A few months ago, someone wrote an opinion article for LJ about “big tent” librarianship, arguing that “all librarians are intrinsically connected in their personal motivations for entering the profession” and “are connected by core beliefs across the different library types.” It was written “to combat the illusion of separation that currently exists within the field.”
I read it at the time, and thought, eh, okay, interesting idea. It’s not terribly new, and is pretty much what the ALA has preached for decades with its bills of rights and mission statements and other documents that supposedly cover all libraries. The ALA implies that librarians all have something in common, though the existence of the SLA, MLA, and AALL should tell us something.
The same author, a real go-getter it seems, has also be active in the campaign against HarperCollins and the creation of the Ebook reader’s bill of rights. All well and good. The library needs more public intellectuals who aren’t prattling about social media all the time and actually write about substantive issues in the field.
Putting the two together makes me question the big tent notion of librarianship, though. I realized that as a librarian, I don’t really care what HarperCollins does with its ebooks. Except for literary novels that might one day be studied, most of the books my library needs aren’t published by the Big Six publishers.
I also don’t think librarians are intrinsically connected in their personal motivations for entering the profession. Many of the academic librarians I’ve known became librarians because a planned professorial career didn’t work out. Being an academic failure probably isn’t what motivates public librarians.
I also don’t believe the separation that exists among librarians is an illusion. Librarians really are separate, and the problems they face are often not connected. That libraries have some things in common means very little when tacking individual problems.
We can start with the HarperCollins example. This is primarily a public library issue, and of the reams of commentary on it, I’ve seen only two academic librarians writing and absolutely no one from a special library. Academic libraries don’t use Overdrive much, they often don’t buy popular fiction at all, and if they do it’s often not considered part of the core collection. The missions of the types of libraries are just different.
The overall licensing versus ownership issue affects academic libraries, but in ways that public librarians rarely think about. One big issue for academic libraries is access to serials, especially in the future, and most journals have long ago adopted a licensed access versus ownership model. However, academic libraries are working with several institutions to solve the problem of preservation and future access to content that isn’t strictly owned, both for books and journals. As far as I can tell, not one public library participates in either Hathi Trust or Portico, to give just two examples of organizations trying to deal with digital preservation issues.
Academic libraries have been dealing with the problem for fifteen years, but it’s like some librarians just realized that there’s a problem and now they’re shouting to high heaven. I’ll exclude longtime ebook DRM critics like the Librarian in Black, but the commentary I’ve been reading from some librarians makes it sound like they’ve had their head stuck in the sand for a decade.
Another big issue these days is library funding, and that separates all sorts of librarians. In any given state, there will probably be libraries at private universities and public universities, public libraries, school libraries, law libraries, state libraries, and corporate and special libraries of all sorts, and every type has a different funding model.
Libraries funded by the public are having problems all over, so there’s some commonality, I suppose. If a state or city is in budget meltdown and public workers are under attack, there goes some funding for higher education, schools, and public libraries, but even then the treatment is different.
Schools are starting to eliminate their librarians entirely. Public libraries are closing branches or cutting hours and staff. What about in higher education? I’ve heard about a few layoffs, various workarounds like furlough days, and lots of jobs left unfilled after people leave, but I haven’t noticed any drastic campaigns against academic libraries as such. They just suffer as the universities suffer. As long as there are universities, they will have some sort of library, even if it doesn’t look like today’s libraries. On the other hand, school librarians are already disappearing and many people are envisioning dark but possible futures without public libraries.
The public versus private distinction is greater than between public and academic. There are thousands of libraries around the country that are privately funded, ranging from libraries at private research universities to small liberal arts colleges, religious schools, corporations, law firms, etc.
While librarians at those places have issues in common with others who work at similar types of libraries and while they have problems of their own, they are often immune from the problems that public and school librarians have. Librarians have to demonstrate their value everywhere, but it’s a lot easier to do that in some libraries than in others.
What happens to one doesn’t necessarily affect the rest. Every public library in my state could close tomorrow, every corporation could eliminate its librarians and archivists, and it wouldn’t effect my job one whit. If the universities started closing, I’d be in serious trouble, but the public librarians probably wouldn’t notice much, and the school and special librarians not at all. The bottom line is that we’re not all in this together.
The public rhetoric about libraries is almost exclusively about public libraries. When some talking head from ALA prattles on about the importance of libraries, it’s about public libraries. When some citizen writes a pro or con letter to the local newspaper, it’s about public libraries. When someone speaks or writes in generalities about the issues or problems or concerns of “libraries,” they’re usually talking about…you guessed it, public libraries.
Even most of the “famous” librarians out there talk about issues exclusive to public libraries. You can read blog after blog and tweet after tweet and see very little especially relevant to other types of libraries other than the occasional technotip.
So if a representative group of librarians gathered together, I’d be hard pressed to find even one thing they all had in common as professionals other than possessing a similar master’s degree. Assuming we all have something in common is similar to white privilege, but we can call it public library privilege. Just as our society tends to conceive of whiteness and white culture as the norm and everything else an irrelevant deviation, most people assume public libraries to be the norm.
The rest of us don’t do reader’s advisory, we don’t deal with book challenges, we don’t put up cheesy “Read” posters in our libraries, we don’t fret if bestsellers aren’t available, we don’t have boards of trustees that we have to play politics with, we don’t care about librarian stereotypes, and we don’t have children around. Unless we work in a publicly funded university, we often don’t even have the general public around, which means we often don’t have homeless people or drug addicts hanging out. Everything from the nature of our funding to our myriad missions to our daily routines is different from life in a public library.
Public libraries get the most attention from the public and the ALA, and the large numbers of librarians who don’t work in them are largely ignored. It used to annoy me, but now I don’t really care, because my library has its own problems to solve, and they probably aren’t the same as yours. There are things we can all learn from each other, but there are things we can learn from people in other professions as well. We might all hang separately one day, but there’s little reason for us to hang together.