Dear librarians, please don’t move away from enabling reading

Before I tell librarians what not to do, I begin with the basic (and necessary) background on the author of this article. I am not a librarian, but I have spent two decades of my career as an editor and writer working with librarians and serving their needs—as book review editor at Library Journal, as consultant to ebook vendors serving libraries, as editor of an ALA journal on econtent in libraries, as editor of a book series on information science, as instructor of ebooks courses for librarians via ALA, and as an ardent supporter of initiatives that have to do with books, reading, learning, and libraries, particularly those that free books for reading beyond the confines of physical institutions.

Next, I want to let you know, dear reader, who may be a librarian, that in this post I will not be naming names of organizations or individuals, embedding links, citing sources, pointing to speeches, or digging up case studies to prove my point. My goal is only this: to express a thought that’s been on my mind for a long time—a thought based on both experience and observation; a thought that, at its very core, celebrates you and your potential. Here goes that thought:
I have noticed for some time now that librarians of all walks of life (particularly those in public libraries) are participating in all kinds of wonderful outreach initiatives in their communities. They literally go “out there,” beyond the confines of library walls, and help people in their towns and cities in ways that have little, if anything, to do with books, reading, and research. These stories come from all sides: Facebook posts, LinkedIn updates, Twitter feeds, and all sorts of trade publications keeping up with everything librarians (and especially the leaders among them) do. And in the midst of the political turmoil that has been spreading around the world (especially in the United States), librarians have been very vocal about where they stand on various issues.

And I can’t help but notice all that is empowering about such projects as well as…and here goes…all that is making me ultimately conclude that, as admirable as they are, they are moving librarians away from what the society needs them to do now more than ever: encourage people to read and have as much access to quality information as humanly possible. But more than that: to adamantly insist on a world where we may not all have the same political opinions but we should have equal access to knowledge and the written word (for information as well as entertainment) regardless of zip code. Yet we don’t. We simply don’t.

Librarians are no strangers to community outreach. For years now, community outreach has been all the excitement in the profession (I helped a librarian write/edit an entire book on this topic a couple of years ago and learned a lot about the ways in which libraries lend a helping hand). It’s about service, they say. And they are right. It is about service. But in a world beset with people already serving their communities—big and small—very few can do what librarians can do: help transform the world where currently over 90 percent of the population is not college educated into one where life-long learning and hunger for knowledge becomes the norm. A world where providing access to books is not seen as a humanitarian effort as it so often is but simply a natural progression of any enlightened society. And a world where people have access to fun reading, too.

Call me naïve. You won’t be the first. But I insist that the library profession is not only anywhere near extinction but is, in fact, facing an existential dilemma that can propel it to heights not seen before—if, and only if, librarians embrace the essence of what their profession is really about, rather than move away from it. And as heart-warming as stories of librarians helping people in their communities are, they point to a trend that is moving librarians away from saving themselves.

We live in a world where over a million books are published each year (I’m guessing this based on the fact that half a million books are put out by independent authors alone). And you know better than anyone, that even if a very small portion of those books were really good (and actually sought after) that you wouldn’t be able to buy them all. And even if you could (let’s suppose you could) buy them all, you wouldn’t be able to shelf them for long without either getting rid of the old ones or forever expanding the physical library.

So yes, all roads lead (back) to all that you can do with ebooks and econtent. Because if no shelf is required (no pun intended), the sky truly becomes the limit. And it doesn’t matter how you call them. Ebooks. Econtent. Digital books. Digital reading. It doesn’t even matter how big or small your library is. Not even how big or small your budget is. What matters is that people ‘out there’ read and have access to the written word. It matters less how they read. What matters is that libraries give them access. It matters less (if at all) if libraries store these books or circulate them. It’s NOT about libraries (I mean this as respectfully as I can). It’s about reading.

But more than that: it is now about digital reading—the only type of reading that democratizes the written word in ways the world has never seen before. And while you may argue that you have been enabling digital reading for years, I challenge you to challenge ways in which you have done it. I challenge you to detach knowledge from the very institutions you serve and think of new ways to reach readers, ways in which their access to knowledge where ever they may be matters more than whether they have the right library card.

Librarians, please be champions of literacy in all its wonderful incarnations: visual, audio, digital, media, information, technology, political, cultural. Take all the knowledge you can get your hands on and throw it out there—out beyond the confines of those walls. As frustrating as things have been with ebooks for public and school libraries in particular, it is your responsibility to keep looking for solutions.

Somewhere along the way, you stopped looking. You also stopped experimenting, instead investing more and more time, it seems into negotiating with vendors and demanding evidence that every ebook model out there provides the best return on investment possible. Ask instead: are we too focused on the bottom lines of our institutions for the sake of compromising innovation? Does the reader really get what he or she wants and needs when the library remains fiscally responsible? Does it matter more what library owns or how much is given to the reader?

Most important: please let others figure out where to host film festivals and yard sales that help the less fortunate. Let others serve as career centers for the unemployed. Let others fill patrons’ prescriptions. The world is full of organizations that want, should, and can do that. The world is also full of people willing to give their money to them.

Please go out there and find other libraries willing to work with you to help spread reading in and beyond your communities. Especially beyond. Recognize (and get excited about) the potential of ebooks to transform the world where there is an abundance of inequality to a world where a  New York Public Library collection is accessible to a dreamer living on a small Mediterranean island without a library. And do it in ways that have little to do with zip codes and nationalities and academic affiliations. Insist that a person’s access to knowledge be not attached to his or her location, background, status, or education. Go out there and partner with businesses and organizations that are willing to support your mission to spread reading beyond libraries. Go out there and become invisible (there is tremendous power in that).

As for publishers and vendors, don’t let them distract you either. I am placing my bet that they are more willing to work with you than you may realize. My experience working with them shows that. Don’t let any obstacle distract you from spreading reading and access to books. Can you think of a better way to serve than that? And if not you, then who?

A librarian’s thoughtful response to this post:

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

7 thoughts on “Dear librarians, please don’t move away from enabling reading”

  1. 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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