Librarians have always been a wee bit paranoid, but for years our distrust pretty much clustered around two obsessions.
First, there was the Rodney Dangerfield “we don’t get no respect” issue. This is the nadir of library paranoia, and it assumes many variations. No one understands what we do. The public doesn’t know we have master’s degrees. Everyone thinks we just read all day, except when we stamp out books. That we are a gendered profession with historically low salaries, the struggle for tenure, and the deprofessionalization of school librarians all relate to the respect problem.
Then there was our “image” problem: librarians are almost always portrayed as uptight schoolmarms—bun-coiffed, quick to shush, and frigid (except when she was the flip stereotype—nympho). Every representation in the popular media was subject to deep analysis (and usually complaint), as though Parker Posey in Party Girl is code for what the world really thinks of us. Over the years we’ve learned to relax, if only because we have had to: the media images are flying at us frequently, and often they are contradictory. Those were the good old days. Today, paranoia sprouts up in library circles like dandelions after a good spring rain. But are we librarians really being paranoid—that is, showing an “exceptional or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness,” per Merriam-Webster’s definition—or is our distrust, well, rational?
I’ve taken some of the top issues causing library anxiety and rated them using the Homeland Security Advisory System, which ranks threat levels on a scale that begins with “low” and ranges through “guarded,” “elevated,” “high,” and finally “severe.”
No One is Hiring New Librarians
This issue has been around since the early 2000s, when it became clear that “the great librarian retirement wave” was proving to be a chimera.
It looks like things are improving slightly, however, with an uptick in hiring—especially for new jobs with the word “digital” in their descriptions. Still, many new librarians are patching together a living from part-time and paraprofessional work, waiting for their big break.
While I feel for new librarians, my real concern is libraries, and public libraries in particular. In my consortium of 38 libraries, I don’t think there’s been one full-time-librarian vacancy this year. Check out most libraries, and by and large you will see a staff that’s been in place for 20–25 years, whose members share a similar vision of what libraries, and librarians, are capable of.
I certainly mean no disrespect to the old-timers! But I believe that if there is one thing that is placing libraries at risk, it is this inability to hire young librarians and allow them to transform our organizations. As 20- and 30-somethings recreate the world we live in—especially the area we butt up against most frequently: technology—my fear is that libraries, already slow to change, risk falling off the map. Threat level: Severe
Hail to the Chief Innovator?
I once had a boss who taught me that the job of a library wasn’t to hire librarians, but to provide the very best library service. Tough love, but he was right.
Libraries benefit enormously from those who’ve worked outside our little world, especially in areas like marketing and communications, fundraising, and technology. In fact, all organizations need to reach outside to grow. Just think how much better Kathleen Sebelius would sleep if she had hired the folks from Zappos to build HealthCare.gov.
But these days, people are being brought into libraries not to work with us, but to upend us—often disregarding our mission or the contract we have with our users. Some are hired as consultants, others are billed as strategists or given the pretentious moniker “chief innovation officers.” They know nothing about our business, and have precious little time to learn it. After all, this is just a library, how hard can it be?
The paradigm they often create is an unfortunate one: they innovate, we obstruct. When they discover that interlibrary loan costs $25 a transaction, the reaction is immediate: “Mon dieu! Just buy the book.” Try and explain what “out-of-print” means and you’ll be asked for a white paper to help bring them up to speed on the concept.
If I seem too harsh about strategists, it’s because I’ve witnessed the worst of their work: library systems denuded of librarians, branches left as little more than hollow lending stations. The librarians, with their soft skills and nonquantifiable outcomes, barely stood a chance. Threat level: Elevated
No Fear Like the Fear of Success
Nothing haunts librarians more than fear of failure—except fear of success. We can’t promise the public we’ll purchase the materials they request, because we’d be inundated. We can’t have a Minecraft program for teens—what if too many come? Are we expected to provide reference services to the hundreds of people in our university’s MOOC classes? We can’t market our homebound program, people might use it.
The fear is that if a program becomes too successful, it will take additional resources to support it. Which means that some resources—funding, staff, or both—will have to shift toward the successful program. In fact, if it really takes off, we may need to drop some of our other programs altogether.
In business, it’s pretty simple. If you have a product or service that’s really succeeding in the market, you scale up to meet the demand. If you have to reorganize to support the new service, you do so. But libraries often don’t scale up well, because there is almost nothing we will stop doing.
Fear of success holds us back, stops us from making a lot of people happy, and limits the impact we can have on our communities. At its worst, it blankets everything we do with a Soviet-like level of mediocrity. Threat level: High
We're Being Left Behind
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and other services that provide easy and sometimes low-cost access to digital content have ushered in their own age of anxiety. With ready access to so much material, librarians worry, who will ever need us? Plenty of people, it turns out—and not just the poor or the miserly.
In fact, in many public libraries, circulation continues to climb. It could be that circulation really is king, as Bill Gates posited, and library users are a whole lot more format-agnostic than anyone thought. Also, streaming video has yet to be the wunderkind we expected. Library users report that they are unhappy with what’s available to stream, hate browsing on sites like Netflix, and aren’t always happy with the quality when they do stream.
Libraries, too, might benefit from the success of Netflix and Amazon as they become content creators, and not just distributors (think House of Cards). With so much darn stuff on the market, who can afford to access it all? Certainly not retirees, the unemployed and underemployed, teens, college students, the working class, and single parents—just to name a few. At my library, I’m encountering samplers—users who try out a series through the library before they decided to sign up for a subscription service or buy something via pay-per-view.
I’m betting that the continual changes in content—both production and distribution—will keep library circulation in business for a good while yet. Threat Level: Guarded
Our 15 Minutes?
Google the phrase “future of libraries” and you’ll be presented with hits ranging from essays by Neal Gaiman and Seth Godin to features in national magazines and on local news stations. Most remarkably, many of the pieces were published in the last few weeks. And they all have one thing in common: the authors are trying to sort out the meaning of libraries in our time.
Google “future of nursing” and you’ll find articles from nursing journals and professional associations. The difference is stark: nurses care about the future of nursing, the world cares about the future of libraries.
Since libraries have been craving exactly this sort of attention for years, you would think we’d be thrilled. Not exactly—if anything the attention has made librarians, who are quick to find faults in most articles, even edgier. And when a really dumb article comes out, like when Forbes, in one of its click-bait features, pronounced the M.L.S. as the worst degree for jobs, the profession goes into a collective depression. But let’s keep this in perspective: there’s a national conversation happening about libraries, and while we can contribute to it, we can’t control it. After taking us for granted for so long, Americans are suddenly sitting up, taking stock of us, and trying to understand our role in their future. Let’s listen to what they have to say.
In fact, listening may be the best thing we can do. In a surveillance-ridden, consumer-focused, privacy-threatened world, what libraries offer is more radical than ever. And what we are starting to hear may surprise us: respect.
Threat Level: Low