Libraries and children

Oops… right after I said I wouldn’t write any more about the ALA conference, I read an article on the Library Journal site about a session on the future of libraries that I felt I needed to mention, even if it (superficially) had nothing to do with youth work.

The thrust of the session, which happened when I hadn’t yet arrived in Anaheim, appeared to be that librarians must feel that they’re out of the “books and materials as objects” business, and instead in the “ideas business.” The assertion intrigues me; for the average urban or suburban branch library – I’ve spent most of my career in branch libraries – day-to-day existence is totally wrapped up in books and DVDs and fines and storytimes. Nothing grand at all, and almost all of it more concrete than abstract.

I’ve always believed that libraries are in the literacy business. We don’t teach people how to read, but we do just about everything else that supports literacy and celebrates it. We need to keep that as our focus. Literacy hasn’t gone out of style – it’s more important than ever. As long as we don’t lose sight of that role in our culture, we are about as cutting-edge as you can get.

But I don’t think that these speakers were talking about aiding and abetting literacy. So I’m interested in seeing what these grand, on-the-edge ideas could be. I feel as if the issue surrounding “the future of libraries” – public libraries, anyway – is simpler; we need to learn what our users want in 2008 and provide those things. We also need to learn what the people who don’t use us need in the way of media or services that focus on literacy and do our best to provide those things, too.

I was particularly interested, though, in reading what Stephen Abram of SirsiDynix had to say about librarians, and their drive to remain anonymous:

“If we want to be treated as professionals,” he said, librarians shouldn’t wear badges that say merely “Librarian” without their name. He mocked those who say, “I don’t want to tell anybody my name, I might be stalked,” suggesting it doesn’t occur to workers at Wal-Mart.  If you want to be treated like a professional, you have start acting like one,” he said.

He asked how many attendees offered pictures of the staff on their library web sites? Few raised their hands. “Since when is the value in libraries in the books, not in the people?” he asked. “I want to see our whole profession where everybody’s Nancy Pearl on steroids.”

If you work in a library, you know how controversial what he said is. I note that Abram is male, which in this context is critical. Nor does he work with the public. I wonder whether more than a minority of female librarians would support what he says above.

I have witnessed several fellow librarians harassed by “weird guys” who are regular (um, too regular, if you know what I mean) library users, and spoken to many more who have suffered earlier in their careers from a little too much attention. Public libraries – particularly their adult services departments – are filled with  customers who haven’t been taking their meds.

On the other hand, I totally agree with Abram – we do need to have our names out there in front of the public (and yes, on the library Web site, too), and be proud of who we are and what we do. We do need to be more professionally assertive. I’ve always worn my full name on my badge proudly. But then, I’m male and I’ve never been harassed.

The fact remains that we’ll be most successful if we step away from anonymity. “We need to think bigger,” several of the speakers agreed, and I think so, too. Librarians – especially those who aren’t children’s or YA librarians – tend not to want to make too much noise or attract too much attention to themselves, but we need to change that. Children’s and YA librarians need to repeat the words, “We make literacy fun!” over and over. “Can’t find the information you want? We can!” is good, too.

We need to show everyone in every city and suburb and small town what we can do to make kids want to connect themselves with literacy in all its forms, but especially with the printed word – whether that printed word is online or on a page. We need to say it and show it a thousand different ways. That’s the best kind of future for all of us in youth work.