While I was in the midst of this past week’s Library Day in the Life project, a colleague from our school board sent me this article, Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value by British author Phillip Pullman. I had planned on writing a piece on why the work librarians do needs to be better understood as libraries are besieged by challenges and cuts and the importance of the Library Day in the Life project. Pullman’s impassioned plea for the preservation of libraries provided a perfect springboard for this post.
Pullman pinpoints the heart of the issue:
Does he [Eric Pickles, the UK Communities and Local Government Secretary] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves?
Unfortunately, this is the perception of many. When I was pursuing my MLIS degree, an acquaintance expressed shock that there was such a program, asking, “Why do you need a degree?” Many see a librarian as one who checks out books, tidies the shelves and performs other clerical tasks. In a small-town setting, that’s often all they see. Even on this very simple scale, they don’t pause to consider how the books ended up on the shelves (some sort of random selection?), the rationale of their organization (and there are more classification systems than Dewey or Library of Congress), the policies and processes that govern the library, the record-keeping system (Cataloguing) and other such important systems that lie behind those shelves of books in the library.
In larger libraries there are larger issues and the systems are even more complex. There are librarians performing tasks so specialized that even an MLIS-trained professional would be faced with a steep learning curve.
On her website Sarah Mooney has generously shared the coursework and examples of assignments she undertook during her MLIS studies at Florida State University. Even a cursory look will tell you that library school is not for intellectually faint of heart. It will also tell you that volunteers cannot do this job. No matter how intelligent and dedicated, they simply will not have the background needed for this specialized work.
The library remains the foundation of learning. The Internet has not superseded the skills of a trained information professional. We need skilled navigators to guide us through the rapidly evolving forms of our information systems.
This is why Library Day in the Life is such an important initiative. We need to get the message out about the work we do; we need to raise the profile of the librarian lest we end up with Alexandrian-style decimated libraries. And then where will we all be?