There’s a brief article from Rochester, New York about a librarian celebrating her 40th year on the job at her library. Imagine working 40 years at the same library. Go ahead, do it. Now get yourself a drink if you need one.
Part of the pitch in the story is how much things have changed in libraries since 1972. Usually when I hear anything about how exciting it is to be working in our rapidly changing profession, which I think I’ve heard from every job candidate I’ve ever seen in an interview, I nod politely and think, “whatever.”
A lot of the change in libraries in the last couple of decades has been in technology and has followed a common trajectory: digital information technology updates stuff we always did. If you think about it that way, it’s not really a big deal, and the changes from year to year are pretty easy to handle for anyone who’s not a hopeless dullard.
The librarian profiled in the article is pretty nonchalant about all the changes in libraries. Her only comment: “It’s pretty amazing in some respects.” There’s not even an exclamation point.
She doesn’t look terrified or overwhelmed by all the change, either. Take a look at that picture. It says, “Change, I’ll deal with you as soon as I put these books away. And then maybe I’ll have a cup of tea. All part of the job.”
Thinking about it, though, it does seem that in the last 40 years libraries have changed a lot more than in the 40 years before that, and maybe in the 80 years before.
Were the libraries of 1932 and 1972 that much different? They still had card catalogs and ordered books and magazines on paper. They both bought archived material on microfilm, which had made it into libraries by 1932. They both might collect record albums, with the only difference being the speed and material. They still provided reference service. The librarians probably even dressed the same, since librarian fashion is timeless.
What would have been significantly different? No CD-ROMs yet, or popular videotapes. No OPACs. MARC was invented in the 1960s, but it was originally to create library cards, not patron-searchable databases. Would there have been any significant differences in how librarians and library patrons used libraries between those two times?
The change in the last 40 years has been remarkable. It hasn’t been as rapid or revolutionary as some librarians claim, unless a revolution takes 30-40 years to happen. It’s been a slow but steady evolution for the most part as technologies are invented and then adapted by librarians.
Living through it might only have felt revolutionary at a very few moments. When your OPAC went live. When the library finally bought a computer. When it finally bought one just for you. When you first used what people at the time were calling the information superhighway. (When was the last time you heard anyone use that phrase with a straight face?)
But once librarians had computers, the change became much more gradual. Look, another CD-ROM. Whee, another online index. Oh boy, another journal goes online that we’re going to end up paying through the nose for. How exciting, yet another social networking service that thinks it will change the world.
Even though there have been enormous amounts of change, did living through the change feel like living through a revolution? Or was it just going along and taking what comes?
The librarian in the article implies it’s the latter. I think I agree.