuition. They deserve to feel like their money is being spent wisely, on stuff that will (or could) benefit them. Our new catalog is more efficient, and it links to images of the covers and summaries/reviews. And how’s this useful? It’ll help you find what you’re looking for faster, and will help you find like-books that you might not have even known existed. Why’s that important? because it’s easier than trolling the shelves of a book store, and yuo can do this at 2 AM from home. MUCH more appealing than “Oh yeah and we spend untold thousands on a new catalog that took us an entire week of interruptions and hiccups to get fully functional on our network.

    I know AL is suspicious of Twitter, gaming and other new-fangled things in the library, and rightly so. Sometimes they can be “style over substane.” And we need to be using our money and time resources where they’ll be the most effective in these lean times… but I’d argue that they can be just insubstantial as old, boring programs that no one but a few regulars attend. And lacking substance and actual value to patrons is just as bad as being unable to articulate and promote our value.

  5. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    *and substance too. I can spell. Sorta. Oh well. At least I use apostrophes correctly.

  6. generic says:

    The MLS certainly is not the union card it once was. How many cash strapped libraries are interested in new professional hires? The ALA has to recognize the de-professionalization of the industry. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, it could set realistic expectations for those aspiring to long-term library careers.

  7. GMan says:

    You hit the nail on the head ‘generic’. Many library systems are and have been deprofessionalizing for years. This is especially true in government service where as librarians retire or leave they are replaced by techs or not replaced at all. The ALA has a lot to answer for with the its looming librarian shortage propaganda. Add to this the utter nonsense of coursework required for the MLS, none of which had much application in the universe of libraries. Yes, yes, they (the courses) taught us to think. I think some of us could think before we went to grad school, but then why did we choose to go to library (or the ‘school of information studies)school? Interesting question. I could go on but having had the experience of applying for the same job along with 20 other unemployed librarians the glow of the ‘profession’ seems somewhat dulled.

  8. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    Ventura County closed all but 1 of its libraries…..nasty people.

  9. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    “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. ” Really? I’m a Los Angelina and I’m a Librarian (my job is to purchase books and provide readers’ advisory)…so maybe you need to pull your head out and look beyond your Manhattan glass!

  10. anon says:

    I thought AL’s comment was right on. Most people (in L.A. and elsewhere) are more familiar with the image of the library-as-homeless-shelter than they are with the supposed cliche of libraries as a “quiet haven for book worms and students.” In fact, I’d say we will soon pass the point where nobody even remembers when libraries were quiet places to study. Being seen as makeshift homeless shelters is going to be much more damaging to the image of libraries than being seen as an unhip but quiet place. For many young people, that is the only image of libraries they have ever had. They’ve never known a time when libraries WEREN’T overrun by the homeless.

    There was a joke on Family Guy years ago:

    “What’s a library, dad?”

    “Oh, it’s just a place where homeless people come to shave and go BM.”

    Libraries have been coasting for years on the pleasant memories of AARP members who, even if they haven’t been to one in decades, have fond memories of libraries and don’t mind voting to give tax money to fund them. That’s gonna change when kids today are voting and they only have unpleasant memories of libraries as holding cells for the indigent or for people with mental problems.

  11. lol says:

    “I might have paused and blogged “cheers” to everyone. However, I prefer not to interrupt good moments to inform other people of their existence.”

    lol @ your elitism for blogging about how distinguished you are for not blogging something when it happened, but later on. Just leave those annoying reminders about how anti-2.0 you are out.

  12. hunh says:

    Was that just written in grammar 2.0?

  13. sidney says:

    “Really? I’m a Los Angelina and I’m a Librarian (my job is to purchase books and provide readers’ advisory)…so maybe you need to pull your head out and look beyond your Manhattan glass!”

    I have a feeling that line was ironic, as if people would need to be reminded that libraries have books.