Pseudo-Libraries and Semi-Teachers

By White, Herbert S. | American Libraries, February 1990 | Go to article overview

Pseudo-Libraries and Semi-Teachers


White, Herbert S., American Libraries


Because librarians cannot or will not define their own mission, public libraries fluctuate with society's whims, academic libraries serve as warehouses, and school libraries exist in never-never land

IF WE WERE TO PLAY WORD ASSOCIATION games, I suspect the word "library" would trigger the response "books." The word "hospital," by contrast, would elicit "doctor" or "nurse," not "bed," "ward," or "hospital gown." When the public thinks of libraries it thinks of the collection of materials, and not of librarians.

This is easy to understand when we consider that even our profession itself does not know how many libraries are staffed by professionally educated librarians. One survey in a Canadian province concluded that less than half of the public libraries were professionally staffed, but we don't know in total, and certainly the public doesn't know. Nor does it care.

The word librarian is subsumed by the word library. In academia, even highly educated faculty members consider student circulation clerks to be "librarians." Librarians are the people who work in libraries. Such is not the case in hospitals, where confusion between doctors, nurses, orderlies, and candy stripers is rate. There are uniforms and apparent dress codes to accentuate the difference. I have found that in large hospitals I am frequently addressed as doctor, perhaps because I meet the perception of what a doctor looks like - if I am wearing a suit and not an old sweatshirt. I am convinced that in a large enough hospital my suit plus a stethoscope would allow me to sit in on staff meetings. Everybody would assume everybody else knew me. In hospitals the charade takes effort. In libraries it takes none at all. There is no need for a stethoscope or a lab coat. If you work in a library, you are a librarian.

Having made no attempt to differentiate between the people who work in them, how then has our profession defined libraries? What must all libraries be or do to qualify for the term "library" as opposed to "book room?"

Libraries are defined by the name over the door. What is called a library is a library. We are so much in favor of libraries that we willingly give the name to anything that claims it. In the public mind the library is the place that has the books. How many books, what kinds of books, for what purpose?

It might be interesting to have a contest for the greatest trivialization. In my experience, it may be what happens on cruise ships, where the "library" is a collection of old novels and mysteries that are never weeded and never replaced. Since the presumed purpose is to help people fall asleep, the more boring the better. It is open two hours a day and staffed by the most junior member of the cruise director's staff, the one who can't even be trusted to manage shuffleboard tournaments. Sometimes it is the cruise singer or dancer, who unfortunately has only one skill but can certainly serve as the "librarian."

If I am on a one-week cruise, I no longer bother to tell these people that I am a librarian; there simply isn't enough time to explain the nuances. Besides, everybody already knows what a library is and what librarians do: They do what the cruise ship dancer does for two hours every day. I suspect that the cruise line does all this to claim some veneer of culture for its enterprise, and of course that tactic works. We are in favor of libraries, even if they serve only to induce sleep. It disturbs and angers me that we are so easily and willingly trivialized by the thousands of pseudo-libraries on ships and in small communities. We certainly "understand" that they can't afford a librarian, so we willingly help prepare pseudolibrarians-except that they are called librarians, just like me.

The danger in this for us is best described in the oft-cited Gresham's Law in economics: Bad money drives out good money. Bad library education can certainly endanger good library education - as long as both are equally accepted by the profession and by accrediting bodies - because bad library education is cheaper. …

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