Why We'll Always Need Librarians

Why We'll Always Need Librarians

by Kevin McElvaney

In popular culture, the librarian is almost always an unpleasant, bespectacled wet blanket, whose main job is to interrupt protagonists with a shrill, poorly timed “shh.”

But forget what you’ve seen in movies — being a librarian is no career for the lazy curmudgeon. It takes years of advanced study even to be considered for a position. At a minimum, librarians need a Master’s degree from a program accredited by the American Library Association. To go the K-12 route, they're often required to get a teaching certificate, while university librarians typically hold a totally separate degree in a subject such as literature or history.

All this preparation may appear excessive just to work for an institution that seems to be headed for the endangered species list. With so much available online, surely we don't need to spend valuable taxpayer dollars on propping up these dusty old buildings, nor in peopling them with such highly educated staff.

Right?

Don’t be so sure. For one thing, libraries are much more than homes for old books. To many, they’re essential community resources, and librarians are the indispensable experts who keep them running smoothly. And because librarians know the true importance of their role, they're more than willing to go through so much to get the gig.

So just what does the public library have to offer in the digital age? For starters, the internet. For decades, local libraries have been providing free internet access to their patrons — many of whom rely on library computers to do homework, or look for jobs.

[Full disclosure: before my family could afford dial-up internet, I regularly traveled to my local branch to get online. -K.M.]

Not the author. (If it were, the books would be about cats.)

Not the author. (If it were, the books would be about cats.)

And because librarians are there to support all patrons, they end up acting as both I.T. specialists and digital interpreters for the less tech savvy of their branch’s visitors. And despite the pop cultural prevalence of grumpy, conservative librarians, this adaptability and willingness to don many hats at once is a necessity for those who take up the profession.

Which brings us to yet another cap: the bevy of classes and programs held at local libraries (including guided reading groups for children and adults, financial literacy workshops, and lectures by visiting authors, to name a few). Though library employees might not be running every single workshop themselves, they are ultimately responsible for coordinating and promoting a diverse schedule of events.

But let's not forget about the printed materials that are the library’s calling card. Despite all the other services it provides, the library's primary mission is to keep people well-read and well-informed.

And if you think free access to books is overrated, think again. Multiple studies have shown that children who read at home outperform their peers in school. And since students in rural and low-income areas are less likely to have books lying around the house, but also less likely to have local library branches, a number of non-profit initiatives have sprung up to help bridge the gap. One of these is the “Little Free Library” — an adorable curbside display case that asks people to “take a book, leave a book” using the honor system.

Aspiring authors, stop leaving your unpublished novels in these. It’s a bad look.

Aspiring authors, stop leaving your unpublished novels in these. It’s a bad look.

But while they may encourage literacy in impoverished communities, these “Little Libraries” are hardly a replacement for their larger ancestors. Of course, they can't match the sheer volume of traditional public libraries, but they also leave some users longing for that old social ritual of checking out a book by way of an actual human being.

For centuries, library users have been venturing out to their local branches with only a vague idea of what they were looking for — only to meet a knowledgeable professional to direct them to just the right thing. Without librarians, patrons would effectively be walking through a giant maze of books in the dark.

Luckily, pandas can see in the dark.

Luckily, pandas can see in the dark.

Despite offering many benefits under a single roof, today's libraries often find themselves on the fiscal chopping block, as governments look to reduce spending. Those who support slashing library funds point to the fact that use has gone down in recent years, as access to better technology in the home has gone up. But even in the face of budgetary concerns, it’s worth keeping in mind all the services these time-honored institutions still provide – and just why we invested in them in the first place.

When a library closes, a community doesn’t just lose access to millions of pages worth of carefully catalogued, freely available information, it also misses out on hundreds of useful workshops, bulletin boards chock full of valuable local resources, and a quiet place where people can learn and grow, side by side — not to mention a staff of experts whose sole mission is to make the experience as helpful (and painless) as possible.

True, many of us spend increasingly less time at the library. But to others, the local branch remains an absolute necessity. And while alternatives such as the Little Free Library are trying to directly address the needs of the vulnerable, they're also symbolic reminders of the once-great buildings that were forced to close their doors — as well as the dozens of services those shuttered structures used to provide.

In the end, we'll have libraries as long as we realize their value and demand that they continue to exist. And, for as long we decide we want libraries, we’ll need professional guides to make sure we’re getting the most out of the experience.

Ultimately, that’s why librarians need to go through so much training. Because citizens depend on the library for so much, only the most knowledgeable and highly trained individuals can be trusted to hold it all together.

Now shh...people are trying to read!