v31 #3 Epistemology — The Passion of Librarians

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 2 comments

Column Editor:  T. Scott Plutchak  (Librarian, Epistemologist, Birmingham, Alabama)   http://tscott.typepad.com

“She hoped the library could expand and begin loaning more than books;  she pictured a storeroom of tennis racquets, footballs, ‘indoor games, magic lanterns…’  The library should be ‘the entertainment and educational center of the city…’”

I suppose “magic lanterns” gives it away that this isn’t the vision of some starry-eyed twenty-first century librarian.  No, it’s nineteenth century Tessa Kelso, city librarian of Los Angeles, appointed in 1889.  One of the many brilliant LA librarians profiled in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book.1

Orlean’s ostensible subject is the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, and the mystery surrounding its origin.  Along the way she recounts the history of the LAPL and the stories of the city librarians who built it into the award winner it is today.  She weaves into this her personal history with libraries, and, in the telling, sings a song of praise for the role that librarians play in their communities.  She refers to libraries as “sanctuaries,” “community centers,” “the people’s university.” They contain “the looping, unending story of who we are.” And in one of my favorite passages, near the end of the book, she refers to the library as a whispering post — “a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone.”

Orlean’s sentences sparkle.  More than once my eyes misted, as I was reminded of what a wonder and honor and fine responsibility it is to be a librarian.  She captures brilliantly the multitudinousness of a big city library, the thousands of ways the librarians and the library staff make critical differences in the lives of the people they engage with daily.  Arin Kasparian, mid-twenties, working the circ desk, applied for a job at LAPL only because his mom wanted him doing something more secure than making sandwiches at Subway.  Now he’s planning to go to library school.  He talks to Orlean about working with the homeless.  At first the sight of them scared him a bit, but now he says that knowing them makes him feel good, gives him energy.  “‘It makes me feel…important.’ He sounded a little bashful, and then added, ‘Like I’m doing something that really helps.’”  The truths she articulates apply to libraries of all types and sizes.  

Of course, librarians also tend to be insecure worriers.  We get lost in the frustrations of the day and the minutiae of what it takes to get the job done.  We worry about our status and our salaries and our job prospects. We get defensive when someone ignorantly publishes an editorial somewhere suggesting that libraries have outlived their usefulness.  In one’s day-to-day weariness it can be easy to lose sight of the magnificence of the work we do.

When I was starting out in the early eighties, one of the big worries in the profession was that there were fewer new librarians.  Leaders in the profession wondered where the fiery, passionate librarians who could step in and step up as the older ones moved on would come from.  But in the mid-nineties, things began to shift. Librarians became cool. High school students, looking at the adults they knew, focused on the librarians because, “They know the Internet!”  Most adults were clueless. Orlean notes that by 1997, library school applications were inching up.  “[M]any library science students were coming from backgrounds in arts, or social justice, or technology. … A number of them had tattoos.  Many said they were drawn to the profession because it combined information management with public good.” 

There are many librarians now, scattered across all types of libraries, that channel Tessa Kelso.  I follow Justin Hoenke’s blog:  Justin the LibrarianJustin runs the Benson Memorial Library, a small (eight staff) rural library in Pennsylvania.  His every effort is focused on how his library’s offerings connect to his community.  He’s got “LOL: Lunch on the Lawn” with performances by local musicians; just unveiled the online “Benson Memorial Library Obituary index”; sponsored a program on women’s safety (after he and the staff completed the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness training); and posted on his blog, under the heading “Simplify Your Library,” a probing list of things to consider — the “many little things that public libraries do every day that we should take a step back from, look at with a fresh set of eyes, and ask ‘is this the way we should be doing this?’ and ‘how can we simplify this process to make it easier for our library guests?’”  This is all in the last two months.

He recently posted a link to an essay by Matt Finch that outlines a mission statement for libraries.  Encouraging people to read it, Justin says, “Today’s librarians may carry the same title as those that have come before in the profession but that’s where the similarities stop.  It’s a necessary evolution in a profession that has constantly been evolving. The recent rate of transformation in this profession can be dizzying and that’s where Matt’s essay comes in as super inspirational:  it is a reminder that the work librarians are doing matters, that it will never stop evolving, and that it is vital to the health of all of our communities.”2  I agree with him almost entirely — except for that first sentence.  I greatly admire the work that Justin is doing, and I’m inclined to think that in his enthusiasm he just stated this badly.  Because the implication that other than having the same titles, today’s librarians have no similarities to “those who have come before” is flat out wrong.  Justin himself is evidence of that.

“Library 2.0” was a thing a decade or so ago.  It was driven mostly by people not more than a few years out of library school, afire with the desire to make libraries innovative, welcoming places that used the latest technology to richly connect with their communities.  They annoyed the fool out of me. Not their passion — that was great. Not their commitment to making the lives of the people in their communities better through the work they were doing — that was wonderful, just what one hopes to see in newly minted librarians.  No, what had me rolling my eyes was their appalling ignorance of the rich history of their profession.  

There were some bloggers who just used “Library 2.0” as a handy hip tag for being creative with social media and other cutting edge DIY technologies in libraries.  That results in some great stuff and some innovative ways for making connections. So I had no quarrel with using the label that way. Not at all. It was the people who thought that their view of an engaged and innovative library operation making use of the latest technology was something radically different from the librarianship of the past that got my back up.  Because that’s what the best librarians have always done. The tools were new, but the tools are always new. We like new tools. The intent was the same.

In 2003, Katina invited about a dozen librarians to her house for a “Think Tank” session after the conference closed.  I knew most of them by reputation, but had only met a couple. The discussion was fascinating and deep and detailed as we tried to sort through some of the possible futures for libraries and librarians in the increasingly digital landscape.  We were grappling with the implications of a shift from ownership of physical materials to licensing of digital objects. I remember standing at the door, saying goodbye, with Katina saying earnestly, “What will happen if we’re not building collections anymore?  That’s what librarians do!” “But that’s just the means to an end,” I said. “It’s not the end in itself.”  It never has been. Now we talk about content management rather than collection development, information literacy rather than bibliographic instruction.  Always evolving. But the intent is the same.

The most radical of the Library 2.0 proponents were both scolds and cheerleaders.  When they looked at the library organizations they found themselves in, too often they saw stagnant, risk-averse institutions, unwilling to make the radical changes they thought necessary.  So they mistakenly wrote off the entire profession, proclaimed their new vision, and tried to get everybody on board.

But no professional group includes even a bare majority of innovative thinkers and risk-takers.  This isn’t peculiar to librarians and librarianship. In any profession, every profession, the truly innovative examples come from just those few who we refer to as being on the leading (or bleeding) edge.  They drag the rest along, some quite willingly, because they just needed some exemplars, some rather thoughtlessly because they’re really not paying much attention to the shape of the journey, and some kicking and screaming (well, usually whining rather than screaming, but certainly kicking) because they really just want to keep doing things the way they have been.  This last group gets far too much attention. They are the least important.

Peter Drucker, the management guru, was fond of the Pareto principle — the notion that 20% of the effort produces 80% of the results.  The principle can be applied in many ways. One that I’ve always been fond of, and that served me well during my many years as a library director, is that you only need 20% of the group to be actively supporting your vision in order to bring the whole organization along.  Let the grumblers grumble. Just don’t let them soak up your oxygen and get in the way.

What Orlean’s stories remind us is that there have always been, and always will be, those courageous, eccentric, passionate, and slightly crazed librarians who keep the profession evolving and changing and ever responsive to the needs of their communities.  Not every librarian will be like them, but every librarian has the chance to be.

In 1987 I moved to St. Louis to work for Judy Messerle.  She taught me many things, one of which was that you can have the budget of your dreams, but if you don’t have some great people, you won’t be able to accomplish much.  But if you can bring together a few of the right people, you can do anything, even if you’re close to broke. A big city public library or an ARL academic library will have the resources to attempt many projects and programs.  But without those few passionate idealists they won’t accomplish nearly as much for their communities as Justin and his team will do for theirs.

Be like Tessa.  Be like Justin.  Be the 20 percent.  


  1. Orlean, Susan.  The Library Book.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  2. Hoenke, Justin.  “Anywhere in the universe: a mission for libraries by Matt Finch.” Justin the Librarian. February 22, 2019.  https://justinthelibrarian.com/2019/02/22/mattfinchuniverse


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