A Bone to Pick

A recent op-ed article from The New York Times gave me some pause. “Reinventing the Library,” although well-intentioned, leaves me feeling like I can’t help but go on the defense. Bear with me, here.

The article argues that librarians today wear more hats than they previously did. Which is true! I have played the role of social worker, travel agent, and babysitter more times than I can count during my five years serving the public. And while our library staff does our best to help patrons, we always remind them that they would be better off consulting a professional to solve the aforementioned types of issues. (Unless they’re leaving their kids in the library for hours on end, then we give them a stern talking to. Pro tip: Please don’t do that.)

What sparked this post was one comment in the article: “[T]he role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

Bone, let me pick you for a bit.

My issue here is that a librarian’s primary purpose is not to guide readers to their books; rather, it’s to guide seekers or inquirers to the information they seek. I used to joke with a former (librarian) colleague at Imagine Easy that not all librarians love books, but we all love organizing information, in whatever form that takes. (For example, she used to work at a hospital library, and seldom referenced books.) My point is: Librarians serve many purposes besides organizing and finding books for patrons.

While I completed reader’s advisory and children’s lit courses at library school, I also was required to take a couple of basic programming classes. Not because patrons would need someone to teach them how to program (although I have assisted folks with polishing up their Craigslist ads with my HTML knowledge–fancy, I know), but because librarians need to know how databases work, and how websites are built, because both lay the foundation so others can access and use the collections of information that we curate.

Libraries have always been so much more than books. What’s befuddling to me is that the author acknowledges that even civilization’s first libraries housed items besides books, like maps and instruments… so why the hang-up on books in the argument? Do not misinterpret me–books are sacred and crucial to society, but I can’t help but feel this mentality of “libraries=books” is what will drive our field into the ground. I agree with the author that librarians should not become social workers or travel agents, and libraries should not become homeless shelters, but we must be inclusive of other types of information besides books. And, as librarians, we must know how to curate and find these ~new types~ of information. It is our responsibility, especially in the public sector, to have those skills.

In my library, books are plentiful and still used often. While writing this blog post, I was pleasantly interrupted multiple times with patrons trying to find–you guessed it–books. While we offer technology in the form of computers, e-books, and iPads, our younger patrons do not necessarily flock to them right away. In fact, I spotted a boy patiently waiting on his father to print some documents, thumbing his way across a globe (a globe!) by our atlases and grasping at the enormity of the world.

Shifting the focus of libraries solely to books will do a disservice to these priceless community institutions. Books should be one part of a complex, varied collection that supports the information needs of the entire community it serves. Libraries should continue to provide its patrons access to diverse forms of information, and do so in a way that enables patrons to develop or use skills that they need to function in society as a whole. For example, basic computer skills are necessary for most jobs today, and is a skill set often assumed to be known and understood–even though there are millions of people who don’t know how to use a computer. Libraries make it free and accessible for anyone to learn to use a computer… to help them find books (or movies, or music, or something through Google, or whatever it is they’re looking for).

Books comprise one piece of a complex, accessible, varied, progressive system within a library, and it is that system which will keep libraries as necessary as ever to support communities and, ultimately, society as a whole.

“Owning the bone” by With Associates is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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