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The 21st Century Librarian

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Over a 48-Hour period, Caitlin Fralick, a Librarian at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, and Jessica Rovito, a Librarian with the Toronto Public Library, talked about patrons, ebooks, "rebellious heroines" and the future of their profession. The interview was conducted via email.

Jessica Rovito:

My book-related question has to do with the role of books in today’s public libraries. I began working as a public librarian back in May 2010 at a busy district branch located in Toronto. The neighbourhood I work in has been identified as one of the 13 priority neighbourhoods across the city, and most of its residents are new Canadians. I am sharing this in part because I strongly believe that the communities we work in must inform the approaches that we take as librarians.

My entrance into the world of public libraries contrasts with my previous job as a cataloguer in an academic library. Whereas all of my time at the university was spent working with books as physical objects, I am finding that my current job does not afford me such an opportunity. Instead, much of my time on the reference desk is spent refereeing customers (for all you non-librarians out there, many in our profession have taken to calling patrons customers) to social services. So my question is this: how much of your time as a public librarian is spent actually engaging with books?

Caitlin Fralick:

I love this question because I've been thinking about it over the last few days as I prepared for this interview. I've been a real book geek for my whole life, and it was my love of reading and talking about books that drove me, in part, to library work in general and eventually to a Master's in Library Science. I still remember how weird I felt at that first library school orientation event when our technology professor got up and announced that if we were sitting there because we loved to read, we were there for the wrong reason. You could feel the collective sense of disappointment in the room. I'm pretty sure all of us were driven to librarianship in some part because of a love of books and reading, and we were all wondering what the heck we were doing (a feeling that got stronger as we made our way through that semester's database and web design projects, I'm sure).

But her assertion has stuck with me over my five years as a public librarian, because I keep wavering back and forth between agreement and disagreement with her point. My first librarian job was at the Ottawa Public Library, where I worked on the reference desk at a brand new and very busy branch in the city's south end. Like you, I found that I spent more time negotiating with patrons (I still call them patrons — I know it might be archaic now, but I just can't think of them as customers), answering technological questions and offering low-level childcare and counseling services than actually engaging with the public about books and authors. In my next job in Ottawa, as a community outreach librarian working primarily with newcomers to Canada, my work focused more on making community connections and offering information on local resources than on pleasure reading. Now I work as a branch librarian at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library and am a part of the Readers' Advisory committee, which, now that I think of it, does very little traditional readers' advisory work. While we do come up with lists of recommended reads for our patrons and share our own reading loves and hates, we also organize movie nights and attend community events. I love that library work is so much about being a part of the community, but I also miss the opportunity to really talk up a good book with a stranger, really engage with other readers and send them home with armloads of novels. Usually I'm too busy impersonating a cop or a social worker for that.

So speaking of the decline of books in libraries (which I hope is being greatly exaggerated), here's my book question for you: What impact do you think electronic publishing is having on libraries? Over the last few years, I've seen the advent of downloadable ebooks and audiobooks just explode in the library — we're buying tons of these titles and the number of patrons interested in them is booming. Do you think downloadable material, and even web-based reading via blogs or online newspapers, will ever really replace paper publishing?

JR:

First of all, I am glad to hear that you "cling" to the word patron. I rather dislike using the word customer and will happily refer to library users as patrons for the remainder of this interview.

You asked me if I think downloadable material will ever replace paper publishing, and my answer is no. Your question makes me recall a quote by the American journalist Martin Arnold who wrote: "[s]till, the e-book is not a passing thing, but here to stay as it becomes cheaper and improved. Nonetheless, it is really no more than a screen upon which to read, and it is clear that when enough people start reading them, electronic books will do for the ophthalmologists what taffy and caramels did for dentists." I don’t think that I will ever get used to reading for pleasure on a screen, nor do I want to. There is a kind of pleasure that can only be had from the physical handling of a book — the cracking open of its spine, the smell of its paper, the thumbing through of its pages etc., which I believe is universally appreciated and incapable of being mimicked digitally.

In answer to your first question, I do not think that the advent of electronic publishing has had as big an impact on public libraries as it has on academic libraries. I do, however, think that institutionalizing the use of proprietary software in public libraries can have a negative impact all its own. True, libraries have been using such software to run their catalogues for many decades, but never before has the onus to own software been placed on patrons themselves. You mentioned in your last response some of the reasons why you were attracted to the profession of librarianship. For me, the primary reason that I wanted to work in libraries was because I believe in their power as great social levelers — the poor man’s university as it were. Although a fantastic resource, promoting downloadable material in the library can run the risk of introducing tiered levels of service. It takes a certain amount of capital to enjoy ebooks and audiobooks. Unlike cracking open a book, the output of electronic publishing requires playback devices to be enjoyed.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone has access to a personal computer, an ebook reader or an iPod. True, many public libraries do lend out such devices; however, I don’t see that as a solution to leveling the issue at hand. The portability of books and the lack of technical know-how that’s required to use them is part of what makes public libraries levelers in the first place. The simplicity of accessing information through printed material is another reason why I don’t think that downloadable material will ever fully replace paper publishing. The libraries of antiquity would never have survived if they had to keep up with the latest and greatest software required to access their own collections.

What do you see if any, to be the ramifications of moving from primarily print to increasingly digital collections in the public library?

CF:

I love that Martin Arnold quote — I'd never heard it before. I'm a bit of a Luddite myself and don't really believe that ebooks will ever replace the real thing, and I totally agree with you about the physical experience of holding and reading a real book. I also think we read differently off a screen. I heard CBC journalist (and moral compass, where I come from) Michael Enright speak at a conference a few years ago, and he talked about his experience of reading a book on an eReader screen. I'm paraphrasing, poorly, but he talked about how different it was and how distracting. When you're reading off a screen, you feel less engaged, he said. You feel like you can get to the end of a paragraph and then decide to take a little break, check the weather and read a few news headlines. You lose that deep-reading feeling of getting completely lost in the words on the page, not looking up till you realize it's gotten dark and you need to turn on a lamp. (Here's an aside of a question for you — what was the first book that made you stay up past bedtime to devour? For me I think it was Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

To answer your question about the ramifications of moving away from print, I think you hit the nail on the head with the possibility of tiered services for our patrons (excellent word). You're quite right — you need gadgets and time and some level of technical savvy to download your reading material, and for a whole host of reasons, many people will be unable to do so. Reaching as many people as possible and supporting the rich tradition of knowledge for knowledge's sake was another big inspiration for me as I moved through the library world, and these days, I tend to see technology as a hindrance to accessibility for many people. I'm not advocating a return to the card catalogue, but I do think we need to remember to provide different services for different people and not just throw all of our efforts behind new technologies while forgetting our foundations.

At the same time, though, I do see the neat little ways that virtual and electronic materials can reach people who might never have entered a library in the first place. I work close to CFB Kingston, and like all library patrons, residents of the base can use their library cards to access material online from anywhere. Some of my colleagues are thinking of ways to better promote our virtual services to people in the community who might not always even be physically nearby — they could be checking their email from Kandahar while downloading books in the next tab. The library can still be around the corner, even when we're on the other side of the globe. One of the things I love most about working in the library is the opportunity to be a part of people's daily lives, and I sometimes I worry that as things grow increasingly virtual, we'll lose those connections with the folks in the neighbourhood.. Maybe we just need to get more creative about the ways we try to reach them.

Okay, to change the subject completely, here's my question to you: Do you think you can sell a book to a patron without actually having read it? I feel like when I finally DO get a reader-to-reader question from a patron, I'm often grasping to find something I like that also happens to be on the shelf, and sometimes in desperation try to make them take a book whose review I might have skimmed in passing (and now, my horrible secret is out). Do you think you can know a book well enough to recommend on reputation (or even just cover design) alone?

JR:

It's interesting to know that the book which made you first stay up past bedtime was Little House in the Big Woods. My under-the-covers-flashlight-in-hand reading adventures first began with Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. There was something truly wonderful about the prepubescent feelings of rebellion that went along with following Anne's mischievous misadventures under the cloak of night.

I do indeed think that librarians can sell patrons books, which they themselves have not read, in part because I think we have to. None of us can keep up with all of the latest fiction or non-fiction titles no matter how hard we try; it’s just not realistic. So how exactly are we expected to sell books that we haven’t read? In a number of ways: through consulting readers advisory books, databases and wikis; reading book reviews; referring to lists of recent award winners, etc. I am not ashamed to admit that I combine my personal knowledge of materials with the information contained in electronic resources, such as the Novelist set of databases, in order to provide a patron with appropriate suggestions. I will also be the first to admit that my reliance on these electronic tools is problematic for many reasons. Librarians’ growing dependence on these resources can lead to the deskilling and disempowerment of the library profession. If a librarian does nothing more then conduct a keyword search in a readers' advisory database, what may I ask is the value-added component of our service? What sets librarians apart from a friendly Indigo employee? I am not suggesting that libraries have no value-added services, but am simply communicating some of the issues and challenges I struggle with as a young professional.

Your question also brings to mind the differences between generalist vs. specialist approaches to librarianship. I think we would all agree that it is impossible for any librarian to have read all of the books on the shelves of their library. But is it better for them to know a lot about one particular area or to know less about a broader range of subjects? Should the professionalization of librarianship lie in subject specialties or someplace else?

I believe that part of the professional duty of librarians should be to question the status quo — take for example the accepted neutrality of book reviews. I think that recommending books on reputation alone is problematic, no matter how realistic and popular this option may be.

Books that are reviewed by popular media and in the professional literature have, more likely then not, the backing of large publishing houses behind them — businesses that have the money and the resources to send out review copies of their products. Oftentimes books aren’t reviewed because they are the most interesting, but because a reviewer received a free copy. I often wonder: for every latest bestseller we bring to a patron’s attention, should there be some sort of professional responsibility to balance our suggestion by also recommending a lesser-known item, say a book published by an alternative press?

On that note, I’m wondering what you think about the bookstore model of libraries. Do you believe that it’s time for libraries to adapt to this model or is there merit in questioning the adoption of such an approach?

CF:

There really was something so subversively delightful about those rebellious heroines in the books of our youth, wasn't there? I loved Laura Ingalls for the same reason — she didn't always want to do the right thing, and when she didn't, and got in trouble, I so sympathized with her frustration. As an incredibly nervous and well-behaved child, I think I envied her, too. (Not to mention the amazing detailed descriptions of pioneer clothes and food — totally fascinating!)

I like the bookstore model, or at least the idea of it. I think we have a bit of work to do before it's a perfect (or at least a less fallible) system.

For those not in the know, the basic premise of bookstore merchandising in libraries is to make libraries more like our commercial counterparts: organizing material in popular categories instead of the often outdated and non-intuitive Dewey Decimal subject headings used by the majority of North American public libraries. Along with this reorganization comes collection merchandising: displaying books face-out on the shelves, and making these bookstore-style displays the focal point of the branch. No more dusty old books hidden in the stacks, just attractive and easily-found stuff. Like I said, I love this idea in theory. I think it makes the library a less intimidating place for non-users; like it or not, the commercial/retail model is one that makes sense for a lot of people. My first job at Ottawa's Greenboro District Library involved working in a merchandising pilot project that also included a non-requestable collection. Again, for all you non-librarians, non-requestable means you can't reserve books in the collection at a given branch, no matter how new or how popular, so you can walk in the door and be guaranteed to find a copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (and all subsequent sequels, natch) on the shelf regardless of how many people are ahead of you on the reservation queue. I can't tell you how many people would wander into the building and tell me they'd never been library users before discovering our collection, that they loved just coming in to browse.

But there are problems that go along with this philosophy. One of the biggest, I think, is that our cataloguing principles haven't caught up with our ideas. Some public libraries have started working with new classification models for their materials to better reflect the popular categories into which they're divided (the Markham Public Library is one that's received a lot of praise), but we still lack a systematic approach to classifying our material in a way that makes sense to everyone. I know this could be argued in the case of our current default classification systems, but it's also something we don't think enough about updating as we update other aspects of our service delivery.

Perhaps an even more significant issue with the bookstore model is the retail-style thinking that the customer is always right. When you look like a bookstore, patrons will treat you like you're a bookstore. People expect to go into a retail space and find what they're looking for without much hassle, and we can't always do everything for everyone. The single copy of Paul Quarrington's Cigar Box Banjo gets lost somewhere between being checked in and being reshelved, and next thing you know, you're dealing with some very unhappy (and often cranky) book lovers, or your Internet service is down and no one can get online. Maybe I just had a long day, but I feel like the more we look like a store, the more people feel like they can treat us like low-level workers, when in reality we're far more skilled than that, and we deserve more respect. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also tell you that in addition to being a librarian, I'm also the vice-president of the library's union local, and I often feel like I spend a lot of my time navigating between the best interests of patrons and the staff's right to good treatment. It's a tough balance to strike.

I completely agree with what you said about the deskilling of librarians, for all the reasons you gave and also because of the retail model I've just been thinking about (great, now I'm depressed). So here's an uplifting question to finish things off: What do you think librarians can do to keep our profession vital and respected? How can we keep selling ourselves as intelligent, multi-talented professionals?

JR:

I believe that in order to keep the profession of librarianship vital and respected, librarians should remain intellectually curious. Along with such curiosity should come a willingness to house, process or allow access to controversial material, to present unpopular and disputed ideas, and a drive to stand up for the rights of library users. Librarians should, in my opinion, sell themselves as advocates for intellectual freedom. A commitment to uphold the rights to intellectual freedom can be understood as an acknowledgement of the importance of taking intellectual risks. Along with the collection and maintenance of any public library collection comes a responsibility to uphold the public trust. Librarians must make informed decisions about how to manage the aforementioned risks in order to protect the plurality of ideas, which is a vital component of any democracy. So with a bit of levity behind the statement, here’s a modern day pitch for our traditional profession — Librarians: Democratic Risk Managers.

CF:

Amen, sister. I couldn't have said it better myself. Here's to our radical, democratic, always risky commitment to the free exchange of knowledge.

This was a lot of fun — thanks for a fabulous discussion! And apologies for signing off post-48 hours — I've spent the first part of my day minding the store at a woefully Internet-free library. Never a dull moment.

Caitlin Fralick

Caitlin Fralick wishes people would refer to her as the Littlest Hobo of the library world. A reluctant nomad, she has gone to school in Toronto and Vancouver and has worked at libraries in every town she's ever lived in, including her hometown of Hamilton and our nation's capital. She currently lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she is a branch librarian at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library. Caitlin blogs semi-obsessively about the books she's reading and not reading at girlinthisroom.blogspot.com.

Jessica Rovito

Jessica Rovito is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information where she specialized in Library and Information Science and Archives and Records Management. She currently works as a Librarian for the Toronto Public Library.

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