Pseudo-Libraries and Semi-Teachers

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

Pseudo-Libraries and Semi-Teachers


White, Herbert S., American Libraries


Librarians cannot continue to give library users what they want. The professional's responsibility is to provide what users need,

and need cannot be defined as request.

IN PART 1 OF THIS ARTICLE, I COMMENTED ON the user-dominated agendas of academic libraries, but what do public libraries do? Basically they dispense books to children and senior citizens. They also try very hard to do other things, so hard that their staffs often suffer from job burnout. For many, the largest responsibility of the public library is dealing with whatever wrongs need righting. Social activists in our profession insist that they are not really social workers. Maybe not, but they sure act as though they wish they were.

It is this acceptance of the moral imperative, of tackling problems because they are there-the same reason Hillary climbed Mount Everest-that has now caused us to accept at least two new responsibilities, adult illiteracy and latchkey children. Both are huge social problems that are getting worse every day. Our efforts are at best a token of good win.

I will not, at least for the moment, ask whether or not we should take on these responsibilities at all, but I will question whether we should do so without additional funds. When we do, we must surely realize that there are other things we will not do or not do as well.

What are those things, and whom have we told? If we refuse to confront this question, or even worse allow others to think that the good old library has simply "absorbed" this-just as it absorbed the budget cut and the staff cut-then of course the library becomes even more self-defined. What is the library? It is whatever goes on in the building (or shack, or room, or ocean liner card salon) with "Library" on the door. This argument of the primacy of libraries as visible ends in themselves allows no room for discussion of the rights and privileges of librarians.

I recall having this debate with another library school dean before a rather bewildered group of international students. He insisted that, if necessary, librarians mop the floor. I countered that librarians should mop the floor if the custodian is sick, but if a custodian has been requested and not provided it is absolutely essential that the floor be as filthy as possible, and to invite a visit from the Board of Health. Doing this endangers "the library," but failing to do it turns librarians into clerks and custodians, and keeps them from providing what their clients have every right to expect. Split over values

The value struggle between libraries and librarians has been going on for a long time. In the early 1900s special librarians, medical librarians, and law librarians packed up and left the American Library Association. The reasons were complex, but at least one of them was a conflict of emphases and value systems. The people who left were more interested in what librarians would do. Those who remained in ALA represented largely the "library lovers." The splinter group has been the far more rapidly growing and now comprises probably at least half of the profession.

There is now a more recent development, which throws the equation into disarray. We have long had libraries without librarians, because we have created definitions of libraries that allow them. The new and interesting switch is that we can now have librarians without libraries, and I am not certain how the library lovers will react to individuals who have no institutional loyalties at all, and no appreciation for either holdings or circulation, because they have nothing to hold or circulate.

The special librarians who left ALA placed less emphasis on the library as such and more on what the people in the library did. As these special associations have evolved their literature also shows more of an emphasis on what librarians do. Other libraries, most notably public and academic, have continued to concentrate on the library as an institution, giving people what they "want. …

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