Check Out This Librarian
August 4, 2002 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Check Out This Librarian There's more to being a librarian than just stamping books and telling people to Shush. The Washington Post has a little Q&A with Jim Gates who has been librarian at the Hall of Fame Library for seven years.
Just in case you think all librarians are little old ladies, you might want to check out This Ad for Mack's Earplugs, it features a lovely librarian, who is also a World Champion Masters Triathelete. Of course, our own Jessamyn has been saying this kind of thing for years now.
After all, The Web Didn't Kill Libraries. It's the New Draw.
Now shush!
posted by Blake (27 comments total)
Librarians and libraries are truly underrated. Little did I know until I read this book that libraries, including the Univ. of Washington Libraries where I often spend days and evenings, are frequently victims of multi-million dollar thievery: "Stephen Carrie Blumberg ... during the 1970s and 1980s, removed as many as 23,600 books and manuscripts from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia."
posted by josephtate at 1:04 PM on August 4, 2002

For up-to-the-minute news about public perception of librarians, and other topics of librarial interest, check out weblog.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 1:14 PM on August 4, 2002

good post. i have little or no more to say.
posted by oog at 1:59 PM on August 4, 2002

After reading about the (supposed) downfall of librarians... I was thinking how great it would be if research books could be digitized. It would be great to sit in a library and do a google catalog type search of large books. Then after finding the necessary information you could go to the actual book, since print is so much easier and comforting to the eyes.

Maybe I'm just disgruntled with snobby librarians I've met who give you 8 300-page books and say "it's in there somewhere", and then realize it's not even close to what you were asking for. Oh the woes of research, and people wonder why students would rather google.
posted by geoff. at 3:01 PM on August 4, 2002

Libraries suffer not just from theivery but from stocks being decimated in the name of collection management - which is why American novelist Nicholson Baker set up his American Newspaper Repository to preserve thousands of historic newspapers being chucked out by the British Library.

On a lighter note - the unconventional librarian lives - come down to the Library and you might meet some Modified Librarians
posted by Flitcraft at 3:18 PM on August 4, 2002

geoff: the sort of digitization you're talking about is already happening. For example, the Univ. of Washington Libraries recently purchased access to Early English Books Online, an invaluable literature resource. It contains over 125,000 titles in English printed between 1475 and 1661.

It's not free, however. The Univ of Washington signed a nondisclosure agreement with the Proquest Learning Company not to reveal the figures. From what Florida Atlantic University reveals, access to the database costs 128,000 dollars (including a one time fee and a few yearly maintenance fees).

A truly free resource for Renaissance literature is Richard Bear's excellent Renascence Editions. Are there similar research resources for other fields?
posted by josephtate at 4:04 PM on August 4, 2002

I in fact work for Wisconsin Library Services, or WiLS. I had no idea, before I started working as their IT guy, just how much amazing stuff libraries are doing these days. One of my favorite examples is QuestionPoint, which is a way for widely separated reference librarians and patrons to share questions and answers with each other and the patrons hunting for knowledge. We actually just hosted a convention, and a speaker from the QuestionPoint people was here, but I couldn't listen to the talks, as I was running support for the 150 or so people who showed up.

Pity me.
posted by kavasa at 5:05 PM on August 4, 2002

I didn't realize librarians were in trouble. I remember reading a few articles on how those with M.L.S. degrees were being hired by private firms for their research skills now that information was the new money tree.

I thought about going in for being a librarian, but alas, the money ran out just as I got my BA and hasn't come back yet.
posted by Salmonberry at 5:06 PM on August 4, 2002

I can assure you it has been decades since any librarian has said "Shush" in a library. Librarians are so terrified of that prim, prudish Marion the Librarian image, that they have gone way off in the other direction, lending pornography to minors, having full-volume conversations with colleagues, permitting teenagers to run screaming wild through the place after school -- the public libraries I am forced to use are in fact some of the noisiest environments in the city. Books are neglected in favor of audio/visual and the internet. Librarians have lost the will or desire to control their spaces. And it is all from a fear of being heard to say "Shush!" and so be thought a stick-in-the-mud.
posted by Faze at 7:30 PM on August 4, 2002

By the way, Mack's earplugs are God's gift to humankind. I wear them to museums, to block out the noise of raucous children, and booming audio-visual displays. I wear them to nap with in the day. I wear them at the library to block out the noise of the idiot teenagers spineless librarians are afraid to shut up or kick out. I wear them to block out the sound of loud salsa music thundering in the courtyard in the night. Mack's do the trick like nothing else. Accept no substitute. Buy some today, and improve your life 100 percent.
posted by Faze at 7:35 PM on August 4, 2002


any librarian interested in free literature in electronic format should take a look at project gutenberg:

The Project Gutenberg Philosophy is to make information, books and other materials available to the general public in forms a vast majority of the computers, programs and people can easily read, use, quote, and search.

This has several ramifications: 1. The Project Gutenberg Etexts should cost so little that no one will really care how much they cost. They should be a general size that fits on the standard media of the time ...

2. The Project Gutenberg Etexts should so easily used that no one should ever have to care about how to use, read, quote and search them ...

there's more on the history of the project.
posted by moz at 7:46 PM on August 4, 2002

Faze, I don't know where you're going or what you're witnessing, but I think it's terribly irresponsible to make a blanket statement like "they've gone way off in the other direction."

There's a whole community of engaged, hip, self-questioning and deeply knowledgeable people in the library sciences, one I didn't know jack about until I found New Breed Librarian (now regrettably on hiatus) and Rogue Librarian (whose tagline says it all: "Shooshin' and stampin'").

I read your comments as unfair to these dedicated people, who have a neat knack for taking themselves and their work seriously, but not too seriously.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:52 PM on August 4, 2002

Faze: In doing research for an exhibit on our hometown library's centennial, I found an article on how the public library had become an after-school hangout for kids, who would make noise, misbehave and get ejected, and generally cause a Reefer Madness crime wave. The librarians were criticized for not doing enough to stamp it out. (I think their worry was that if the kids weren't at the library, they might be hanging out at the malt shop or worse.) The year was 1919.

Also, I used to work at night and sleep during the day. I used earplugs, but found it oddly disassociating. Perhaps if later in life I get sensitive to harsher, tinny sounds like my mother.
posted by dhartung at 9:08 PM on August 4, 2002

The last time I went to a library was coincidentially the first and last time I used their computer to access the Internet. I felt like a commie inside the beltway during the 50s, what with the librarians hovering over me. Their webfiltering sucked, too.

This was probably three years ago. I should stop in to see if anything's changed.

posted by cinematique at 9:14 PM on August 4, 2002

dhartung, your mom doesn't sound that harsh and tinny to me. /groan
posted by cps at 9:34 PM on August 4, 2002

Libraries gave us power.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 4:24 AM on August 5, 2002

I met the baseball hall of fame librarian before this guy. He was pretty cool too though he had REALLY long fingernails.
posted by juicyraoul at 5:02 AM on August 5, 2002

fwiw, most of the 'stamping and shushing' is done by the paraprofessional (i.e., 'pink collar'; not possessing an advanced academic degree) circulation services staff, who are generally underpaid and unappreciated by both patrons and the library brass.

yes, there are plenty of grumpy and nasty folks working in circ. services (which is actually where the popular image of the mean old-lady librarian comes from), but there are also tons of people (who didn't or couldn't go to library school for one of a variety of reasons) with true dedication to helping people find the information they need, often doing the work of a reference librarian at half the salary (circ. services staff rarely make a 'living wage' and — in some markets — work for the minimum).

and the circ. services staff is expected/needed to do this work because most libraries are so desperately underfunded (and therefore understaffed) in all areas. there simply aren't enough 'real librarians' to fill the public's need.

in short, the 'person behind the desk' is rarely an actual librarian, is usually working for peanuts, and is generally there solely because of a sincere desire to help people.
posted by mlang at 6:54 AM on August 5, 2002

geoff: it sounds like maybe you got a bad egg. be the person an 'actual' librarian or just someone trying to the job of one, that person's job is to teach you how to use the specialized research tools at their disposal and to help you find the book(s)/article(s) you need.

is it possible, though, that you made that librarian's job too hard or even impossible? did you go to her/him with specific, detailed questions about the topic you wanted researched? did you have much of an idea of what you were looking for or did you just walk up with the most general and unrefined idea possible?

one of the major beefs of academic librarians i know is that students expect them to make paper-writing painless by doing all the research in the students' stead. and many of them, if they think this is a student's intent, will provide only minimal assistance.

maybe this wasn't the case for you; maybe you did just have a lousy librarian (or one having a lousy day), but in order for her/him to do his/her job properly, you've got to do your job (as a student) properly first.
posted by mlang at 7:03 AM on August 5, 2002

AdamGreenfield, I checked out the hip librarian sites, , and I'm appalled. Who needs hip, bright, intellectual librarians, thinking deep thoughts, or creating "library theory?" Librarians should be slightly dim, like shepherds. Their job is not to have brilliant thoughts, but simply to manage those physical objects that are books: to give them sturdy library bindings, to dust them, to shelve them in an orderly way, etc. They should also maintain the library building, and keep order within its walls. That's all. We don't need librarians with original ideas. We don't need librarians who think they're too good to handle actual books, re-bind them, and place them in shelves. We don't need sexy librarians at the cutting edge of anything. We need librarians who are committed to their traditional, book-wrangling role. Library users need to fight the tendency of librarians to inflate their roles, and attempt to make libraries into something they are not.
posted by Faze at 7:17 AM on August 5, 2002

shhhhhhhhhhhh! you're being too loud, asshole.
posted by michaelbrown at 7:40 AM on August 5, 2002

michael brown! holy shit!

-->martin lang!

we used to work together in the astronomy department at ut, no?
posted by mlang at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2002

martin! dude, i remember you! good to see you again. (oh wait, we'd better quiet down, this would probably qualify as one of those "full-volume conversations with colleagues." as soon as i lend some pornography to minors and give that 100 db presentation on THX sound in the middle of the library, i'll email you.)
posted by michaelbrown at 9:29 AM on August 5, 2002

Apologies to Blake for getting off-topic - thanks for posting these links. Jessamyn is my hero. Did anyone catch the article about her in the Movers & Shakers supplement to Library Journal?
posted by michaelbrown at 10:06 AM on August 5, 2002

Faze: Thank you!! I've been telling myself and all my colleagues that we should stop trying to think for ourselves; we've been spending entirely too much time fighting for your right to privacy and free speech. We've also been expending way too much energy fighting for access to information in a city where the "digital divide" actually does exist, as well as trying to provide a relatively safe, quiet refuge for children and others who often can't find either safety or respect elsewhere.

Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a new title about, say, Washington during the the Civil War (I work in the History division of a large public library), I've been following your advice, Faze, and just smiling sweetly, wiping the drool from my chin and staring into the distance until they realize that I'm only here to "manage those physical objects that are books." And when a teenager who has no idea how to even start researching a report on African American History wants me to show her how to find good, useful resources both online and in print, I just dip my head like the "slightly dim shepherd" I long to be until they leave me alone. Don't even ask me about computers or technology; I just mend books. Heck, I don't even keep up with current trends in historiography or academia any more; I just let Kirkus Reviews and pick out what books we should have, regardless of how well they serve the people of this city. You've made my job so much easier, Faze!

We need more sensible, large-minded visionaries like yourself to keep us librarians in line; I mean, it's not like libraries actually improve their communities or anything. The intellectual well-being of this city (not to mention privacy, freedom of access to information, etc.) is none of my concern, thanks to you, Faze!!!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go help a child find some good hardcore pr0n in our periodicals section.
posted by arco at 10:57 AM on August 5, 2002

Arco, I think Faze was making a funny... I hope.
posted by Ptrin at 11:31 AM on August 5, 2002

We need librarians who are committed to their traditional, book-wrangling role. Library users need to fight the tendency of librarians to inflate their roles, and attempt to make libraries into something they are not.

Damn it, you all dragged me away from editing my book: Revolting Librarians Redux to throw in my two cents. The world has gotten more complicated and librarians, if they are to stay employed and vital, need to get complicated with it. Faze, you know this.

As one of the more outspoken librarians-without-a-library, I can tell you that providing people with the information they need to make informed choices in their lives -- one of the original reasons for the US's free public library system's existence -- is tougher than it used to be. Blame our increasingly diverse society, or maybe the publishing glut, or even the explosive growth of the Internet, but providing access to knowledge is no easy feat. Making people continue to want to support this endevaor, when maybe you don't serve coffee, don't stock enough best-sellers or basically aren't Barnes and freaking Noble takes some work.

Excuse me now I have to apply for the one-person library job down the street. Marshfiedl VT look out!
posted by jessamyn at 1:01 PM on August 5, 2002

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