“Community Center” Mindset Fosters Librarian Polarization


Back in early December I Posted Polarization of the Librarian Profession? in which I opined on a Post by effinglibrarian ( Patron Expectations vs. Librarian Expectations in Library Service). He observed that “…it doesn’t matter how much librarians know or do, there always seem to be other librarians who demand that we know and do more. Like it’s a personal offense to them when we aren’t up on the latest, … whatever, whether it’s a new author or a subject or a device or a philosophy.” His comments made me consider the question of polarization within the librarian profession – centered upon each side’s concept of the 21st Century Library.

Well, the topic has surfaced again (which in my mind gives it “legs” – as the phrase was coined a few years ago), this time by Annoyed Librarian for LibraryJournal.com in a March 16 Post Public Library Privilege, which got effinglibrarian going again. Annoyed proposes that;

A few months ago, someone wrote an opinion article for LJ about “big tent” librarianship, arguing that “all librarians are intrinsically connected in their personal motivations for entering the profession” and “are connected by core beliefs across the different library types.” It was written “to combat the illusion of separation that currently exists within the field.”

I read it at the time, and thought, eh, okay, interesting idea. It’s not terribly new, and is pretty much what the ALA has preached for decades with its bills of rights and mission statements and other documents that supposedly cover all libraries. The ALA implies that librarians all have something in common, though the existence of the SLA, MLA, and AALL should tell us something.

I also don’t think librarians are intrinsically connected in their personal motivations for entering the profession.

I also don’t believe the separation that exists among librarians is an illusion. Librarians really are separate, and the problems they face are often not connected. That libraries have some things in common means very little when tacking individual problems.

effinglibrarian used that post as an opportunity to expand on his original Post on the topic when he posted “Libraries, the Universe and Everything” yesterday, in which he opined that;

I’d like to take this time to put forward a grand unifying theory of libraries: Librarians are not unified.

I was reading a discussion of the Annoyed Librarian and some librarians continue to follow the dream of believing in a world where all librarians share the common goals of service to the customer, preservation of materials, intellectual freedom and open access to information.

And they are completely and totally wrong.

His primary premise, as I understood it, is that funding between the private and public sectors are competing for limited dollars, therefore they are inherently on opposite sides of issues.

I wholeheartedly agree with Annoyed that librarians are NOT “connected by core beliefs across the different library types.” In fact, I believe the polarization goes deeper than either of these current reasons posed by my esteemed Blogger colleagues. The division is more closely related to effing’s original reason of “…it doesn’t matter how much librarians know or do, there always seem to be other librarians who demand that we know and do more” because that is at the heart of the polarization – those who think there is nothing new about librarianship in the 21st Century, and those who know this is a new era for librarianship.

I have spent the past year trying to highlight the many and significant changes to the librarian profession, and the environment of technology advances, societal changes and education reform that are promoting those major changes. Those who are accepting the changes and innovating their profession to deal with them are making their library’s successful and are far ahead of those who are ignoring or un-accepting of the changes – and who do so to their own detriment, and that of their library.

I also see that the polarization is based in a professional mindset causing a significant division between those librarians who accept and promote the concept of the local library as a “community center model” (I’ve decided to call it) – versus those who envision their library as the center of the community.

Too often I read and hear the term “community center” applied to the library (even as recently as last week at the IMLS Conference). The troubling part is that librarians who endorse that term may think they are promoting the library as the center of the community – they are not! In fact, “community center model” advocates are endorsing the concept of the library as just another place for citizens to congregate to enjoy whatever activities the community offers for free (in most cases), where teens can stay off the streets, where civic groups can offer classes on various hobbyist subjects, where citizens can come to interact with others of their own age, where librarians act as activity coordinators, and where the community locates its tax-based social activities. The term “community center” to non-librarians means the library is a part of the traditional “Community Center”, which is proliferating across the nation as libraries combine with other community agencies and civic functions.

The 21st Century library that is a center of the community is the place where citizens are attracted to the information offerings to improve their life, and find the knowledgeable assistance they need to solve problems and seek personal fulfillment – whether books, DVDs, video games, music or art. The center of the community library is the place that offers information technology skills, teaches citizens information literacy skills, provides information in a multitude of formats, and where skilled information professionals present services and programs that change people’s lives.

It would be a huge improvement in the 21st Century librarian profession if all librarians understood the distinction between the role of the library in the local community as a “community center”, which will some day obliterate the identity of the library entirely, and the library as the “center of the community” which will perpetuate its vital role in the community indefinitely.

5 Comments

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5 responses to ““Community Center” Mindset Fosters Librarian Polarization

  1. cheryl

    Once again you have pointed out the important distinction –it is not about the book, it is about literacy –print, digital, computer, global literacy. It is not about the building –it is about the librarian and the librarian’s skills to navigate the ever changing ways to be key players in the community.

  2. bob farwell

    I appreciate the distinction, but I have adopted the community center role for some very pragmatic reasons. First, we are a city without a community center. Literally. Our meeting spaces, programming and information services are quite literally, the only game in town. Second, the title was about to be co-opted by another facility for what was, at its core a recreational facility with some meeting space and programming appended. Relinquishing the appellation community center ran the risk of marginalizing the library in the public’s mind by disassociating it from a variety of community centered activities. We are located in the community’s center, and strive to be a center of community activity. Finally, I have to challenge the assumption regarding the public’s definition of a community center. There is no evidence to support the contention that our services at a library will be obliterated by references to our role as a community center. However, I have seen much more acceptance of the distinctions between a recreational facility and a library’s services to the community.

    • Thank you for that perspective on reality. It is each individual community’s and library’s circumstances that determine what is ultimately best for both. I agree there have been no studies done to determine perceptions regarding these combined library/community center facilities, but no doubt they will follow in years to come.

      But by the same token there is no reason not to believe that a library that takes on the community role (and I’m not suggesting that this is what your library is doing) of a “place for citizens to congregate to enjoy whatever activities the community offers for free …, where teens can stay off the streets, where civic groups can offer classes on various hobbyist subjects, where citizens can come to interact with others of their own age, where librarians act as activity coordinators, and where the community locates its tax-based social activities.” will become obscured by that role over a library’s true purpose.

      AND, I firmly believe that “The term ‘community center’ to non-librarians means the library is a part of the traditional ‘Community Center’” which presents librarians with the added burden of trying to change that perception along with the other advocacy efforts necessary to remain relevant and funded.

      I’ll be interested to see how this experiment works out for your library. Best of Luck.

  3. bob farwell

    Thank you for replying to my comments. I have shared both my riposte to your original entry and your follow up comments with the members of the library staff. I will be interested to see their responses. It should lead to a healthy exchange of views!

  4. Pingback: Friday Reads Sweet Sixteen Weekend Edition | Matt Phillips

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