Q: As we head toward the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, we’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the library profession. We regularly read stories in the press about the future of libraries and their relevance, about the impact of e-books and technological developments, as well as funding struggles and other difficulties. You teach in a library school—can you tell us a little about your students? What draws people to the profession, and despite the problems facing libraries, how do the students you encounter see the future of libraries, as well as their careers?

A: I adore my students at the University of Washington’s Information School, where I teach two to three quarters each year. The two classes I offer are “Adult Services in the Public Library” and “Genres for Adult Readers.” However, given my strong dislike of ghettoizing certain types of books and my strong feelings about using a library’s whole collection, not just the fiction section, for Readers’ Advisory, the course probably should be called “Deconstructing Genres for Adult Readers.”

The students in my classes come from varied backgrounds. Some start the MLIS program right after they’ve completed their undergraduate work, while others have come to the library and information world with other degrees and work experience on their résumés. For example, one of my students this quarter has degrees in both law and pharmacy and plans to be a health services librarian. Many of my students majored in English literature, of course, but I’ve also had students who majored in everything from microbiology to linguistics. Some of the students have always been devoted, habitual, and addicted readers. Others took the classes because they wanted to expand their reading into new areas. Still others wanted to recapture their childhood love of reading, which had been dormant for the years they were in high school and college.

In general, my students are bright, intellectually curious, very tech savvy, thoughtful (in all senses of the word), and possessed of a strong orientation toward customer service.

From talking to my students (and being on the admissions committee at the Information School last year), I’ve realized there’s no single answer to the question of what draws people to the library profession. My students are certainly motivated by a desire to level the information playing field—to make the Internet available to those who can’t afford such access in their homes—as well as to help people find the specific information they need to become employed, to become happier, to satisfy an intellectual itch, to fill in a crossword puzzle clue, to help their babies sleep through the night.

And then, there’s the jobs question. With regard to jobs, I think my students realize, given the current state of the economy and of the profession, this is not an ideal time to go job hunting—for anyone. Luckily, many of the students I know best have gotten jobs, even in today’s market, thank goodness. But even though the job market may be difficult, I find that library students are committed to the belief that libraries are important to our society, and will continue to be so.

Q:With the proliferation of e-books and e-content, public librarians are getting many more patrons who want help downloading e-books and digital audiobooks from the library. Do you have any thoughts on how we can manage all these requests with so many different types of portable devices out there, especially when many public libraries do not have the funds to purchase all the devices for staff training purposes, and librarians’ salaries do not necessarily allow for the personal purchasing of all these tools?

—Nathalie Harty, via e-mail

A: This is, I think, really a question of resource allocation—and a question that has to be answered by each individual library system according to its priorities and the resources available to meet those priorities. Most library systems today have set a high priority on providing downloadable e-books and digital audiobooks, because that’s what so many of their patrons want.

In my experience, it’s not the devices, it’s the actual checkout that causes problems for patrons looking to use digital resources. The mechanism by which the library “checks out” e-books and downloadable audiobooks is, of course, the library’s online catalogue. Librarians play a fairly traditional role in selecting downloadable materials and in guiding readers in the direction of books they might like or find useful (although I think we need to do much more of the latter). But what’s not traditional with digital materials is the checkout process. Seldom did you find a patron who was confused by the checkout process when it entailed nothing more than taking a physical book or other materials to a staff person at the circulation desk and producing a library card. Any confusion that did exist could usually be resolved by pointing a finger. Even with the increasingly popular self-checkout systems, confusion on a patron’s part can usually be resolved quite easily with a simple explanation and demonstration, well within the capacity of virtually any library staff member.

Unfortunately, using the online catalogue to check out digital materials is a bit (or more than a bit) complicated. Obviously, the instructions for downloading digital materials, including specific instructions for the various platforms available to the patron, need to be written as clearly as possible. If there are indications that large numbers of library users are having difficulty accessing digital materials, I’d suggest offering regular classes that explain the how-to of downloading digital material.

But with more people having more questions about digital readers, perhaps it makes sense to have a staff member “on duty” certain times of the day who, through whatever combination of natural ability, inclination, and past training, can explain the various devices, procedures, and tools. If this is not an option, you might also think of using a volunteer in this capacity. If there’s nobody like that available on staff or if use of volunteers in this way violates provisions of the library’s labor-management agreement, then library management must simply decide whether to devote existing resources to hiring and/or training staff. And that, finally, brings us back to resource allocation.

Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Books to Read Before You Die: Great Dogs in Fiction

In some of my favorite novels (and one work of nonfiction), man’s best friend steals the show from the two-legged, human characters. These definitely can’t be considered “dog books,” but even when Mutt or Lucky doesn’t play the biggest part in the show, he’s the one you remember the best.

Lucky in the Corner by Carol Anshaw
Timbuktu by Paul Auster
The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll
The Man in the Window by Jon Cohen
Apologizing to Dogs by Joe Coomer
Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King
Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
The Man of the House by Stephen McCauley
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat
City by Clifford Simak