Currently in Toronto, Canada, the public libraries are on strike for the first time since the mid-Eighties. While people often take libraries for granted and the people who work in them, there are also individuals who have come to denigrate and devalue them over the years. Perhaps sensing the profession not getting the due respect it deserves, Laura Warner stepped up in Critics at Large to clear the air and get the picture straight.
My name is Laura and I am a librarian.
Upon revealing my profession to strangers I am almost guaranteed the following reaction: “Oh, but you don’t look like a librarian.” Yes, many have extremely strong, and learned, stereotypes about these professionals and the places they work. Many probably assume that their local librarian is a shy, shushing, anal-retentive, nerdy bookworm who lives with several cats. She probably likes knitting, wears cardigans, collects and categorizes things, and has sensible shoes. (Note: I tend to refer to a librarian as a “she” because the profession does seem to attract the fairer sex. In my library program we outnumbered the dudes about ten to one. I still do not understand why more post-undergraduate straight men don’t take advantage of this opportunity.) With regard to these stereotypes: okay, I’m busted. I’m guilty of most of those characteristics. (With the exception of the cats and the sensible shoes part.) The problem with the librarian and library stereotypes, though, may not be that we do not possess any of these characteristics, but that we possess so much more.
Librarians, in fact, are not-so-quiet, super-interesting, super-educated, and technologically savvy professionals. To practice in most libraries you have to acquire a Masters degree in either Library or Information Management. Many librarians – particularly subject specialists, the innately curious, or the overly ambitious – may have multiple graduate degrees and even PhDs. Yes, these poor folks you see at your local branch are actually hot shit, but, for the love of humanity, they are toiling to service patrons such as yourself.
Yes, they are more than qualified. They have spent years becoming experts in the organization and navigation of information. Those who work in academic libraries spend their time collecting, managing and retrieving knowledge generated and referenced by the world’s greatest minds. In fact, academic librarians hold faculty status, fulfill research requirements and contribute themselves to the creation of this knowledge.
|Cartoon by Dave Coverly|
There is also the special librarian. Well, of course, we’re all special, but I’m referring to the professionals who work within a corporate library. Indeed, there are libraries within corporations. They are often rebranded and given far sexier names such as, research centres, knowledge hubs or information resources. (How else did you think big businesses functioned or made intelligent decisions?) In fact, librarians may not even work under the title librarian; they may go by researcher, knowledge manager, archivist, information analyst, or competitive intelligence specialists. Ask around. We’re everywhere.
To put this plainly, librarians are surgeons with the Internet. They are specially trained to know how to find anything you need in cyberspace, how to locate the best answer and get it fast. They’re ready and waiting. They are the emergency-response personnel to all your information needs. Your public librarian is a wizard. Ask them anything – seriously, I dare you – they will find it. Following a strict code of ethics and confidentiality, we also promise not to tell all our friends (or our cats) what you asked either. On top of that, a librarian is also an educator. They are willing to share their powers and will also show you how to find almost anything on your own. Imagine.
The place that houses these professionals, the library, plays an even larger role in the survival and success of its patrons. One of the most important functions they play in our society is bridging the digital divide. The digital divide describes the unequal access to information and technology amongst citizens. While adult illiteracy is an ongoing struggle, information illiteracy is emerging as a greater issue especially as we’ve moved into a knowledge-based economy. There are many Canadians who do not have access to the Internet and do not have the basic searching skills required to function fully in society. One of the leading barriers to information access is income. It is expensive to own a computer, but also to access the Internet. As a developed country, Canada is far behind in the progress of democratizing broadband access to all of its citizens. Results of a 2008 Statistics Canada Study: 91 per cent of people in the top-earning bracket (more than $95,000) used the Internet. This was almost twice the proportion, 47 per cent, for the earning bracket (less than $24,000).
Public libraries can narrow this gap. If you walk into any library branch, you will find people madly working at a terminal. They can be recent immigrants making an affordable Skype call home, teenagers working on their first resumé, and I even saw a local homeless man updating his Facebook account. While providing access to information, the library is also a place of education. Many provide seminars on basic computer skills. If they don't offer these programs, they can help you find where an accessible class exists.
In addition to providing basic communications, education, and connections to those in need, it can also be a meeting place for the already-connected members of the community. With a vast program schedule of book clubs, film clubs, public lectures and art exhibits, the public library is also like knowing your own personal Gertrude Stein. Whether it’s individual intellectual pursuits or hosting an evening salon, the library serves the physical purpose.
It’s also a family place. Most libraries have a youth section full of children’s literature, toys and a playing space. Most also host a kid’s version of their website, equipped with links to everything from entertainment and educational tools to parenting websites. The library’s children’s services include such things as infant sing-song circles, toddler reading programs, and after school tutoring sessions. Guess how this mommy stopped from going nuts during her maternity leave? We were at that library every day.
And of course, let us not forget borrowing. Still, you can borrow stuff for free and not just books, but magazines, music and DVDs. While some have argued that with the rise of technologies, such as Netflix and iTunes, certain library usage is unnecessary; returning to my digital divide argument, not everyone has access to Netflix and iTunes. At a public library, however, they can be entertained and all they need is a library card.
Students, children, stay-at-home parents, working parents, seniors, the homeless, the curious, intellectuals, perverts, the public library is a place for us all. Everyone, overseen by the librarian, a seriously capable, usually friendly, professional that will care for, cater to, and put up with it all. Practically the only thing they don't serve is donuts, but there are plenty of those shops in most neighbourhoods.
- originally published on August 14, 2011 in Critics at Large.