A couple days ago someone posed a question to me regarding the “modern day advantage of a librarian” in the digital age. I wrote a blog entry to share my answer, but there’s so much more to say. Here are a few more thoughts…

Librarians defend intellectual freedom. There are countless instances where librarians have defended our right to read questionable or controversial materials. Going back to JS Mill’s “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” suppressing an opinion or information resource is not conducive to creating an informed public. That’s why, despite someone’s personal convictions or beliefs, all information must be shared and available. The American Library Association has an Office of Intellectual Freedom that exists to “educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries” (website). Librarians stand behind the Library Bill of Rights, which states that “all libraries are forums for information and ideas.” The BoR basically outlines our beliefs about how people should have unrestricted access to materials. Even for young people, it is not the librarian’s job to prohibit or promote access, but the parents’. Robots cannot do this. The internet cannot do this. But librarians can. When I consider the evolution of children’s and young adult literature – the “safe” stories that used to exist for children, and their gradual evolution from stories such as Go Ask Alice to today’s Speak and Crack and Barefoot Gen and other books that depict horrific but real tragedies – I can’t help also thinking about the people who’ve tried to censor them, and the librarians who’ve fought for these stories to stay on the shelves. Young people don’t live in a bubble; their stories should reflect this.

Librarians educate. In both formal and informal ways, librarians are educators. They provide classes on many different topics, ranging from how to use computers to how to file taxes to how to do genealogy searches. A recent article in The Chronicle reports that academic librarians “put increasing value on their role in support of student learning.” Librarians are not mere custodians (well, not “mere,” – they do SO MUCH custodial work), they are also educators. According to the article, which is based on a survey, they “also put more emphasis on the library’s importance as a gateway to information.” Access to information. Librarians provide and facilitate and promote access because…

Librarians advocate. They advocate for intellectual freedom, for access to information and ideas and resources, they advocate for funding, for the right to read, for programming, for everything that helps build healthy and informed communities. And these things matter because if libraries don’t provide them, who will?

Tonight, my LIS 7530 Internet Fundamentals and Design class discussed equity as it relates to internet access. One example they shared was that a community that is stuck in the cycle of poverty is likely to have a higher percentage of disabilities; but this itself turns into a cycle of disabilities because that community is less likely to have access to the health information resources to learn more about self-care, options, etc. and and the health care necessary for diagnosis, treatment, recovery etc. It’s a vicious cycle, literally a life and death issue. Librarians can be powerful advocates in this regard. A health services or medical librarian can provide appropriate resources, do programming informing communities of healthy living habits etc., and act as a portal to other health resources, information centers, clinics, hospitals, etc. These things might also be available online, but how is a poorer community that doesn’t have adequate computer and internet access going to go online?

Public libraries are not just for the poor and disenfranchised and under educated. I consider myself middle class and well educated, and I go to our downtown public library pretty much every 2 weeks to check out books, attend programs and events, and just read. The assistant program director of my MLIS program has been visiting all our local St. Paul public libraries over the past couple of months. Now she’s ready to hit all the Minneapolis libraries. This morning I overheard her telling our dean about the wonderful and helpful assistance provided by all the librarians she encountered. It was heartening to hear that locally our librarians are providing wonderful service with good attitudes, despite the cuts in funding, the lack of faith in the profession, the overloaded shifts.

In 2010, Library Journal reported the dismal outlook for MLIS graduates. Job seekers said, “Fieldwork and internships aided in putting classroom learning into practice and exposed grads to potential employers,” suggesting that the actual work experience and preparation acquired by potential employees was crucial to their attainment of a job. This means that libraries are incredibly selective about who they hire, not only because job openings are down while applications are up, but also because the work librarians do is tremendously important, so much so that they want their future employees to bring both theory and practice into their new jobs.

Another side of the same coin – interestingly, only a year earlier in 2009, US News & World Report ranked “librarian” as one of the best careers. The article said “Librarianship is an underrated career,” and then sort of described some of the idyllic aspects of the job, but also more realistically pointed out, “More and more of today’s librarians must be clever interrogators, helping the patron to reframe their question more usefully. Librarians then become high-tech information sleuths, helping patrons plumb the oceans of information available in books and digital records, often starting with a clever Google search but frequently going well beyond.”

Leigh Estabrook, former dean of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, says “Libraries are socialist institutions in capitalist societies.” How true. And therein lies the conflict: the capitalists don’t want to fund the socialist institutions. But these socialist institutions are a vital part of all our communities.

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