Rooting library services in the people

One thing that I’ve learned from my ongoing research into Toronto’s settlement house libraries is that libraries that thrive are libraries that:

  1. Have passionate, dedicated staff members who are always ready to champion the cause of the library.
  2. Don’t focus so much on judging people for what they pick up and read, but ensuring that good — albeit sometimes overlooked — literature is available for when readers are ready to discover those works;
  3. Have staff who observe first-hand the wants — and needs — of the community they serve. This means keeping eyes and ears open at all times, really listening and watching what is happening.

An observation that brings me joy as a current-day librarian is that early settlement house workers valued professional librarians, and wanted them as a partner for managing the settlement house libraries.  When the Toronto Public Library initially declined one of the settlement house’s invitation, board members decided to send one of their settlement workers to professional library school, so that they could have a knowledgeable, informed, and skilled librarian — rather than a volunteer, however well-meaning and educated he/she might have been — making decisions regarding the library collection and its services (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1484, Series 1670, File 8).  This was the position of social workers, not librarians!

The last settlement house library in Toronto (based at St. Christopher House, now renamed West Neighbourhood House) closed in 1959.  The official explanation from the Toronto Public Library, as found in their annual report for that year, was that St. Christopher House’s renovations no longer allowed for space for the TPL.  The official explanation from St. Christopher House was that it could not offer as much space as the TPL requested.  Who initiated the end of the settlement house/public library partnership is unclear, but what is clear is that by mid-20th century, the TPL had set its sights on expanding and strengthening its system of neighbourhood branches.  In the case of the St. Christopher House library, the TPL integrated the collection into the new Manning Boys and Girls Branch, which the TPL had organized in partnership with the Board of Education.  (Side note: School libraries operated by the TPL also seem to have fallen out of favour.)

For their part, settlement houses in Canada and the U.S. were overhauling their mission and programs.  In some cases, as in Hull House in Chicago, the board in charge of the settlement decided to disband the house altogether, compelling its community to accept a decentralized model of participation in social services.

When I think about the settlement house workers’ determination in the late 1910s to engage professional librarians to set-up and run their libraries, I think of how much has remained constant.  Yes, technologies and societal norms change, but libraries still need information resources. Simply gathering information resources into a space does not, however, make a library.  A space without the types of information resources that support the people it purports to serve is no longer a library, just as a space without librarians is not a library, however co-opted the latter word may be.

Transition from student to professional

This past week I found myself stepping into the role of “mentor”. Project leader, supervisor, or teacher, I have now had experience with, but mentor is a label that I am still learning to adjust to. My surprise comes from the fact that it has only been 3 years since I earned my Masters degree — and 2 years since I began my current position as supervisor of collection development and cataloguing. Yet, as I spend more time with current LIS students, I realize that the transition from librarian-in-training to bona fide librarian is an experience in itself.

From the shadowing student I met on Wednesday to the incoming Masters students that I spoke with at Thursday night’s Meet and Greet, all were interested to hear about my work, and even more interested when they learned that (1) I am an alumna of the school, and (2) I graduated pretty recently.

So what have I been able to share about being a “next gen” librarian?

Think broadly .

I enrolled in the Information Studies program because I knew I would gain a set of really useful, employable skills, and not because I had the absolute intention of becoming a librarian.

In grad school, I took a variety of courses from public services, reference, to technical services. I took courses geared towards various types of libraries, and wasn’t afraid to enroll in courses just for fun, like Readers’ Advisory. I made sure that my coursework as a whole included both theoretical and practical components.

Since graduation, I’ve found that I have been able to use something from almost every class I took, in the job that I do now. My background in history and political science, from my pre-LIS days, has also been useful.

Be open to any opportunity.

After graduation, I accepted two short-term project contracts. Even though they were 5 months and 6 months long, with no promise of permanence, I took them on because of the experience that they would provide me. Accepting those contracts turned out to be some of the best decisions I’ve ever made: my performance during those contracts opened the door to my current position.

Find a mentor.

Someone who understands what it is like to be just starting out as an academic librarian is a definite must in a mentor, but he/she must also be someone who encourages you to go beyond your comfort zone.

Embrace the challenges.

Speaking of comfort zones, every new experience is an opportunity to build new skills and become a stronger professional. Ever since I started working as a librarian, I have jumped into things that have been terrifying, but ultimately rewarding. From approaching faculty, to writing for the masses, to presenting at conferences, to teaching, to running weekly tutorials, I have learned that a little fear at the beginning is never a bad thing. Overcoming the fear is a prize in itself!