Andy Woodworth’s latest post at Agnostic Maybe, The Librarians Who Stare at Goats, didn’t strike a chord with me at first. I read the Annoyed Librarian (insert cat avatar here) column from time to time, but not regularly only because I find it to be much the same every time–you know you’re going to get an extreme view delivered with lots of snarly snark. I don’t have a problem with that; however, I’m beginning to realize that a lot of librarians do.
So it didn’t really strike me until a recent comment was posted in response that included this: “aside from complaints about AL, I just don’t see very much criticism coming from the library world.” Criticism about the library world, from the library world, that is. And I would have to agree that’s true. At about the same time I saw this comment, I noticed the following in my Twitter feed, which is a complaint from someone in the library world about someone else who has categorized the job of a librarian as “low stress.” The post implied that perhaps this categorization was an outrage.
When I started this blog, I had intended to write mostly about library issues. I have, but I have often been distracted by life and my feelings about other things that are happening. But another reason I have drifted from writing about libraries is that I realized that what I really wanted to say would possibly not be so well received in libraryland (ugh–hate that word). Because while I don’t relish the way in which the Annoyed Librarian delivers her message, I would have to say that many times her message is right on point, unfortunately, from my perspective. (See How Does Your Library Promote Fake Celebrations, Busy Isn’t Enough, Libraries and Class to name a few.)
My takeaway comes down to this: My experience with the world of libraries has taught me many things, including how much time and effort and commitment and dedication it takes to run a library and provide library services and how important those services are to many people. This I accept the same way I accept that I was ignorant of this fact 8 years ago. But my experience has also taught me, time and time again, that libraries and librarians have cultivated a sort of, well, cult that appeals to only a fraction of the general population. And libraries and librarians often take themselves way too seriously. I understand the argument that working in a library is about much more than “spending my days in the warmth of a library, surrounded by books and people who like to read them,” although 10 years ago that’s just what I would have thought, too, and many people still think that, of course. But in comparison to some other professions, working in a library or being a librarian is a low stress job! And the Annoyed Librarian correctly points out many things that are wrong with libraries. S/he had better remain anonymous or s/he would be hunted down and cast out of the club.
If we are going to constantly cheer our virtues without ever second guessing whether our virtues actually matter to a great many people, then aren’t we doing ourselves a huge disservice? Not everyone is as thrilled with libraries as we are. Not everyone thinks that a public library provides an essential service. Not everyone believes that we help to educate anybody. Not everybody cares that we provide internet access to those who can’t afford it. If we can’t listen to someone like the Annoyed Librarian without getting annoyed, what does that say? That we only want praise and money and the naysayers be damned?
My biggest complaint with the library world has always been that it is too library-ish. The exuberance and confidence with which many librarians proclaim that the library is the end-all, be-all, is often off-putting to others who don’t share that view (and never will) and comes across as condescending and naïve. It’s kind of like saying that anyone who doesn’t believe in the value of libraries is simply an ignorant ass. And that’s just not true.
I don’t really know what the answer is, but I think I know what part of the problem is–us. Believe it or not there are people who just don’t get excited about summer reading or gaming or coming to the library. They just don’t. But we still need their support and their money. We must find a way to stop preaching to the choir and start convincing the masses that we are not a dying breed. I’m not saying that will be easy, but I am saying that whether you’re a goat or a cat or annoyed or not, we should be looking outside of ourselves for some of these answers. We should be listening to the voices of dissent and heeding the warnings implied therein.
I believe I work in an honorable profession that is dedicated to the public good. I believe that most librarians are wholeheartedly dedicated to their profession and convinced beyond all doubt of the essential nature of library services. I do believe that a public library belongs in every community. However, dismissing out of hand those who don’t share these beliefs would be a mistake. If we’re not careful, we will be too busy basking in the glow of our own sunshine that we will completely miss the approaching storm. I don’t think we should try to emulate animals–goats and cats alike, in a zoo and elsewhere–who instinctively know when the weather is about to turn nasty and go into hiding. I think we should emulate the National Weather Service, which monitors conditions and sounds a warning far and wide for everyone to hear.