Of Libraries and Librarians

I found myself at the American Library Association (ALA) convention held in Las Vegas last week. I’m not a librarian but my daughter is a researcher/librarian/archivist for a state historical society. She was going and asked if I’d like to go along. We only see each other a couple times a year so it was a good chance to catch up and visit Las Vegas. For a mere thirty dollars I got a pass to the exhibition hall for four days that allowed me to mingle with publishers and librians of all kinds.

There are all kinds of librarians. We mostly think of public library librarians but there are academic librarians, school librarians, children/young adult librarians, corporate librarians and various types of archivists. There is sort of a caste system — not all librarians are “real” librarians but, to me, they are if they do the work of a librarian regardless of education or accreditation. Librarians also defy the usual mental picture we have of matronly, gray-haired ladies who reign over the reading room with a stern look or a ‘shhhss’. Many of the librarians I saw come no where close to that perception. There are a large number of men who are librarians. I saw green and orange hair, lots of tattoos and some body piercings that would cause that old library-lady to keel over in her tracks.  Libraries are high tech information centers and librarians are keeping up with the evolving technology. Most libraries have some sort of public access computer center presided over by a librarian. Libraries usually have some level of web presence which takes someone with technical knowledge to maintain. 

There were dozens of publishers at the convention and most were giving away books and were having author signing sessions. I came home with over forty books and paid for only three and the prices were ridiculously low. Publishers ‘get’ libraries and librarians. They know that libraries buy books and through libraries they, and their authors, make a connection to readers. I went to several cooking demonstrations sponsored by publishers and cookbook authors. I learned how to make cheese and butcher a hog and make chorizo.

Several years ago the ALA initiated the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.  This year’s winners were Donna Tartt for fiction (for The Goldfinch) and Doris Kearns Goodwin for nonfiction (for The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism).  Both authors were present and made accaptance speeches that were very supportive of libraries. There were other authors in attendance at the convention including Jane Fonda, Stan Lee, Lois Lowry, Alexander McCall Smith, John Lewis and Azar Nafisi.

It is trendy and cute to say that books and libraries are going to disappear because they will be replaced by electronic ‘books’ that we will all access online. I don’t believe that and neither should you.  There were close to 20,000 librarians at the convention and they all have a fire burning inside for books and a passion for libraries and getting books to readers. Sure, some books are electronic versions that are downloaded to tablets or e-readers but most of a typical library’s colletion is hard or paper bound printed books. I personally don’t see any reason for debate on this issue. There will be books and libraries 100 years from now. Unfortunatly the biggest threat to libraries is funding. Those old buildings cost a lot to maintain and sit on costly real estate. Some library systems are downsizing or seeking alternatives to stand-alone facilities. Some of these new shared facilities are community service centers. 

Libraries in larger cities and even in small towns become the daytime habitat of homeless street people. That presents a problem for librarians trying to maintain a positive and open environment for patrons. Some libraries struggle with this and limit access by homeless folks. Other libraries tolerate it and try to manage it as best they can and try to head off conflicts with patrons, Some libraries recognize that they may have a role in serving this marginal group of patrons who use libraries as day rooms or sanctuaries, especially in foul weather. I saw an article today in a local paper that announced that the Albuquerque public library will hire a full time nurse to provide service to their homeless patrons. Other libraries are doing the same and some have full time social workers.  Instead of withering away, the role of libraries, and librarians, is expanding and responding to emerging needs in the community.

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