Library Myth #1: Librarians Are Just Clerks

by Penny G. Mattern on June 15, 2011

“When I was a kid, they used to predict that by the year 2000, you’d be able to go to the moon. Nobody ever thought to predict that you’d be able to, but nobody would bother.” — Roger Ebert in his review of the film Apollo 13.

Indifference seems to be the besetting sin of the early third millennium. Attitudes today towards libraries fall into this category. As Joni Mitchell warned us, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Nowadays there are a lot of myths floating around about libraries, mostly having to do with imagined reasons why we don’t need them, shouldn’t maintain them, and should possibly do away with them.

If no one bothers to use a resource, it doesn’t mean the resource is valueless; just as likely, it means the potential users are indifferent to their own well-being and don’t care enough to use it, or even to find out what it can do for them and for their kids.

Communities who want their kids to get into better schools make sure that their libraries are kept at top quality. Communities that give up on their libraries are giving up on themselves.

Myth: Librarians are just overpaid and underworked clerks and should be replaced by minimum-wage workers.

People who say librarians are just clerks who could be replaced by minimum-wage workers apparently haven’t visited a library lately, or wondered who set up the collections and maintained them, set up the programs and community services, and made the library into an intellectual and cultural haven for anyone in the library’s audience (town, city, school, university, corporation, etc.)

I’ve already talked about this briefly in one of my own blogs, here. Here’s the direct link to the post on Librarian Avengers.

Now read this: the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts — and that’s certainly true for libraries. Matched gemstones, for instance, are worth more together than the single stones in the set — but matching them takes time, the time to collect them, hold them, with the end in mind of having that greater set, rather than just selling off the individual stones as they are acquired. Persuade a customer to acquire such a set, stone by stone, with an eye on future value, and both jeweler and customer gain.

Something like that — although not usually in monetary terms — is what it means to have a library collection in a town. Librarians are the people who create this value. Libraries are not bookstores. They are collections. The value comes from the choices and the long term care and planning made by librarians. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It has to be built slowly, with people filling in the back stock as well as the new items (not just books). Once it gets built, you have to sustain it, not by making it bigger, necessarily, but by continuing useful trends or updating current works. You can weed out books now and then, but not necessarily just because they are older or less used.

Libraries have severely limited budgets, and librarians’ salaries are already low. But librarians are your bulwark against censorship, and the gateway to making sure that collections remain free and are actually balanced — reflecting as many sides of an issue as possible. Librarians can’t buy every book, but there’s a difference between selection and censorship:

No library can make everything available, and selection decisions must be made. Selection is an inclusive process, where the library affirmatively seeks out materials which will serve its mission of providing a broad diversity of points of view and subject matter. By contrast, censorship is an exclusive process, by which individuals or institutions seek to deny access to or otherwise suppress ideas and information because they find those ideas offensive and do not want others to have access to them. There are many objective reasons unrelated to the ideas expressed in materials that a library might decide not to add those materials to its collection: redundancy, lack of community interest, expense, space, etc. Unless the decision is based on a disapproval of the ideas expressed and desire to keep those ideas away from public access, a decision not to select materials for a library collection is not censorship.

Context in a collection means a lot. For instance, libraries often have small collections about items of local interest: history of the area, historical buildings, derivation of names in the area. In an art museum library, one open to the public for consultation, you may find old copies of Baedeker, a travel guide. People who don’t understand how such books can be used will say, “Here are a lot of old books, and this library is squeezed for space; why don’t you get rid of them? Nobody wants a travel guide to Rome or Berlin or London in 1913.”

But in the context of a private art library or for historical research, those books are highly valuable. What buildings of architectural interest were extant in 1913? What statues and fountains and monuments were there? Many, given the course of history, that aren’t there today. And what were the museums and art collections then? And what was in them?

The old Baedekers aren’t just a way to take a guided tour down memory lane, they’re also a tool for finding out what’s happened to works of art, or at least what was where before it dropped off the map. They’re a valuable tool for the museum staff, the primary audience of that art library. The art museum collected them each year, back when they were new, and has kept them ever since — and they’ve been used, over and over, not frequently, but as needed over the years. Librarians have known about the Long Tail long before the Internet or computers were dreamed of.

These travel guides may not be as useful in a public library — unless it’s a very large one. But other local items might be. Why is there a street called “Castle” in one town I know, when there’s no castle anywhere to be seen, and no family name Castle appears prominently in the history of the area? While some information on this can be found by searching the internet, the full information is only available in old printed books of the time — showing pictures of the area, including a Girls’ Institute that was there in the 19th century, now gone, that was nicknamed The Castle, because it looked like one to residents of the time. The building has been gone for nearly a century now, and without that local collection, there would be no good way to find out details about it. The street name becomes simply that, a name, a random word. How much of our history and knowledge are we willing to sacrifice, to lose?

A good collection, built slowly, and in the right place when needed, is the power of the library. Once gone, it is irreplaceable. And it is trained librarians, not just clerks, who build collections and libraries, and maintain them.

It is possible to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing — and outsmart yourself in the process.

The Library Myth #1: Librarians Are Just Clerks by Penny G. Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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