Things Libraries Do That Hurt Libraries and Fail Our Local Communities
Yesterday, Twitter erupted when an article was shared by Forbes magazine that suggested that Amazon bookstores should replace libraries to save taxpayers money. This is, of course, an absurd argument because the two entities have entirely different methods and goals. Amazon wants to make money and libraries are a non-profit that want to support their local communities. I won’t get into the arguments against this proposal here because it is being discussed at length on Twitter, and pretty well. (You can read the article and not give them clicks by using this Do Not Link URL: https://donotlink.it/lRL7)
At the same time that this is happening, I have been reading for a few weeks now about libraries in the UK where staff are being let go and entire libraries are being “staffed” by volunteers. That’s right, these libraries are being completely run by unpaid volunteers.
Both of these trends occur because of our increasing desire to move away from paying taxes. Nobody has ever liked paying taxes, but we used to agree that there was some community good that came from our taxes so we swallowed a bitter pill and paid them. But one of the things that the current cultural zeitgeist has done really well is to convince a majority of us that taxes are bad, community investment is even worse, and people who don’t succeed on their own must somehow be lazy or bad or not blessed by God or whatever the current argument is that shifts us from a model of investing in each other and community to caring only about ourselves and our immediately families. There is a lot of information out there which clearly demonstrates that the strongest and healthiest communities out there are those that invest in public education and public libraries and the arts and in helping to bring the poor up and out of poverty. Literacy rates, for example, are tied into crime rates. Third grade reading proficiency is actually a pretty good indicator of what future crime rates for a city might look like.
Even when I was discussing the Forbes article at lunch with my husband The Teen said, “The people at Forbes don’t care about the type of people who need to use libraries. It’s not like they aren’t a bias source.” I was proud of her insight, though I do wish we could collectively move past the idea that it is only poor people who use libraries. Many people use libraries and in a variety of ways and all of them are meaningful and valid.
At some point in the conversation someone started the hashtag #LibrariesSave and people started sharing stories about their visits to libraries or librarians themselves started sharing stories about work. After a while a few themes started to emerge. For example, there were stories about librarians staying hours after closing and without pay to help a student or how libraries were now doing more with less. And this is what I want to talk about.
Make no mistake, I feel that libraries are a valuable community service and that the work we do often goes unrecognized. In many ways, the work we do is heroic. I have helped people who desperately needed work apply for jobs, I have helped adopted children try to locate their biological parents, and I have helped people find public assistance and support at a time when they needed it to survive. I by no means want to diminish the work that we do. The day to day tasks of librarianship are actually more mundane then we sometime like to acknowledge. I order books, I cultivate collections, I help patrons make copies and send faxes, and I provide programs for teens. Sometimes those moments have profound implications for our patrons, but most professions have those moments where they connect with a person or provide a moment or service that will have a profound impact on their life. I have heard what happens with librarians referred to as vocational awe, which I get. I believe that libraries are profoundly important, meaningful and impact for individuals and communities. I like to say I’m a superhero, but I’m also just a person doing a job and I need a lot of things to be successful at that job, I need to make enough money to support my family, and I need (and deserve) to have work/life balance.
I also believe that in moments of vocational awe or out of sheer dedication of service, many library staff and libraries do things that harm public libraries. By trying to go above and beyond we actually end up undermining our work and sending the wrong messages to our public supporters. Public libraries are dependent on support and funding from outside sources. We need state legislators and local voters to vote on the funding we need to open our doors every day, so we are constantly trying to prove our worth. I get the why of this, it’s just that sometimes I’m not sure we are doing the how of it very successfully. Every action we do sends an explicit and an implicit message. Sometimes, I fear, our messaging is off. But trying to be heroes, we communicate a lack of need that genuinely exists.
Take, for example, the proud boast that libraries are doing more now with less. And it’s true, most libraries are now operating with less budgets, less staff, and in some cases, less open hours. And yet we have not done anything to cut any of our services. So now our staff are being forced to do more, but with less of what they need to be successful. On the one hand, it looks heroic and feels validating. Look at us, we’re so awesome that we are providing all the same excellent services with less staff, time and money. Except that also hurts us, because when it comes time to vote on funding again, all we’ve done is demonstrate to legislators and tax payers that we didn’t actually need that staff, time or money to begin with. Why should voters vote to increase our funding to previous levels when we have just demonstrated to them that we can do all the same things with half of the resources? Behind the scenes you and I know the true cost of on staff and resources to try and maintain those services, but we have to make sure we also are letting the public aware of our true need. Not all sacrifice is noble, especially when it is impacting the quality or reach of our services or leading to staff burn out and health complications.
Or let’s consider the move away from supporting professional librarians. And this is always a very touchy subject in libraries. I am an MLS librarian, but I wasn’t always. I personally am pro-MLS because although I do the same exact job that I did before getting my MLS, going through the graduate program really helped me be a better teen services librarian. The who, what, why and how of what I do became better informed and from a more knowledgeable foundation. And I understand and recognize some of the arguments that are had in the to MLS or not to MLS conversation. It’s expensive, it’s a barrier to access that keeps our profession overwhelming white, etc. This is all true and valid. And I don’t think that everyone working in a library has to have an MLS just as I don’t believe that everyone working in a doctor’s office needs to have an MD. Like any organization, it takes a wide variety of people with a wide variety of experience and knowledge to keep the doors open and the library running, and every one of those people are important and valuable. I don’t say we need MLS librarians to mean that we also don’t need or shouldn’t value paraprofessionals and other support staff. I do, however, believe that some of the people working in our libraries should be degreed librarians. I also believe that the movement away from hiring degreed librarians allows our local communities to undervalue the roles of libraries in our local communities. Every time an MLS librarian leaves and we replace them with a part-time non-MLD paraprofessional and as we watch the number of degreed librarians in public libraries shrink, we are communicating to our local communities and state legislators that libraries and librarians aren’t as important or as valuable as we said they were. It is, in part, I believe why libraries in the UK can just let go of their staff and replace them with unpaid volunteers. We’ve spent years telling them that anyone can run a library and with very little training, education, experience, or resources, and they believed us. We are reaping what we have sown.
Some of these stories talked about staff staying hours after the library closed and without pay to help patrons finish up a task. While noble, this also doesn’t help the cause. For one, it’s not fair to ask staff to remain after hours and without pay. Everyone deserves to have a good work/life balance and people need to have a livable wage and be compensated for their time. But more than that, all of this unpaid labor, donated time, and donated resources simply mean that our administrators don’t have a real understanding of what the library needs to be successful. Every hour a staff member donates is one hour that admin making budgets and schedules don’t know need to be included in their planning. Every resource donated by staff, and I know we’ve all donated food or craft supplies or prizes, is a budget item that isn’t accounted for. This means that the next year when our administrators are making budgets or going to legislators to request support and funding, then don’t have a real idea of the true cost of running our libraries and they don’t know what to realistically ask for. Also, you’re setting yourself and your predecessor up for failure. What happens when the next year you have a medical emergency and you can’t donate all that time or all those craft items and now you are being asked to perform at the same standards with the same resources as the year before because your administrator doesn’t know that you were donating some of those time and resources.
I’m all for defending libraries, though I grow weary that we keep having to do so because privileged, non-library users keep attacking us in the library before taking a moment to really find out what libraries are doing and how often they are being used. And every time this happens I’m reminded that libraries need to do a better job of marketing libraries so we won’t keep having to have these moments of necessary defense. I also think when we defend our libraries or even when we market them, we need to be careful in how we do so. Sometimes, I fear, we are undermining our own goals in the ways that we talk about, market, and defend our libraries. More with less may translate in ways that suggest we can, in fact, cut library funding. Declaring that we don’t need MLS librarians may translate in ways that suggest that libraries are less professional than we want to appear. And donating our time and resources may translate in ways that suggest that we need less funding and support than we realistically do to function well.
I think we need to work on refining our message, understanding and communicating our worth and value, and demanding the adequate support and funding we need to truly be good at what we do. I know a lot of library staff that are barely surviving in barely funded libraries. As an institution, we are very dependent on public perception and support. It is vital to our continued existence that the public truly understands what libraries do, how they do it, why they do it, and what they realistically need to continue to do it well. We need to work on our messaging, and I believe it is critical that we need to do it now.
When we hurt our libraries, when we fail to realistically plan and staff our libraries, when we undermine our own worth and value, we’re also hurting the local communities that we serve. Our local communities deserved well staff, well stocked, and well run libraries with trained, qualified staff who provide quality patron service and help them reach their personal and community goals. We aren’t just hurting ourselves, we’re hurting the very people we have chosen to serve in our profession.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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