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Library Work and Old Ideas

Salt Lake City Public Library

Salt Lake City Public Library

A post for you librarians and other library workers.

When the Internet fails the Salt Lake City public library, what follows is illuminating. This happened yesterday in the early evening. Suddenly my computer would not work as I searched for a book for a patron. A collective groan arose from everywhere. The public computers weren’t working either.

Patrons tilted their chairs back, sighed loudly, and then again. They glared in our direction.

An hour later the building felt empty. The structure can easily accommodate 1,000 people. I’d be surprised if there were more than 20 on our floor.

The computers are easily our library’s most popular feature. When they fail you don’t hear patrons saying “Oh dear! Now you librarians can’t help us quite as well with our reference questions! And that is what we need you for!”

What you see is a bunch of librarians looking at each other wondering (or pretending to wonder) why nobody needs their help with anything.

There is a tendency in many librarians to pretend that people want from us what we want them to want. Reference service, expertise in filtering through information to determine its accuracy, etc.

It isn’t the case in my library. I’m not saying these things don’t happen while I’m at work, but they are rare. Truly fascinating, challenging questions are rare. I would guess that what I call “traditional library work” accounts for less than 5% of my duties.

A question: if a reference librarian does not perform a task like reference as often as they direct people to the restrooms, or as often as they teach them how to log in to the computers, can they aver that reference is actually their job, no matter what their title is?

Or is their job whatever the public says it is, based on what they want or expect from librarians?

Without bitterness or regret I can tell you that if you can read this, you could adequately perform the majority of my job. That does not necessarily mean that we have the same skills, only that my job does not often require skill.

I accept this because I am part of something that matters to me. I am willing to work on behalf of libraries without whining about what I wish I was doing. And if I want something to change badly enough in my job, I do whatever I can to change it.

If I am doing librarian work, it is a faint shadow of the work that the Library School recruiters spout when they  are recruiting.









Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather May 19, 2011, 5:57 pm

    No, dude, yer job requires mad, Pfhat skillz! reference librarians often “know” the answers to some rather odd questions, and this is especially true around Science/Social Studies Fair time. You all also have access to the Rare Books and Rare References. I always have to ask the folks at the reference desk for back issues of certain magazines, because they’re the only ones who can get into the closed stacks. Don’t sweat it.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 20, 2011, 12:08 pm

      “Knowing” the answers to odd things: sure, but I don’t see that as a library skill as much as of personal temperament and curiosity. Access is different than skill.

      I’m not sweating it, homie, which is why I said “I accept this.” I’m not complaining. Just havin’ a think.

      • hoongyee May 20, 2011, 1:53 pm

        perhaps i could adequately perform your job as a librarian, and maybe there are days your job does not seem to require skill.

        that does not even remotely qualify me to do the work you do with the passion and compassion for others who seeking their way through the world of books.

        the librarian of my distant youth will always make my inner bookworm smile. she was a reference librarian in a small library in queens, ny who helped my small hands grasp a thesaurus for the first time and learn to love words as they unfolded before me. then she found me a seat in the story hour where i could sit in silence and wonder at the sound of words.

        i think you “know” things you don’t know you know.

  • Todd May 20, 2011, 7:24 am

    This is part of the problem with having computers in the library. I don’t even have to talk to a librarian to check a book out, let alone ask for reference material. And don’t get me started on kids today (that doesn’t make me sound old, does it?) that wait until the last minute on a report, and then “G**gle” the info, and then copy it from Wikipedia (which is always a smart move).

    • Josh Hanagarne May 20, 2011, 12:07 pm

      No, I think we should have computers. And I’m fine with people not needing/wanting/ our help. I just think that a redefinition of library work is in order.

  • Spencer May 20, 2011, 8:13 am

    I think this is just a sad commentary on the state of public affairs generally. “What the public wants” – p-shaw! They don’t know what’s good for them, the lemmings. “What the public wants” cannot be the standard, elsewise all libraries would be burned to the ground and replaced with free internet cafes, free chips and salsa, football perpetually on the big screen, and caffeine drips. Does it surprise me that our libraries are not filled with dyed-in-the-wool bibliophiles? No. Most of the public libraries I have been too have been filled with people that show no signs of being able to actually read. The shelves gather dust, their offerings un-perused, while the line for the computers is perpetually lengthy and exasperated. As if on-line gaming/social networking is some Constitutionally guaranteed right. I found this line particularly sad: “I would guess that what I call ‘traditional library work’ accounts for less than 5% of my duties.” What a waste! I have lots of fascinating, challenging questions; next time I am in SLC, I will blow your mind!

  • Michelle May 20, 2011, 8:15 am

    The thing is, if any of the people in the library encountered a librarian who didn’t want to do his or her job, they just think that it’s easier to look it up on the internet. I’ve encountered enough librarians that gave me the impression that they don’t want to be bothered that make me feel like I should be able to look up that information myself.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 20, 2011, 12:05 pm

      Unfortunately I see the same thing too often. One of the major points that the ALA and recruiters hammer on is that people need us to be able to filter through the mess of information online to see what is valid and what is garbage.

      Every single time I have heard someone say that it has been someone who has no idea how computers work, not someone who feels they are incapable of evaluating information.

  • carrick May 20, 2011, 11:58 am

    There is definately some truth to what you are saying – library work has changed greatly in even the 15 years I’ve been doing it. But I disagree when you say it takes no skill – it is definately a skill to be able to politely, and helpfully, interact with the thousands or people you encounter every month – especially since every single personality is different and every need is unique. That is a skill! Not one you learn in library school but one you need to succeed in libraries for sure. Librarainship is a service occupation at its core – that hasn’t changed.

  • Heather May 21, 2011, 5:38 pm

    Hmmmmmmm. . . maybe they should call it Information Work? Informative Science? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. . . . .

  • mhu September 4, 2011, 7:52 am

    I like this building.