March 16, 2018

They Taught Us To Listen: Lessons from new generations of librarians | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIRecently I ENJOYED a long-postponed lunch with two of my closest and most beloved colleagues from these past few decades. My connection with Nora Rawlinson, now running the incredibly useful selection and acquisitions website EarlyWord, began in arguments over whether libraries, through their book and materials acquisitions, should “give ’em what they want”—that is, buy for popular demand—or “give ’em what they need” by trying to select and acquire those items that qualify as classics, or essential information sources. We argued that point for years, until her intelligence and articulation convinced me to recruit her to be editor of LJ’s Book Review. (She took the job and ultimately replaced me as LJ editor in chief, then went on to the same job at Publishers Weekly. Post-PW, she moved through key positions with major book publishers and finally went into business for herself with EarlyWord.)

Nora and I also disputed centralized vs. distributed book selection, she saying that to centralize for a library system was more efficient and effective, and me maintaining that it was the sacred professional job of every librarian in every system. We now know that centralized book selection and acquisition won out, and today some libraries even outsource selection and acquisitions to vendors.

Seeing Nora again reminded me that debates over library book and materials selection have been with us since the beginnings of the public library movement.

In the early years, the contention was whether fiction was of sufficient quality to be included in public library collections and bought with tax money. Some of that discussion took place in the pages of LJ and was often the subject of speeches at American Library Association (ALA) conferences and programs.

Fiction finally earned a respected place on public library shelves, and after a few years of further hashing out the criteria that would be used to decide if a novel was of sufficient quality to be acquired, some wag asserted, “No one should really have the right to tell anyone else what they can or can’t read.”

Ultimately, this position morphed into the library profession’s very strong stand that no materials should be banned and that library collections should carry every possible point of view, kind of work, and subject. A former editor of School Library Journal, Evelyn Geller chronicled the history of the controversy and how it became the library position on intellectual freedom in her Columbia PhD dissertation, which was published as Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876–1939: A Study in Cultural Change (Greenwood, 1984).

The truth is that neither side won any of those old tussles. The field just moved on, new media and materials were added to the mix, and the ever-increasing application of digital technology to all these library issues made the questions we wrangled over with such passion irrelevant to current practice.

We also became a more tolerant profession, still solid in the belief in our core values but less judgmental of how we apply them to our work. From where I sit, after 50 years at LJ, it appears that we have learned to listen to, receive, and consider the other side in many of our long-standing disputes.

I don’t believe this approach is always the perfect response, but unless respect for an opposing view truly threatens one of those values, listening is preferable to lecturing and reception is more useful than broadcasting. I am forced to thank the current generation of librarians for showing some of us how to carry on such interactions, learn from them, and improve our professional practice.

Of course I miss the old debates and the passions they stirred. But I am happy to have had enough interaction with the generations of librarians since mine to know that you learn more by paying attention to others than by talking. Most important, I have discovered that the answer to most of those “accursed questions” about which we once had fervent “either/or” contests turned out to be “both!”

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. Perhaps 30 years ago there was staff time for each branch to indulge every librarian in the “sacred professional job” of selection (this is assuming that “every” librarian was good at it and enjoyed it). Not so today, when libraries often struggle to keep enough staff in the building for a minimum level of safety, let alone customer service, let alone structural tasks. I entered the profession about the time Nora’s article went viral, and while many of the changes have been exciting and valuable, many have not. Too many “change agents” out there busy streamlining, “leaning”, whatever and too many front-line people performing very draining “customer service” tasks.

  2. Erin Shea says:

    John, I wonder who you had that other long-postponed lunch with : )