February 16, 2018

Recognizing My Library Heroes of 2014 | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterIt’s been a rough year for the planet. It’s been a rough year for the country. It’s been a rough year for libraries. We face a lot of problems that are complex and scary, and it’s easier to name them than to figure out what to do next. But when I look back on 2014 I see some amazing people doing the things that we librarians profess as our core values. Since there’s something about years coming to an end that leads to lists and resolutions, I thought I’d look back and give a shout-out to a few of the librarians who have taken difficult situations and made courageous, difficult, affirming choices. These are just some of the many librarians who make me proud to be in this profession.

Among our values are intellectual freedom, diversity, and social responsibility. In 2014, a librarian sued two other librarians for saying out loud and on the record what librarians had been whispering to each other for years. The courage of the two women who did so, knowing it would put them in harm’s way, inspires me. I salute them and those who on #teamharpy who have worked hard to defend them and to explain why this all matters. This action affirmed values that are risky and that matter so much. My thanks also to those who shepherded the the American Library Association’s new Code of Conduct and helped the profession understand how making our conferences safe and inclusive can be entirely consistent with our commitment to free speech.

Access to information dominates many of our day-to-day issues: What do we do about this package that just announced a price hike? What contortions will it take to use a smaller budget to keep providing to our students and faculty the resources that they need for their learning and research? How do we make this new interface or this discovery layer that we spent so much on actually work, and how are we going to do it and everything else we do with a smaller staff? This is difficult stuff. But the heroes to me are those who step back and think critically about how these matters of local access obscure the vast inequality in access to knowledge that we support when we pay those increasingly large invoices to corporations that make a hefty profit margin. These are the librarians who ask the hard questions: How do we provide access not just this budget year but for the long term, not just to our students and faculty but to the world? How do we fix this broken system? I’m inspired by people like Lisa Norberg and Rebecca Kennison, who work like crazy to analyze the culture of scholarly publishing and propose something bold and difficult and really big. Like the folks who have launched the Library Publishing Coalition. Like my friends in the Oberlin Group who have worked hard to imagine new ways to do open access scholarly monograph publishing collaboratively. We need to make sure that open access doesn’t become another business model for those already entrenched in the one that got us into this fix. The librarians doing this work are the ones who take access seriously.

Privacy and democracy have been under debate and under assault this year. My hat’s off to all of the librarians who have fought for the principle that privacy is fundamental to intellectual freedom, such as Alison Macrina and Eric Stroshane, who reach out to make a case for privacy with passion and lots of practical advice for citizens who want to defend themselves from the digital Dark Arts.

Lifelong learning is what we’re here for, but, dang, it’s hard to get it right sometimes. Thanks to the many ethnographic researchers who have enriched our understanding of the library in the life of the user (rather than the other way around), who have pioneered new ways to peer into those lives while keeping it ethical. Special mention here to Donna Lanclos, Andrew Asher, and Maura Smale, with the asterisk that I will smack myself later for everyone I’m leaving out. Thanks also to everyone who worked on, quarreled over, and added comments to the new Framework, now it its third draft, challenging us to think more deeply about what we really mean when we talk about information literacy. And a loud happy cheer for the folks behind the always-inspiring and thought-provoking #critlib chats on Twitter.

The public good is a radical concept in an era of radical market fundamentalism, but boy have we ever needed librarians to look out for it in these times of conflict. Missouri’s Ferguson Public Library, with Scott Bonner serving as its one full-time staff member and library director—and a seemly limitless amount of goodwill and energy coming from its staff and supporters—has been a beacon of hope both for the citizens of Ferguson and a reminder for the world of how public libraries are inspiring examples of what that good looks like and how libraries stand up for it.

They are representatives of service and professionalism, two more of our values. So are three women I personally know who were dismissed from their jobs as library directors because they had the courage and professionalism to be leaders in the face of administrations that thought they knew better and didn’t want uppity women who wouldn’t obediently go along with their plans. No, I don’t know all the details. No, I can’t share names. We can’t salute these women (or those who suffered the fate whom I don’t know personally) who have lost their jobs for all the right reasons because when a librarian stands up to her boss, it goes under the “personnel matter” cone of silence. But their voices matter even though using them cost them their positions. While I’m at it, I’ll add a shout-out to another anonymous voice who speaks loudly and challenges us to be more professional. Whoever is the BAE (boring alter ego) of the Library Loon is surely the kind of librarian we need in LIS education, willing to speak the truth wisely even while ruffling feathers.

Finally, one of the issues we’ve wrestled with as a profession this year is whether we should even recognize individual librarians publicly, whether by turning them into “rock stars” we aren’t paying too much attention to shiny surfaces and overlooking other deserving librarians and the collective nature of our labor. I’ll just round out my list by giving a shout-out to the hard work that unrecognized library workers of all kinds are doing under trying circumstances. I know too many of them who have had their salaries cut and their workload increased and have had to battle forces much larger than themselves to make the argument that libraries should exist even while providing the best, most positive service they can to their communities. They are heroes, every one of them.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Scott Bonner has done more for public libraries in the past year than all of the “change agents” and “makers” have done in the past decade. What a guy.

  2. Barbara Fister is on my “library heroes” list every year for her thoughtfulness, clarity, courage, and humor.

    • Hmm, trying to think up a thoughtless,murky way to respond without having to stick my neck out …

  3. Gerard Saylor says:

    Go Gusties!

  4. Along with those who were dismissed from their jobs, I would like to also mention that I know at least three more who have “voluntarily” stepped down from their positions, because they could no longer bear the ridiculous, endless battle with administrations who also thought they knew better, and who didn’t want uppity librarians (yes, usually women, though sometimes the administrators in question are women as well) daring to question them. And I know more who are on the verge of joining those ranks.

    • That’s so sad. (And agreed that some of the “I know best” administrators are women.)

      It’s frusrating when it’s already not easy to encourage librarians to take leadership roles when what they really love is being a librarian, working with students or developing programs or solving problems without the headaches of figuring out how to make required budget cuts or having to make a case for libraries (or for the value of librarians’ judgment).

  5. I’d like to add library worker, Nathan Scott of FSU, to this list of those deserving kudos in service to libraries. He’s the young man who, despite having been shot in the leg, got inside his library to secure the door and warn others of the shooter in the foyer. When offered assistance for his injury, he directed people to give to another person, a student, who was paralyzed from his injury. Talk about service to patrons.