A great column in defence of libraries

The Globe and Mail published a great column online by Ian Brown on Friday, called “Don’t discard the librarians”. (The column was also published in Saturday’s print edition.) In the opinion piece, the author begins by outlining recent challenges against the library as an institution. These events include the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board’s decision to cut its school libraries, the University of Denver Library’s decision to move 80% of its collection into storage, and a verbal public statement made by the McMaster University Chief Librarian that he would be hiring only IT staff and post-doctoral fellows in lieu of librarians in the foreseeable future. Not having been part of these communities, I don’t know all the details behind these decisions; I can only hope that the local administrators were doing what they felt, at the time, to be the best solution for their institution.

Ian Brown goes on to write about his visits to various branches of the Toronto Public Library, and his interviews with librarians at the University of Toronto Libraries (my home system!). More importantly, he talks to a random user of the library. I thought the latter conversation yielded one of the most moving arguments in favour of keeping libraries:

On my way home from the library I encountered a young woman about to graduate high school (social niceties of high-school life prevented her from letting me use her name), who loves to do her homework in the newly renovated Gerstein science library at the University of Toronto because she loves to be surrounded “by other people who love school work” – a lovely, lonely longing that found solace in a library. Why is that deemed a luxury by digital boosters who insist on a shrunken, depopulated data hub? Information is abstract, but the mind is ultimately physical, human (Brown, 2011).

It was also good to see Ian Brown include facts that those who work outside of libraries don’t always know. Subscriptions for online resources, the ones that Google can’t provide for free, are extremely expensive (over tens of thousands of dollars for some titles), and require huge budgets and good systems in place to maintain. Even if an institution can afford to buy or subscribe to a good collection of digital material, users still need to learn how to navigate through them–how to assess and choose the most appropriate resources for any given context. Teaching people how to do all this, as he points out, has always been the librarian’s domain, and this role is very much still needed as the universe of information expands.

The column is eloquently written, and ironically brings me back to a refrain that I hear a lot nowadays–that an academic library that wants to remain relevant must stop trying to protect “the institution” and, by corollary, redundant, antiquated traditions. While I appreciate the concern over irrelevance, I don’t think we will reach that point so long as we continue to prove through words and actions the reasons for preserving our places of learning; our collections, be they print, online, or some other format not yet prototyped; the people, who keep the operations running smoothly; and defending the public’s right to access learning and acquire knowledge. Certainly, streamlining practices in the name of progress cannot be done in one fell swoop (or even a few swoops). At the heart of progress, we have to think about who we are serving, and what society stands to lose when the future scholars, entrepreneurs, and leader we educate no longer know how to assess information for credibility and authoritativeness. What kind of thoughtful, democratic society would we then be nurturing?

One thing that is probably not so evident from Ian Brown’s column is that librarians don’t work in isolation from other professionals. My co-workers are a mix of librarians, library technicians, and IT staff. Cliché-ed as this sounds, we bring different perspectives to meetings, contribute unique strengths and skill sets to projects, and collaborate in the teaching experience, whether as guest lecturers, course associates, presenters, or behind-the-scenes assistance.

At the library that I work, my co-workers and I try very hard to create a space that is welcoming for students with a variety of study needs, from those who require a more social atmosphere, to those who want to study individually while sitting in groups, and those who need absolute quiet. We also try hard to be physically around, to get to know the students and faculty who pass through our doors, and to support them as much as we can through their research and classroom activities. We are always listening for user feedback, not only because we want to know what we might be doing wrong so that we can correct our ways, but because we also want to know what we are doing right so that we can do more of it. Specific comments change from year to year, but certain themes resurface perennially. For instance, one theme that has cropped up again and again is that our students appreciate us because we make time to show them how things are done (or can be done better), we listen, and we care about their success. They also appreciate the physical space because they know it is their space, and they know that everything that we have put in there have been put in for them.

For further reading, please check out:

Brown, I. (2011). Don’t discard the librarians. The Globe and Mail, Friday, May 20, 2011 online edition. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/kHkRuy.

Librarian heroes?

Today I catalogued a book called The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Yes, it is a children’s book, and yes, my Faculty library does collect children’s books — but only if they deal with the information profession.

Like a number of other works that I select for the library, The Librarian of Basra came to my attention in a circuitous way. One of our interns had told me about Alia’s Mission by Mark Stamaty, a graphic novel about a real-life librarian who tried to save her collection during the Iraq war. Another library on our campus had already purchased a copy, but I learned that a picture book had also been published about the same librarian and the same heroic deed that she had performed. None of the libraries on campus had it. I was determined to get a copy, in the hopes that more future librarians will learn about this story.

Flipping through Winter’s work, I was captivated by the vibrant illustrations. The language, too, was fascinating — because even though the words were fairly simple, the tone was sophisticated. For instance, on the second page, Winter writes:

Her library is a meeting place for all who love books.

They discuss matters of the world

and matters of the spirit.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, she was the chief librarian at the library of Basra. When war broke out in Iraq in 2003, she had the foresight to rescue the books before the war destroyed the library. Enlisting the help of family, neighbours, the nearby restaurant owner, and his friends, they managed to save 70% of the collection before the armies arrived and the library burned down.

The story makes me think of how much librarians admire, aspire, and dream of being superheroes.

Another book that I recently picked up, out of sheer curiosity, was The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines: the Graphic Novel. It’s not based on real life, except in so far as it derives its story from legends we know. Its main character is a librarian who spends more time “rescuing” mythical artifacts and dodging bad guys in exotic locations than answering research questions.

In both of these stories, the heroic aspect of each librarian’s deed is very much rooted in saving cultural heritage by rescuing objects of culture. But The Librarian… the Graphic Novel took it a bit too far. The protagonist was clearly collecting for the sake of possessing them — in other words, war trophies — with barely a second thought to context or users.  I just wasn’t sure whether it was the image we want to be promoting.

We do so much more than collect physical items; and when we do collect anything, we do it with the thought of users and research in mind. I love books, and I love looking at objects in galleries and museums, and I love the stories that they tell. But we who work in libraries also know that we do much more than acquire. I like to think that the heroic part of our work lies in the act of helping our users (be they students, faculty, or the casual scholar) discover knowledge — and sometimes, in generating new knowledge of our own that builds upon the growing universe of information.