"Because their efforts can't be measured through financial success, and their results are often so frustratingly unquantifiable, libraries are an easy target."
I'm the new girl in library marketing. It took me a few years to get here. I stumbled out of college into Seattle's thriving Web 2.0 startup scene, until, after a brief stint at Google, I saw (cue choir of angels) a job posting that basically read: "talk to librarians about books." I had an apartment lined up before the publisher's HR department called with the offer. And so I landed in this intimate community of book stewards, in the midst of technological and financial upheaval. To quote my dad: "What an extraordinary time to get into books."
My first day on the job was at the January 2011 American Library Association Midwinter convention in San Diego. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. We're talking about a convention full of people who are experts in knowledge. Librarians were the Internet before there was an Internet. Fortunately, my previous employer had sent me to several conventions, so I had the expo-hall shtick down: wear comfortable shoes, smile big, deliver the pitch, and hand over the free wares—next!
The librarians, however, weren't having any of that. They didn't just want to snatch up a book and move on to the next booth; they wanted to know what I thought about the book. They wanted to know what other books were similar. And they wanted to know my name before knowing anything about the book in my hand. They may work in departments like collection development, but they don't simply accumulate materials, they curate their collections and cultivate community.
During that first convention I saw how intensely dedicated librarians need to be in order to stay current with each season's titles, their patrons' fluctuating tastes, and the ever-changing landscape of the publishing world. They do it all so they can spend their budgets wisely, recommend the right books, and build a solid collection to keep their readers reading.
But by my second library convention, it became clear to me that the work of these stewards was in jeopardy. Because their efforts can't be measured through financial success and their results are often so frustratingly unquantifiable, libraries are an easy target for federal, state, and local agencies charged with reducing budgets in tough economic times. The Queens Public Library system in New York, for example, circulates tens of millions of items each year to almost 800,000 active borrowers and yet may lose up to a third of its funding this year, costing hundreds of jobs, reducing hours, cutting programs, and potentially closing 14 community branches.
But most astonishingly, even with the threat of losing these vital resources, is the buoyant attitude I've encountered again and again. Librarians with reduced hours and stunted budgets, even librarians who have been laid off, are still traveling around the country to attend conventions on their own dime because it's a system they believe in and will continue to support.
To be clear, this resilience does not mean librarians are willing to stand idly by as their libraries suffer. When push comes to shove, they rally for the good of their libraries. Somehow they balance the struggle to be recognized for their value (and therefore continued funding) with genuine exuberance for new titles, new media, and the role of libraries going well into the future.
There's a reason bestselling authors like Karin Slaughter, John Scalzi, Ray Bradbury, Marilyn Johnson, and Scott Turow are speaking out in defense of libraries. In the Huffington Post Turow wrote: "Widespread public access to knowledge, like public education, is one of the pillars of our democracy, a guarantee that we can maintain a well-informed citizenry." Librarians are the first line of defense in keeping libraries from becoming a luxury.
In my short time working within this community I've seen the extraordinary passion and joy with which librarians approach their daunting jobs. They stick to their guns in an endless campaign to hold on to resources and funding. And I am honored to work with this group of relentless guardians who advocate for your right to read in the best of times and in the worst of times. Libraries need your help. Join me in supporting your local and national campaigns to preserve the vital work of librarians and the preservation of a literate and educated society.
Ali Fisher is assistant to the director of library marketing, Macmillan, Adult Trade.