Last week someone commented that I hadn’t written nice things about libraries in a while. Someone else sent me a passage from an LIS book in which the author quoted the AL and claimed various blog posts showed contempt for libraries. (Oddly enough, the author failed to include it in his list of references or index. Very professional!)
That attack is a typical example of the lack of a critical culture in librarianship. We have a childish culture of fake niceness, where if we have nothing positive to say we should just be quiet.
There are some librarians who think that acting bitchy implies that they are critical, but their criticism is always reserved for others: vendors, publishers, the government, the AL, and just about anything but libraries, because apparently libraries are perfect. That’s why all the librarians in the country love their jobs so much.
But enough ruminations on crazy librarians. I’ll save that for my memoirs. Instead, I’ll play nice today. I want to affirm that I heart libraries. And since the ALA and most people who write about libraries really just mean public libraries (more on that in the next post), I’m talking about public libraries.
What do I heart about libraries?
As far as I’m concerned, the most important work libraries do is with children’s literacy. I don’t even have children and I value this. Librarians who work with children get the least money and respect of any librarians in the profession, and yet when they do their jobs well they’re helping develop the literacy and love of learning necessary to be a successful and happy human being.
Though children’s and YA librarians are some of the most enthusiastic in the profession, they’re almost never in the spotlight in national conversations among librarians. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any “famous” librarians who do anything for or with children. (Feel free to add names in the comments if you know of some.)
Think about the “famous” librarians and quasilibrarians writing and speaking around the country. Have you EVER heard them talk about children’s literacy or librarians? Probably not. They’re too busy talking about social media and chanting the week’s current buzzwords while pretending they actually have something worthwhile to say to us. Literacy is about the last thing most of the famous librarians will talk about, since literacy isn’t sexy.
The children’s librarians are often the only ones people ever see. Over the years I’ve heard several speeches by nonlibrarians at conferences, and almost everyone I’ve heard speaks exclusively about visiting the library as a child. They might not have set foot in a library for 20 years, but they remember Mrs. So-and-so who used to set good books aside for them or chat with them about stories or whatever.
I heart the librarians that are trying their best to help the poor and disenfranchised learn skills that could help them get jobs, from improved literacy to technological skills. Just because I can afford books and computers and have access to all the training I’d ever want doesn’t mean I don’t think about people who don’t. I want everyone to have the opportunities I have, and libraries are part of that social support network.
I also heart the librarians working in the poorest areas of the country and yet who still try to bring some semblance of education and culture and hope to ghettos and rural backwaters and every other place that most Americans try to forget. I’ve heard some horror stories from librarians working in dangerous cities who put up with it because of their commitment to being there even for just a small percentile of the population who value reading and learning.
Over the years, I’ve been in places around the country where the public library was the only mark of civilization, unless you also include McDonald’s. It’s hard for me to fathom, but there are places in the country with no bookstores, cafes, pubs, or colleges, and people actually choose to live there. It’s scary, but true, and those places desperately need public libraries.
During an ill advised cross-country road trip in college public libraries were oases of knowledge and culture. In the pre-Internet days, finding a place that not only had free restrooms, but also phone books, maps, local tourist information, and a few good magazines to read while trying to suppress the desire to strangle my traveling companions was invaluable. And the librarians I talked to were usually informative and sometimes friendly, and helped us out even though it was clear we weren’t locals and would never set foot in that library again.
Though I think I’d rather commit suicide than make that same trip with the same people today, libraries would still provide the same services, even if they were just places to get free wifi so I could track down information for myself.
These are all reasons I support public libraries, even though I rarely use them myself. But despite their harangues against the AL, I’m not the audience that librarians need to convince.
There are plenty of Americans who don’t need and don’t use public libraries. I understand those people better than some librarians seem to, because I’m more or less one of them. I have a computer and a smartphone and an ebook reader and can afford all the media I consume for personal reasons. I can’t remember the last time I used my local public library. I’m not even sure if I have a library card anymore.
So while I value public libraries for other people, I don’t use them or need them, which gives me an objectivity on them that some librarians lack. Librarians can heart libraries all they like, but public libraries are a lot less relevant for middle class and above adults than they once were, and it’s those adults who don’t really need libraries who need to be convinced of their worth. More than that, they need to be convinced that without libraries and schools universities and all the other public educational institutions under attack the middle class as we’ve known it for decades will disappear.
That job might be too big for libraries to take on, but it’s worth doing. So for those who think the AL is contemptuous of libraries, you’re mistaken. I reserve my contempt for librarians who spend their time gushing over the latest social trends and technology instead of focusing on core library missions that will convince the public that libraries are necessary, even if they’re not sexy and exciting.
If you want to see contempt for libraries, look not to the AL but to the government of Wisconsin. I’m a pussycat compared to the criticism librarians will be facing in the next decade.