Stating your assumptions or other beliefs about a subject can be a tricky business, particularly when that subject is a profession you wish to enter. As someone who has barely cracked the surface of the library profession – my only experience thus far being four years spent working at a university library while I was a student – I run the risk that my statements might make me appear naive, maybe even a little silly.
But then, I know that can’t be true. The job of a “librarian” is changing every day, and even those working in the field their entire careers are finding their initial assumptions about the profession outdated and just flat-out wrong. The idea that we’ll be spending our careers behind imposing desks, stamping books and re-shelving, all the while shushing loud children – well, I don’t know anyone who would want to a be librarian with that job description in mind, but it’s the idea that many have held over the years, and it’s an idea that’s looking sillier by the day.
Therefore, I think it’s best to keep my assumptions broad, knowing that no matter what kind of changes hit the library world, these core tenents will remain the same:
- Librarians are there to help people.
In the true spirit of any service profession, I believe librarians should go about their work, every day, with readers and other library users in mind. Just like the customer, the patron is always right.
True, librarians are there to preserve history and work with literary and digital artifacts. Yes, we’re all concerned with funding and how we might squeeze a few more computer purchases into the budget. However, just as the New York Public Library is described in a 1991 documentary, libraries are first and foremost a “people’s palace” – a place for the public to visit, free of charge, relax, recharge and learn (New York Public Library, 2013, “The People’s Palace”). Sure, librarians are proud of their carefully-curated collections, but those collections – those books, journals and databases – are there for patrons. It’s important that as the idea of libraries moves forward, librarians maintain a “patron-first” mentality, always asking themselves how their decisions best serve their communities.
- Libraries protect and preserve information, because information is valuable.
A library’s other core function is to protect and preserve information – whether that’s information found in books, magazines, digital and audio files, or other electronic files. While libraries first belong to the people, they next belong to the information preserved there. Information is incredibly valuable, and if libraries aren’t working to protect it, who will? In this way, I believe libraries provide a massive public service, keeping track of our culture’s history and the way it expresses itself. In the disappearance of the great library of Alexandria, we have seen what happens when libraries are dismantled or torn down – entire cultures and thousands of years of history disappear as well.
- Libraries work toward improving access to information.
Just as important as collecting and preserving information, however, is the work librarians do to improve access to it. Information is only as valuable as those who choose to use it, and if the public does not have a reliable and easy way to access the information they need, then the entire idea of a “free society” is meaningless. This role will become even more important as the world becomes more digitized; so much information – in the form of Wikipedia articles, blog posts, comments, Tweets – is being produced every day, it’s staggering. It’s one thing to capture this information, but how can we make it relevant? How can we make it useful? That is the job of librarians and it’s more important than ever.
- Libraries are always changing, and should continue to change.
In his five laws of librarianship, Shiyali Ramamrita states, “The library is a growing organism” as his final law (Haycock, 2008, pg. xvi). I believe it’s the most important law of them all. What has been called a “library” has changed dramatically during the institution’s history, beginning with a place to record trade information on stone tablets, to the modern American lending libraries with which all of us have grown up. And so, with so much change built into its history, why should anyone be surprised when libraries continue to change in the 21st century? I’m looking forward to a time when libraries drop their stuffy personas and become the bustling, shining community hubs our society needs them to be. We need libraries, but just as our needs are changing (from “where’s the card catalog?” to “where can I charge my laptop?”), libraries must change with them. Change is scary, but change can also be exciting and if they want to survive, libraries must embrace this change.
Haycock, K. & Sheldon, B. (2008). The Portable MLIS. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited
New York Public Library. (2013). The People’s Palace. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/peoples-palace.