Tuesday, March 4, 2014
A Librarian's Manifesto
Libraries used to be a magical place for me. And I mean this in quite a literal way.
As a child pragmatist, I used to reason that when I walked through the doors of a library, books would come flying off the shelves. And--after expelling greater glitter, gold light, and swooshing noises than was absolutely necessary-- these books would come, and to fall perfectly into my hands. After all, that was the magical library I saw portrayed in kid's movies, picture books, and cartoons I used to watch. So why not in real life? But after a few weeks of learning this wasn't how libraries worked, and being grateful books didn't really didn't fly off the shelves (guess who has motor-coordination issues?), I was left with a place I could be quiet in, disappear into, and explore. Even as a child.
Very early on I was curious about those "people behind the desks." Those keepers of the books, the peculiar, intelligent, be-spectacled men and women. As a child, I used to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, with a skimpy black notepad, and stolen pencil in hand, and I would write down what I thought were very inquisitive questions about these people I watched, such as: Why is the lady behind the desk so quiet? Secrets?!?! Or: If the man behind this desk is so quiet...does that mean he has a black cat at home? And, in my hight of inquisition powers as a seven year-old, the ultimate: Why did 122% of them, (approximately), have glasses? These are questions I still wonder about my coworkers today, word for word. But now, being one of those "people behind the desks," or a librarian, a lot has changed about my perception about libraries, and librarians. Or, at least, when I began to write this, I thought they had.
You see, recently, in conversation, I had a man with a greasy ham sandwich offer his input on my job, my work.
"Libraries?" He said, mayo dripping down his pants. "Oh man, you're a librarian, right?"
And was he apt to tell me how libraries were, in his words,"dying out."
"Have you been to a library, recently?" I asked.
Last time I checked, "The Library" was an prime example of a functional, and highly-utilized, public facility in the United States. (One of the few, my children.) But then again, it is always interesting to be lectured by individuals with mayonnaise on their pants.
I tried to bail on that conversation as soon as a could.
Because if you have been to a library recently, you would know this: Libraries are changing. And they are changing at a rate none of us could have imagined ten, let alone five years ago.
Since I was a child who grew up in the 90's, I've seen firsthand how technology has been the biggest change for libraries. And how we interact with technology, how we embrace technology as patrons and librarians, that will be the defining element in the future of libraries.
If you can, do something for me next time you go to a library: observe, like you once did as as a child. What do you see? People utilize libraries, more than ever before, as a meeting place, an area to learn how to use technology, to see or participate in events, or to discover how to use ebooks, or find credible online materials. And librarians are the guides through this confusion, this changing world.
A library is now a place where stories, information, and humanity intersects. And what can be more important to the modern world?
The ebook did not kill the book, it was the escalator to the stair. As a result, many libraries have justly embraced ebooks and many libraries are trying to afford more for their collection. We are not, despite what some may say, becoming increasingly isolated with technology. We are connecting human need for solace to tiny, glowing screens. And libraries, they are helping us, young and old, to become more comfortable in engaging with this technology, but in more meaningful ways, together. Whether this be showing a patron who has never used a computer before how to send an email to a friend, or a fifth grader how to find reliable voices on the internet, libraries and librarians share this role in helping the individual meet technology and information, effectively. After all, this time in history is the intersection of so many cultures, and pieces of information--all through technology. And yes, we do need a break from that technology, sometimes. Libraries do this for us as well.
I do hope, no matter what lies ahead, for this: that libraries, they will transform, last, and prosper (and all other Star Trekisms, etc.) And I believe they will. And for those of you who haven't been to one in quite some time, I hope this is a call back. The "people behind the desk" are quite more charming and complex in person, as I must begrudgingly admit most humans tend to be. And those books, those books of the library that you once believed could fly, can perhaps, in this changing world, they can do so much more.
The magic of libraries is not in the aesthetic, or in the imagery of the institution, or even in the books and information, themselves. It is a person sitting down, with you, helping you navigate this New Age of Information. The magic of the library is that it transforms with technology. And thanks to the internet, librarians are helping us interact more stories, information, and voices than were ever available before.
The magic of a library is intangible. And therefore, quite hard to explain to others who wonder why we do need libraries. But I can tell you these moments, these small pieces of quiet time. The magic of the library is the half hour of quiet for the doctor at the end of a grueling day. It is a mother of two reading a great ebook, shoes off, on a sofa. It is watching a beautifully mellow musician, all the way from China, in a small meeting room. It is the child finding a historical figure in a book, who is a lot like them, who did great things. It is the middle-aged man, bowing his head, gracefully, into that book that he just had just been meaning to read for far too long. The magic is a teen who found a voice who understands. And maybe, finally, it is a librarian, who even after a great disbelief of many things, still believes in one thing: we can transform, too.
Support your local library. They are here to do the same for you.
Your Librarian, MD