Librarian chic

The Nine Publishing Good Weekend papers that came out last Saturday featured a story about libraries. It was a good read, with a number of personal interest stories. Any librarian, past or present, who objects to that story must be a curmudgeon, right? Well, count me in — to a point.

There was a lot to like about the story. Props to Jane Cadzow for wanting to write something positive about the institution which is a synonym for dowdy and boring. It was only recently that I saw an outfit of (I think) skirt and jumper described as “librarian chic”. Actually, I have just had a through-the-looking-glass moment when Googling this phrase. There was an entire session devoted to exploring “librarian chic” at the IFLA conference last year in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not making it up, you know! Here is the session abstract: 

“Have you ever made a quick judgement about someone because of what they’re wearing? Sure, we have all done it. Does this mean that the way we dress at work influences how we are perceived and categorized in society?
The topic of Librarian Fashion opens a myriad of questions: Should librarians wear a uniform? Can we wear tattoos? Should we dress with dignity – and what does dignity mean? What about piercings? Jewels? Religious or political symbols? Does it depend on a personal choice, on the country we live in, or on the position we hold in the library? Should a library director dress like a librarian or like a director? Do you believe in enclothed cognition?”

Go to the conference web page, scroll down to session 142 — it’s near the top — and click on it. Six papers are supposedly in English (I haven’t checked this out — no pun intended).

Dragging myself back to the Good Weekend article, the author set a few hares running, but failed to follow them to their burrows. Take the quote from Michael Moore about librarians being dangerous revolutionaries. This was just plonked out there with no explanation, for shock value. (Those nice librarians, dangerous! Ooh!) But what makes librarians dangerous? Providing books and other materials that are communally owned, for people to take home in an orderly way, is actually quite an anarchistic thing to do. It would be much more profitable for publishers if all of us had to buy our own copy. This arrangement would probably be better for authors too. (The Australian Lending Right schemes are intended to compensate authors for sale income that they have lost because libraries have been lending out their books. But that’s a story for another time.)

The article stressed the egalitarian nature of public libraries, which of course is all well and good. The same applies to university libraries — everyone is supposedly equal at the enquiries desk, whether they are an undergraduate or the vice chancellor. Partners in a law firm, however, definitely get preferential treatment over the paralegals and other lesser breeds. I remember hearing a law librarian, at a conference explaining how she had learned the art of the “elevator pitch”, in case she came to share the lift with a partner. Hold the boring memos requesting funding — just front them directly! Requests from those who make funding decisions tend to get priority.

Egalitarianism is a fellow traveller with co-operation, and libraries are intrinsically co-operative institutions. If your local library doesn’t hold a book (or whatever) in its collection, staff will get hold of it from another library via the inter-library loan system. (There may be a charge to the end-user for this service.) In Australia, this is facilitated by Libraries Australia, which is a kind of national union catalogue. The co-operative ethos of all this obviously runs contrary to that of free market capitalism.

This kumbaya stuff has its limits, though. It’s stretching the point, as the article does, to say that borrowing books from a library is something that “runs on trust”. There is no covenant without the sword, and libraries have fines for late return. (Some librarians, as the article pointed out, think these should be done away with.) Library fines these days are fairly nuanced in their application. It is a well kept secret that in many cases, if books are returned one or two days overdue, a fine will mostly not be levied. This is based on research that found that most delinquent loans are returned soon after an overdue notice is issued. Lose a book, though, and you have to pay the purchase cost, plus a processing fee. (This happened to me, after I left a library book that I took on holidays, and left in the pouch in front of my airplane seat. After calls to the airline lost property didn’t get it back, I just went to my local branch and ‘fessed up. Oh yes, I’ve done that, said the librarian who processed my payment.) Don’t just hope the library will forget about it, though: you might have to pay the accrued overdue fines as well!

The article, as the author acknowledged, only looked at municipal or public libraries. It is encouraging to read that these are doing well, in Australia at least. Of course, libraries come in many other flavours. Universities and higher education institutions largely still have them. Ditto for schools, law firms, museums, government departments, and research institutes — the last four coming under the umbrella term of special libraries. I suspect newspaper libraries are a thing of the past, along with many other special libraries. Survivors are under threat from managerial types who think that everything is now freely available, in full text, on the web, so what do we need libraries and librarians for? (This ignores the question as to why publishers have suddenly become philanthropists, happy to give content away online that they charge for in hard copy.)

Special library work allows staff to acquire expertise in the topics featured  in the collection. This expertise is a bit like topsoil — slow to form, easily lost. Its loss is one of the worst aspects of the closure of special libraries. Collections that have been painstakingly built up are also scattered to the four winds. With luck, a library somewhere else in the world will have these titles. If it is a back run of a really specialised journal, however, it is probably only available in hard copy. Articles and conference papers can be tough to get hold of; most libraries don’t lend these materials out. If it is available in a database, libraries which have a subscription are often forbidden by their user licences from using the database to fulfil interlibrary loan requests. The more specialized the request, the harder it is to fulfil, and the really out-of-the-way stuff can only be delivered by a librarian who knows the nooks and crannies of that topic area. Just hope that one of those is on your case!

Politicians are happy to bang on about the knowledge economy. The special library, however, continues on the endangered list. This is particularly the case in a place like Australia, where managers are rewarded for closing down expensive and outwardly unproductive things like libraries. So, yes, celebrate your local library! Use it or lose it! Would you rather have that, or Amazon?

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