Thursday, April 7, 2011

The disposible librarian

Unfortunately, my work experience and graduate degree are in two professions that seem to be disappearing.

Everyone knows about newspapers making their slow exit and, thus also, newspaper careers. But librarians? You'd think with such an information overload there would be more need than ever for librarians—to find and explain, weed out the unnecessary, and catalog the rest. Apparently not.

I saw the writing on the stacks, years ago, when (what was then) the U.S. General Accounting Office began to pull professional library staff out of the Technical Library where I worked. It became merely a room full of books and CD-ROM terminals, which, in retrospect, doesn't seem all that horrifying since most GAO researchers have advanced degrees and know their way around a library.

Children don't have the advantage of college training when they head to a library. It helps to have someone there who can suggest books they never would find on their own. Yet in my Maryland county right now—one of the wealthiest in the nation—public library hours have been slashed and the children's desks sit empty.

At least, I thought, school libraries are safe. But next year's school budget proposes to slash school media specialist positions to half-time. Librarians won't have time to interact with classes, they'll be there just to keep the library together. Arizona and California, among other states, have already slashed school librarian positions.

Writers, take note! These changes mean that in the future children and parents are going to be on their own when they walk into a library to select a book. The kids will probably grab the books with the flashiest covers, or whatever their friends are reading. The parents will probably grab children's books by the authors they recognize, or those with awards noted on their covers. Books that could have been transformative or comforting are going to remain on the shelves, unknown and ignored—or not ordered at all.

One of the reasons I am a writer is because I loved books so much as a child. They were always accessible to me. I could walk to the branch library on lazy summer mornings, and check out books from the school library during the school year.

That branch library closed more than 20 years ago. Now there is only one library for the entire county, to which most children must be driven. Still, I presumed, the school library offered children easy access to books, at least during the school year. Soon that safe harbor may disappear—if it hasn't already.

My fear is that when counties have more money again, the need for librarians—what it is like to have someone guide you through both stacks and cyberspace—will be forgotten.

(The photograph is the inside of my hometown library, Moravian Falls Public Library, summer of 1977, before it closed)

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