Most people’s knowledge of librarianship is a mash-up of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set, some warm and fuzzy memories from an elementary school class visit, Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even fuzzier memories of all-nighters in their college libraries, and maybe a high-minded article or two about the Digital Public Library of America.
If this sounds familiar, don’t be embarrassed. Librarianship is a notoriously opaque profession, and most Americans have about as much understanding of what we do as they have of cloistered nuns, or actuaries.
Here’s the first shocker: most professional-level library positions require a masters in library or information science, most commonly known as “the M.L.S.” Since the M.L.S. involves a serious commitment of time and money, then you better be doubly sure that this is the right decision, at least for the next decade or two.
Fortunately, librarians are the original oversharers, and they’ve produced a body of literature—from blogs posts to articles to books—to help you with your decision. This is especially useful since librarians come in different stripes—public, academic, school, special—with some significant differences among them. Librarians also conduct a lot of their professional lives online, so blogs, Twitter, and e-mail lists are all great places to soak up information.
But before you wade into all that content, here are some important issues that anyone thinking about library work should know. Some of you may find that one or two of these are deal breakers and decide to head in a different direction, while others will be intrigued enough to continue their research on the field. Although these notes are rooted in my experiences in public libraries, the issues resonate throughout all libraries.
You Had Me at “Hello”
Let’s be honest. At one time, librarianship was a beacon for misanthropes. Forty-year-olds whose best friends were still imaginary, or whose inner voices screamed, “Leave me the hell alone!”
I hate to go negative so fast, but if this is you, then you’re out of luck. Libraries still attract their share of eccentrics, and thank God for that. But the opportunities to hide in some remote cubicle under an “I’d Rather Be Reading” bumper sticker are quickly dwindling and—in public libraries, at least—entirely gone. As funding has declined, libraries have outsourced many back-office functions so that resources can go where they are most needed: helping people.
Librarianship today is about greeting each customer (in person or online) and making sure that his or her library visit is one of the best experiences of the day. Most importantly, it’s about listening to our users’ needs and connecting them with the information, resources, and services that can help them get on with their lives.
Librarianship isn’t about what we have; it’s about what we do. It’s taken us a while to realize that our full shelves (or loaded databases) aren’t our greatest value. It’s human interaction: over the reference desk, through informal one-on-one instruction, in teaching a workshop or facilitating a program, and by enabling conversations, bringing people together, and building communitywide experiences. While most people may no longer have the sort of informational needs they once did, today’s public looks to us for help in resolving a host of other issues, often fueled by technology, changes in the workplace, or shifts in the economy.
Not every library job entails direct customer service. But no matter your title, chances are you’ll be spending at least part of each week with the public.Does this mean every librarian is an extrovert? Hardly. Most of us are still introverts, me included; we’ve just developed the skills that allow us to meet and greet with the best of them. See Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking for tips.
Are You Ready for a Redesign?
Libraries were created in a world that no longer exists, and in many ways we remain true to that lost world. Here’s an easy example: take a look at your typical public library’s code of conduct—many of which are longer than some countries’ penal codes. Does banning cell phones, talking, food, and drink really make sense? Can we expect to survive when our standards for behavior are so divergent from those of the rest of society?
Over time, the public library—like a lot of institutions—got better at sustaining itself than its users. Today, many public libraries are flipping the model and redesigning themselves so that they’re centered on the lives of their customers (see Aaron Schmidt’s usablelibrary.org). This isn’t easy, and it touches upon nearly every aspect of the library, from our collections to our Web site, from our physical space to the services we offer, and from our hours to how we utilize staff. While some point to the decline in public funding or the rise in e-books as upending public libraries, I like to believe that it’s this focus on the user experience that is driving change.
What does this mean for those coming to work in libraries? It means, in the words of the great librarian S.R. Ranganathan, that the organization you’ve joined is “a growing organism.” It means that the job you’ve signed on for will morph and change over the next few years. It means that as libraries align their resources to their publics’ needs, there will be discomfort among some staff members who see activities or collections they treasure replaced by new policies and services.
It’s also a time of tremendous creativity, and if you join the right public library you’ll have a chance to reinvent one of our country’s most valued institutions—and not a minute too soon. Borges may have imagined that Paradise was a kind of library, but it’s unlikely that taxpayers will continue to fund libraries they find to be a kind of hell.
Click on any article about library careers, and you’ll be beaten over the head with the notion that you need to be really, really adept with technology to succeed as a “21st-century librarian.” And that’s good, because, well, is anyone is finding work as a 19th-century librarian?
What these articles mean by the term “technology” is never clear: social networking, basic office software, Web development, database design, digital content? But the message is that libraries are no longer just about books.
In the last decade, there’s been a huge push for public libraries (and, by extension, librarians) to increase their digital footprint. This includes building user-friendly Web sites, adding services like chat reference and text messaging, participating in a variety of social media platforms, and creating apps that can support a range of activities, from downloading e-books to operating as self-checkout devices.
A library would be foolish not to utilize all the technology it can to reach its users. But the fact is, our users aren’t tripping over themselves to follow their public library on Twitter. And can you blame them? They have enough to do keeping up with Ashton Kutcher and Shakira. In fact, it appears as though our customers aren’t much interested in anything we’re doing with technology, except for e-books.
What customers do want us to do is help them integrate technology into their lives. This includes everything from assistance with an e-book reader to advice on digitizing photos from a 1986 class reunion. A customer may need help using Word to create his or her first resume in 20 years, or learning how to embed a video in a presentation, or downloading Skype in order to chat with a grandchild.
If you go to work in a public library, you need some measure of technological fluency. Every library should have a baseline expectation of the hardware and software staff members need to know. Some of this you may have to learn, but much will be second nature to you (help with e-mail attachments is huge). And this core knowledge will change and change often—we’re talking about technology, after all—and you’ll need support to come up to speed with newer developments.
Still, yes, there are books, and technology aside, you’d be crazy to step on the floor of a public library without knowing what’s on the bestseller lists, and why those books have landed there. Maybe even more important is knowing the DVD release dates for major films and TV series.
Yes, libraries need full-blown geeks, pushing the boundaries of what we can do. But we need a whole lot more: a librarian who has read every dystopian novel and can provide teens with brilliant recommendations; another who spent the weekend binge-viewing House of Cards and knows exactly the audience it will appeal to. Finally, we need the librarian whose eyes are trained outside the building, looking into the community for experts and enthusiasts, creators and communicators, and making them a part of what we offer.
As soon as you publicly identify as a librarian-to-be, you’ll start getting the question: aren’t libraries obsolete? The voices asking this question have grown to a crescendo with the advent of 3G phones and ubiquitous information, and as e-books became popular and media has started streaming. But the question is never about the services we offer, but rather about the “stuff” we manage.
If you decide to pursue a career in libraries, I suggest that you start thinking about this question now. It’s one you’ll come up against throughout your work life—not just from a cranky uncle or former college roommate, but also more subtly from funders, members of city council, and the mayor. For years the question made me defensive. Now I’m happy to launch into a conversation about the difference that libraries make in people’s lives, with services that go well beyond circulating content.
No one takes on this issue better than R. David Lankes in The Atlas of New Librarianship—our profession’s Finnegans Wake. The mission of librarians, according to Lankes, is to “improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” I’d unpack that as saying librarians enable learning, which as any librarian will tell you is common practice. It’s so common, in fact, that we never seemed to notice. Now it’s the story we need to tell.