A librarian’s response to “Dear librarians, please don’t move away from enabling reading”

A librarian responded to NSR Director’s Dear librarians op-ed  with such thoughtfulness, the comment itself deserves to be published as a stand-alone post. Thank you, F Goldsmith, for taking the time to offer a perspective that deepens everyone’s understanding, especially my own. And for writing it so coherently. And for caring enough to take the time to write it so coherently. May the dialog continue. And the learning.


It’s good to see how cultural changes look to those who are close and yet not inside the circles where goal setting, strategic objectives, and tactics are discussed. I’m glad to see this eloquent view as it opens a way to broaden understanding.

No one, least of all you, is surprised to hear that reality is ever more complex than one perspective—and a well informed perspective—on its nuances can note without some acknowledgment of other perspectives. In the case of what truly appears to be librarians abandoning the savvy reader and experienced library user to bring services into the larger community, several factors should be noted:

• There is sound theoretical and practical guidance underlying a contemporary move to community-led service development. You can introduce yourself to that through John Pateman and Ken Williment’s Developing Community-led Public Libraries (Routledge, 2013).
• As with learning mathematical functions and vocabulary, there are the thoughtful and imaginative learners who work from an understanding of the principles and the middle of the class who copies the outward signs without engaging with what underlies them. Here that means we have a lot of well-intentioned libraries who have settled on specific activities as reproducible rather than working from the understanding of the ends.

In short; the confusion of means with ends. Libraries have, for thousands of years, been about two things: information access (although sometimes that has meant preservation for some future access) and the opportunity to engage in a human community (sometimes the human potential for imagination, sometimes the human practice of literacy, and other endeavors). Community-led library services stand up more than just adequately to those very large goals.

As someone who has practiced in a variety of libraries, a variety of communities, and at a variety of functional levels within library structures, I’ve been able to see, participate in, and administer the building and sustaining of sound community-led library practices.

Here’s what some of them have looked like:
• The public housing residents, in this case, were geographically as well as socially isolated. Their use of the library was negligible due to lack of transit and to their experiences with library use as potentially punitive (revocation of children’s cards due to parents’ fines, as one example). The food pantry, stocked as such resources typically are, with overstocks of unpopular consumer goods, provided foodstuffs which many community members didn’t recognize or had no disposable income to prepare with such niceties as a spice rack. The library staff would check out each week’s assortment of offerings, return to the library to research recipes using just these ingredients, and be ready for phone calls from community members who had received the reference number for such help because it was applied to each can or package: “Need help preparing something good with this? Call xxx-xxxx and the library will help you.” In short, just in time information that made the food edible and the library a worthwhile resource.

• At another library, the family literacy coordinator researched how her community measured against the statistic that tells us that physically and mentally healthier kids is an outcome of families eating dinner together a significant number of days each week. And she found that not only were families not eating together, but many had no place to eat together. Thus was born a months-long campaign in which adults who participated in the literacy program to the point of graduating with adequate skills for adult school and GRE readiness also received a dinner table, built in yet another library program. The tables had to be small and yet here we have a way of sharing several kinds of pertinent information—literacy skills, healthy family skills, carpentry skills—that also grew the individuals’ capacity for community engagement.

Others will tell you a lot more anecdotes. And many, I would wager, will agree instead with the proposition that library service is somehow intrinsically connected to community members who already value information skills and themselves. I think our communities—and library service potential—are bigger than that.

There should be stories forthcoming here, too, about the disconnects between budgets and community needs, between librarians and administrators confusing ends with means and either believing that, or being directed by administrators even further up the chain to act as though, redeploying staff is what’s needed to “preserve” yesteryear’s library infrastructure….

For my money, it’s not a dichotomy: it’s not “serve the ones who know what they want or help those who don’t know what they want to articulate their own values.” When the viewpoint is toward ends—making information and the human narrative accessible—librarians have a lot of work to do in a lot of different community places.

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