Perhaps the only good thing about bad economies is that they force people to set priorities and focus on what’s truly important. Actually, maybe there are no good things, but I’m going to pretend it’s good. The past year has been brutal for many libraries and librarians around the country. Layoffs, furloughs, closures abound. In good times it’s easy to tolerate some of the fluff that passes for library discourse, but I’m seeing less fluff now, and that’s a good thing.
Sure, American Libraries announced a new blog that promises we will "be able to find the very edge of new technologies," as if we all need to waste more time on the latest everything just to say we’ve done it. And yes, there are librarian bloggers who spend a lot of time analyzing their own use of Twitter and think they’re writing something worth reading.
However, even the ALA, ever a source for library fluff, is changing. After years of hype and puffery, they’re acknowledging that if libraries don’t start promoting their actual value to communities, they’ll continue to suffer budget cuts and staff losses. We’re not getting those articles about how librarians are hip and chic and sport tattoos and know about every new techie trend that no one cares about except those people who have dedicated their lives to keeping up with every new trend regardless of how silly it is. We’re hearing about libraries helping people find jobs and educate their children.
There was even some seriousness at ALA Midwinter. Perhaps the seriousness was inspired by the economy, or by the Boston Public Library. I’ve always admired the statements carved on the Boston Public Library building: "Built by the people and dedicated to the advancement of learning" and "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." Those are the kinds of sentiments that inspired me to be a librarian, that kept me going through rounds of tedious group work in library school and all the enormous sweaters with little animals on them. I looked up at those statements again last week, and was just as inspired. Advancement of learning. Education of the people. Safeguard of order and liberty. What more could one ask of any institution? Any librarian who is more excited about by Twitter than by those goals puzzles me.
We could interpret the resistance to the document about "traditional cultural expressions" as a welcome manifestation of ALA seriousness. Maybe there was a recognition that the profession actually has some values worth preserving, and that resolutions that contradict those – no matter how friendly to regressive librarians – should be resisted.
If you followed ALA Council news (and who doesn’t!), you might have noticed that one resolution was soundly defeated. Here’s how the LJ account puts it: "The second Resolution was in support of National Health Care moved by Councilors Tiffani Conner and Mary Biblo. After a short discussion, mainly pointing out that at Annual Conference last year ALA had already gone on record with its support for National Health Care the Council closed debate and defeated the motion."
The defeat of that one could be the ALA Council coming to its senses and staying focused on the problems and issues of libraries instead of letting a few radical ideologues push resolutions that don’t deal with library issues. And let me be clear. I’m not saying only radical ideologues could support national health care. I’m saying that only radical ideologues try to use ALA to support non-library issues, in the process making librarians look silly and turning our attention from issues that we have something important to say about.
Of course it could have been a recognition that I’ve been right that the ALA Council passing a resolution on a non-library political issue is a sure sign the issue will fail. It was noted the ALA already publicly supported a public option, which is now more or less dead in Congress. Maybe the ALA is a jinx.
While catching up with blog posts I hadn’t had time to read before ALA, I found several regarding a blog post by Seth Godin (about whom I’ve written before). The blog post is on the future of the library. It’s tiring enough hearing about the future of the library from librarians, but even more so when hearing from marketing bloggers.
The post itself is short and fluffy. We hear that libraries can’t survive as repositories for books, and that many librarians tell him "that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals." (Sort of makes me wonder just which librarians he talks to. Apparently not ones in academic, school, or corporate libraries.)
The ending is unintentionally hilarious. "Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative. Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others."
So communities can’t be persuaded to fund DVDs or reference books, but they’ll fund sherpas? Maybe libraries in mountainous states might provide sherpas for their patrons, but even then it probably wouldn’t be very cost effective.
Even more bizarre is the canard that "the information is free now." The most valuable information for many people is the same as it’s always been: behind walls they can’t afford to pass without libraries footing the bill. I guess if all the "information" you want is contained in YouTube and Wikipedia, you’re fine. But anyone "aggressive in finding and using information" is likely to need library resources, just like librarians have been saying for years.
What surprised me wasn’t Godin, who’s just doing his thing. What surprised me was the librarian response. (This LIS News post is one such response, and links to others at the end.) Instead of fawning over the words of a marketing sherpa – the way that many other librarians seem to do with Godin – most of the blog posts criticized and refuted everything he said about libraries.
For years we’ve been inundated with librarians who read marketing writers and tell the rest of us that we need to be more like businesses. Librarians have gushed over Godin and others. Despite the fact that libraries aren’t funded like businesses and they have goals and values other than making as much money as possible, some librarians have swallowed all this whole and played up the alleged parallels between libraries and businesses non-stop. We’re not about books or information, we’re about "experiences." We’re not dedicated to the advancement of learning, we’re here to "connect people." They thought they were leading us all into business nirvana rather than just annoying most of us who had serious work to do.
Something seems to be changing. Librarians are less giddy, but more focused. Fewer are touting techie trends and more are talking about the serious and valued services they provide communities.
Will the silliness every return to full force? Will waves of future librarians tell us that if our libraries aren’t adopting every latest techie trend immediately then we’re all bad librarians? Will the ALA Council pass more irrelevant resolutions? Will the markety librarians continue to pester us with "inspirational" quotes from "motivational" speakers? Probably, because no good thing lasts long. However, I’m grateful from a respite of silly fluff, even if it means I have less juicy blog fodder.