Librarians talking about what librarians do

July 27, 2010

Over the last few years as I’ve gone through library school and started thinking and writing about the field, it’s become clear to me that most people who aren’t affiliated with libraries or librarians in some way (through employment or marriage or frequent library use) have no idea what librarians do–or even who exactly in a library is a librarian. People who use their libraries at least tend to know some of what their libraries have to offer, but non-users are in the dark about both librarians and the libraries where they work. I mentioned in the post I wrote about the Diane Rehm Show about public libraries that I don’t think librarians are always great at explaining to outsiders exactly why the library is awesome and exactly what it is we do, and I’ve been thinking about some of the ways we can get that message out.

In some ways it’s easy to talk about why libraries are great. We can point to all of the resources and services that we offer and make a case using outcomes-based measures for how we have a positive impact in the community. And we can (and should!) tailor our message to the listener: parents want to know about storytimes and how early literacy skills give kids a developmental leg up. People seeking entertainment will love hearing that the library lends DVDs for free (and that libraries lend more DVDs than Netflix!). Entrepreneurs in the community can make good use of our tax help sessions or business databases. Families on vacation can come to us for audiobooks–and for recommendations on what stories they might like. Politicians need to hear that we help people navigate government websites and access government information and forms online. I really do believe that everyone in the community can find something useful or enjoyable to them at the library, and it’s just a matter of us letting them know that and helping them find that useful or enjoyable thing. (Getting them into the library in the first place is another post altogether, I suppose.)

But it’s trickier telling people what librarians do, especially when we’re trying to fight the impression that all we do is check books out to people and read all day. It doesn’t directly benefit people to talk about ourselves the way it does to talk about our libraries, so finding an audience for this information is hard. It can also be difficult not to sound defensive when we’re trying to explain how librarians are different than the front-line staff at the checkout desk, since they’re often the first point of contact for many people at the library. And as Lino pointed out in a comment on a post I wrote about a corporate librarian’s talk to our student group in library school, people’s perceptions of librarians change as they encounter different libraries and different types of libraries.

If people ask directly what we do, we can point them to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s librarian profile, but that’s pretty dry. It helps when the New York Times does pieces on how librarianship has changed in the digital age since it directly explains some of the things librarians are doing, especially in the age of computers. But librarians need to do their own explaining and tell their own stories, too.

In a response to Lino’s comment, I mentioned two of the things that we can do to educate people about what librarians are and what we do. The first is to mentor people–particularly young people–through things like Teen Advisory Boards and library volunteer programs. Having repeated personal contact with a librarian or being involved in the library yourself shows you first-hand what librarians and libraries are like, and for young people, it can even awaken in them a passion for library work. (And since we can’t get everyone to marry a librarian, more structured programs seem to be the way to go to give people that personal connection.)

But as powerful as that one-on-one contact is, we need other ways to reach people, and I think blogging is one good way to do that. A number of librarians have written blog posts and articles specifically about what librarians do. For example:

Twice a year, the Library Day in the Life project asks librarians to document what they do on a particular day every year. Round 5 happened yesterday and there are already posts available. This project is especially interesting because librarians from lots of different kinds of libraries talk about their days, not just public librarians, who seem to be the most vocal in explaining who they are and what they do, most likely since they’re most often asked to justify their existence.

And while library blogs tend to be written by librarians, for librarians, there are a few that I think would appeal to non-librarians, too. The most illuminating and accessible librarian-blogger I’ve found so far is Brian Herzog, the Swiss Army Librarian. His posts never seem too long and each week he features a reference question (they’re usually the particularly funny or interesting or challenging ones) he was asked that week and the strategies he used for answering it. He also includes posts that are useful to practicing librarians (super-especially his recent “Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk”) or musings on current events and controversies in librarianship, but overall I think his blog is a great example of how we can document what we do and what we’re about.

Librarians aren’t always great about explaining to non-librarians why libraries and librarians are important, but there are some good examples of how we can do so. Positive media coverage helps librarians show off our skills and our libraries. Personal contact and repeated positive library experiences are the most powerful way to show people what libraries and librarians are all about. Talking and writing about what we do (and why we do it!) lets us reach a broader audience and tell our own stories. We need to be able to see our institutions and ourselves from an outsider’s perspective and then find ways to reach people with our message of the awesomeness of libraries and librarians.

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4 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Brian Herzog  |  July 28, 2010 at 7:34 AM

    This is a great post (and thank you for the amazing things you said about me). You’re right that it can be difficult to explain succinctly why libraries should be important to people – maybe librarians would benefit from a list of “talking points” – a few key points easy to remember and easy for people to take away.

    By the way, I love the design of your blog – the graphics are amazing.

  • 2. Gretchen  |  July 28, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    Brian: I meant what I said about you! I really enjoy reading your posts.

    I think a list of talking points would be really helpful, especially if they consider the library from an outsider’s perspective. I think we need to sharpen our message *and* look for new channels to get that message out.

    And thanks! The design was done by Brandon Peat and I really liked both what he came up with him and the process of working with him.

  • 3. caitlin quinn  |  August 2, 2010 at 8:10 PM

    Hi Gretchen. Great advocacy piece here! Useful links too…Thanks and keep up the good work!

  • 4. Librarified » NYPL&&hellip  |  July 9, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    [...] called Why libraries still matter about… well, just that, focusing on NYPL specifically.) We need to talk about what we do and we need to be out in the community and offer unique, relevant things. Find the Future is such a [...]

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