Public libraries have received good press in 2009, although professional librarians have not. This summer produced a spate of stories about librarians “playing against type”1 that did more to reify negative images than dispel them.
The Christian Science Monitor did devote a sentence to the profession in its 1,200 word article Dewey Decimal divas: “With the ‘graying’ of the library profession – half of all credentialed librarians will reach retirement age in the coming decade – there is hope that this new fun and funky image of the modern librarian will help recruit young people to the field.“ This would have been a much better article if it had provided some insight into “modern librarianship”.
I gained context for the book cart races in the NPR story through listener comments on its website (which only the most radical patrons would be likely to investigate). They were part of the recreation and team-building activities at the ALA conference in Chicago where librarians from across the country gathered to “work all day on committees, speaking with vendors in the exhibits, and learning how to better serve the public in continuing education programs.” It is unfortunate that the reporter glossed over the context and found nothing else about the ALA conference important enough to include in the article.
The roller derby story and its accompanying video is 90% about the rules and nuances of the sport — with the demure librarian as a mere prop, in bland colors, glasses perched on nose, alone among the stacks. (Note the deprecating beaver-cleaver music playing as the librarian speaks.) Could it have been written with the focus reversed, about a roller derby player who excels at the game by blocking people from their goal and also works as a librarian to help people reach their goals (accompanied by images of patron interaction in a vibrant library)? Just a thought.
There have been scores of articles in 20092 (or, I would suggest, one article repeated numerous times) about public libraries’ contributions to their communities via free access to:
• computers and internet service
• help completing online job applications
• collections of bestselling books and DVDs
• children’s programs and free entertainment.
Dramatic increases in library visitation confirm the popularity of the in-person services and self-service via the internet is appealing for its convenience as well as its low overhead expense. Based on this press coverage, municipal officials and the public — faced with difficult budget choices — might reasonably conclude that people with library degrees are not needed to deliver library services. Indeed, a case might be made that computers and bright people with good customer service skills can do the job.
It might be tempting to dismiss this coverage as “stuff librarians have heard for years” or evidence of declining quality in mainstream media, though I believe that would be a mistake. What these words and images communicate (and fail to communicate) is important. It strikes me as unfavorable for library schools and their graduates. Librarians – what say you?
1Playing against type is an effective marketing technique and I’ve recommended it for public libraries as part of a thoughtful, managed campaign. Here I argue that recent press coverage of librarian attempts at it is not helpful.
• Boston Globe, Check it out
• Wall Street Journal, Folks Are Flocking to the Library
• CBS News, In Recession, Libraries Are Booming
• MSNBC, Libraries lend a hand in tough times
• Business Week, Recession sends droves to public libraries
• Orange County News Register, Libraries drive free economy