Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Living through the Revolution

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.



  1. The Librarian With No Name says:

    What’s interesting to me about these articles is that most of the changes that have happened in libraries over the last 40 years have happened in pretty much every other profession in the developed world, but nobody ever writes articles about it.

    When I’m not librarianing, I work evenings and weekends at the paint desk at Lowe’s (thanks, OBAMA.) If you talked to someone who worked at that store in 1972, the modern job would be practically unrecognizable.

    The paint is mixed by a giant computerized machine that looks like a console from Kirk’s Star Trek. Most of our inventory control is done using an iPhone with a barcode scanner that can look up quantities on hand in our store and every other store within a hundred miles, print out price labels at a laser printer halfway across the store, and Google product info and project videos in the middle of any aisle. Also, it’s a wireless phone that you carry around in your pocket. Customers can place huge orders over the Internet, and if you don’t get everything gathered up and to the front of the store in 30 minutes or less, they get a 10% discount and you get bawled out by your manager.

    I don’t see that any of that is less incredible and transformative than anything that has changed in libraries at the same time. The impact on any office in America has been even more pronounced. I guess it’s just that reporters never suddenly remember that offices and hardware stores exist after not having set foot in one since college.

    • Wow, President Obama got you a job at Lowe’s? How nice of him!

    • Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

      George Bush would think you’re a slacker since he thought a woman who showed up at one of his rallies and had three jobs was “Uniquely American”.

    • Nothing is Obama’s fault.

      Remember, he is just a 3 year old and is perfect.

      And besides, all of his screw ups are really that mean nasty Bush kid’s fault, even though he hasn’t lived on the block in 4 years.

    • Given that libraries are mostly supported through local and state taxes, and that appropriations bills originate in the House, whose leaders during the past 4 years have seen their overriding priority to make President Obama a one-term president – why, yes, it’s pretty hard to see how your Lowe’s job is somehow his fault (or due your thanks).

  2. It is definitely the President’s fault that you are working the paint desk at Lowe’s.

  3. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Perhaps LWNN was thanking Obama for getting LWNN the job at Lowe’s. Like they say, it’s not what you know, but who you know.

  4. Michelle Sellars says:

    I read the “Thanks, Obama” as being funny. My husband I I will say that to each other whenever any sort of problem arises, mocking the Fox News-type people who say it seriously. But who knows.

    I’ll have to start asking fellow catalogers if RDA feels like a revolution. And if it’s the positive kind of the negative kind.

  5. I get it, so that’s a thing now. Maybe I’ll start saying it to ;-)

  6. *too

  7. The Librarian With No Name says:

    Sorry, I should be more careful of sarcasm when I don’t have access to italics.

    And AL, if I had the President as a reference, I would hope I could at least get a cushy gig like appliances or installed sales.

    Although given the general culture at Lowe’s, it’s kind of a tossup as to whether a good word from Obama would help or hurt. We’re awfully proud of our NASCAR sponsorship.

  8. Development Arrested says:

    If patrons are to be believed, one difference is 40 years ago they knew how to locate materials without the assistance of a librarian/clerk and now they don’t. I wonder if we’ve gotten so caught up with technology changes, we’ve forgotten to educate patrons on these changes (or just assumed they could figure them out).

    I wonder if perhaps (not everywhere) librarians have distanced themselves from the patrons. I know that 40 years ago, everyone know the director of the library because she was always at the desk. Now the only “real” librarian will only stick her out of the office if she gets the whiff of someone with money.

    • annoyedlibraryworker says:

      Well, years ago library skills were taught in schools, now not so much. Many a time I’ve been asked where a certain authors books might be, and when I show them the area and tell them that they are in order by the authors last name, they stare at me as if I’ve spoken to them in Klingon, wander around looking at the ceiling and wander back saying they couldn’t find it. I think we are so used to having things sorted or searched for us on electronic devices, the act of figuring out alphabetical or numerical order ourselves is fading (much like the way I don’t know anyone’s actual phone number anymore)

  9. patrons are all idiots and do not know how to use technology, according to Development Arrested….riiiiiiiiight.

  10. Development Arrested says:

    “ patrons are all idiots and do not know how to use technology, according to Development Arrested….riiiiiiiiight.”

    You mean “we patrons.”

  11. Development Arrested says:

    I wish I could just leave a condescending grammatical correction and leave it at that, but I can’t. No. That’s most certainly not what I’m saying. I’m saying that society and the libraries that exist within society use technology as a cure-all. We buy computers and create OPACs and talk about how much this is going to make everything better. Then we forget that not everyone automatically knows how to use this technology. We spend a sizable portion of our resources on purchasing technology and then don’t bother to implement it correctly. Then we get frustrated when no one uses it.

    If you can figure out how to use technology good for you. But I know from experience not everyone does.

  12. If we were to wait on advancing to more modern technologies until everyone could easily grasp it, then we would never move at all.

  13. Development Arrested says:

    That’s not my point. At all. I’m pretty sure that I’ve explicitly stated my point several times. I’m also fairly certain that you’re being purposefully dense, but I’ll try again. Advance technology. Fine. I’m not against that (in fact, when I used to work at a library, I was chastised as being the person who cared too much about keeping up with technology [when in reality I would just do things like try to convince the director that floppy disks really aren’t the best method for saving data anymore]). Just provide education to the people that supposedly get benefit from technology.

    If we don’t follow-up on the implementation of technology, we might as well not even have it. At the societal level, it’s the equivalent of rushing off to buy an iPhone 5 and then not bothering to learn how to use it.

    Seriously. Is this really that hard of an idea to grasp?

    • Just a Clerk says:

      “I wonder if perhaps (not everywhere) librarians have distanced themselves from the patrons.”

      I remember when I was a small child using the library, if I needed help, I could walk up to anyone (library personel) and ask. Help would be given. Some time between high school and college, when I asked a question at circ, I was told i could only ask the librarian across the room. Now that I work at the circ desk myself, I am not allowed to answer many questions from patons either. Yes, I know the explanations of why this is, but I also know 9 out of 10 patrons just walk out when I tell them to go to reference.

  14. The library where I work parttime just hired a couple of high school kids. In 1954, I was hired as a HS sophomore for the ONE high school page position in my local library. Being a library page is my retirement job, after a varied career, so I feel I’ve come full circle. The biggest part of my job is shelving books, and in that respect the job has changed very little since 1954. But I think our current HS kids, if they look back from a vantage of 58 years, will see much more change than I have. But I can’t even predict in any detail what that ehange will be. I hope someone is still shelving books, at least part of the time.

  15. When I became a librarian two years ago, I took over the middle school library that had been run by the same librarian since the school opened in 1956.

    40 years in one school library? Pshaw, try 55. The only technology in the room was the manual typewriter she used to maintain the card catalog, when she bothered to do it.

    The revolution in my library has been sudden and dramatic: massive weeding, automation, six student computers, a video studio all accomplished through grants, donations and long hours applying barcoding and scanning.

    Three years ago no students ever went to the library unless they were forced to, today there are dozens who spend time before classes, their lunch period and a couple of hours after school studying, producing, researching and inspiring me to keep improving my practice, the facilities we have, and the technology we offer.

    It is far too easy to become complacent, and easier to be overwhelmed by the constant churn of new apps, new technologies, new ideas and new possibilities. It is essential that librarians remain open to change and develop strategies to keep developing ourselves and the facilities we manage.

  16. What has changed is that many more items can circulate than in previous decades.

    • Just a Clerk says:

      Gah! I should know better than to post my brain vomit if I don’t have time to edit. That is an embarrassing disaster of a post. I was trying to agree with the quote about libraries distancing themselves from patrons via too much red tape. Strict job out lines that hinder more than help customer service. Like JaLA pointed out, in the mid-nineties seems to be the time this got implemented, and even a young library patron like myself back then noticed.

      There are plenty of patrons who ask for simple things that I (and others in my position and lower) can very easily answer for them that we are just not allowed to (dog books are 636.7). Many people want me to put them on a request list for a book (the newest James Patterson, Evanovich, The Help, etc) while I am checking out to them. Nope, they have to walk across the library for a librarian to do that. Few people do. The job outline hindrance doesn’t just affect us circ people. Reference librarians have to stop helping their patrons and send them to us to update expired library cards. Honestly I wouldn’t find it a threat to my job if they did this two second transaction themselves.

      Yes there are reasons that each job outline is designed as it is, but do they really need to feel so inflexible to staff and customers? Is this even so strict elsewhere?

  17. just a library assistant says:

    I dont mean to jump on the soapbox, but this post caught my eye:
    (Quoting “just a clerk”) : “I remember when I was a small child using the library, if I needed help, I could walk up to anyone (library personel) and ask. Help would be given. Some time between high school and college, when I asked a question at circ, I was told i could only ask the librarian across the room. Now that I work at the circ desk myself, I am not allowed to answer many questions from patons either. Yes, I know the explanations of why this is, but I also know 9 out of 10 patrons just walk out when I tell them to go to reference.”

    9 out of 10? Really? When I was a page and a clerk back in the mid 1990’s, we were given similar instructions, and it was for our own benefit and protection. Eventually we got to the point where if we knew the answer, we would give that information, but otherwise would direct them to the appropriate staff.

    Just a Clerk, it is all in THE WAY you refer the customer. I would think that if 10 percent remained in the library, then it is an issue with the first point of contact or customer attitude, and not the library policy.

    Great post AL!

  18. What has changed is the pace of change. That’s why we had to have “change agents” who couldn’t themselves deal with change.

  19. I Like Books says:

    I think of Kuhn’s paradigm shift. He was writing about the progress of science. Think of Newton’s mechanics and the clockwork universe. Then came a long period of charting the territory, consolidating the theory, reformulating it in the style of Hamilton or Lagrange which gives an energy-centered view rather than a force-centered view and facilitates many-body problems and a higher level of abstraction… A lot of important work was done, but it was all Newton with his universal time, addition of velocities, and F=ma.

    Then came a few paradigm shifts in rapid succession with relativity and quantum mechanics. And we’ve been consolidating our hold on those for something like a century.

    Technology is like that. Cars were once an exciting new technology, now they’re pretty much a commodity. Our whole society was transformed by the automobile– the system of roads, commuting to work, transportation of goods. That transformation has been completed long ago, and in many places in America you’re an oddball if you ride a bike to work. (That was me– and strangers introduced themselves to me because they remembered me as the guy who rides a bike to work.)

    Computers are the same way. They’ve become a commodity. They’re lasting longer and longer before software makers finally manage to force an upgrade. Amazon is putting brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business, and it’s just assumed that every business has a web site, intranet, etc. There have been rapid changes, but we’re starting to see where we’re going with it.

    Libraries are going through a transition, no doubt of it. But then there will be a new normal, everyone will get used to it, and libraries will pretty much stay the same for a long time after that, except for incremental and evolutionary changes.

  20. When she retires please let everyone know so someone young and vibrant can have a job.

  21. Alex Kyrios says:

    Wrong Rochester!

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