Last week I was invited to address a congress of librarians. I discovered all over again why they are some of my favourite people.
There is something subversive about librarians and libraries. The library remains a place where information isn’t bought and sold. Even if you think of them as being fussy and discreet, what librarians do radically empowers ordinary people, enabling them to use information outside the control of elites.
Last Thursday Eva Raby, the charismatic and articulate head of the Jewish Public Library, was awarded the Anne Galler Prize by the Quebec Library Association at the New Residence at McGill. Raby is a pistol, fast talking and razor smart, and she is in the tradition of the activist librarian. Just drop into the Jewish Public Library and you will see what a hub of activity it is – a veritable town square of people doing a hundred things. Anne Galler, the librarian for whom the prize is named, was the same. Galler fought for literacy, services for the disabled and disadvantaged, librarians in schools and the improvement of prison libraries.
Libraries and librarians are changing. If you go online you will find the Librarian in Black, Bitchy Librarian and, yes, the Society for Librarians Who Say Motherfucker.
Look up the fantastic and insightful writing by the Free Range Librarian, the Lipstick Librarian, Feel-good Librarian, Info Babe, Information Wants to Be Free, and the important blog by Vermont librarian Jessamyn West at Librarian.net, just to name a few. Librarians have taken to social media and the biblio-blogosphere with enthusiasm. And they can be scathingly funny.
In an age of information glut, no algorithm can replace intelligence and analysis. Take Wikipedia. It’s okay as a source when there is agreement about a subject. But lawsuits have been filed, and Wiki pages have been taken down and new ones put up in the space of minutes when the issue or the person is controversial. When there is contradiction or controversy, a librarian is required.
In her fabulous This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, author Marilyn Johnson lays this out. Johnson monitors 97 librarian blogs on her RSS feed. Librarian in Black monitors 450. Library science is exploding right now – it’s like the Wild West. Librarians have been boldly moving in and taking charge of the information, making it usable and accessible to us.
There is the Radical Reference group, which wrote and posted “The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention” in 2008, providing resources and access to databanks for anti-globalization and other groups protesting outside the convention in NYC. Group members wore signs saying “Street Librarian” and were armed with iPhones through which they updated a wiki loaded with information about legal aid, toilets and fast food, and they were also linked through Twitter. There are RadRef chapters around the world.
There’s the Connecticut Four – four library directors who defied the Patriot Act, refusing to comply with the FBI and hand over lists of materials borrowed by library patrons. They felt that it violated the U.S. Constitution and the right to privacy of library users. These mild-mannered middle-aged librarians sued the government.
The library that I loved as a kid was named after a librarian who had the temerity to introduce fiction into the library system in Toronto during the 1920s, at a time when fiction was a luxury for the wealthy only. George Herbert Locke ran the Toronto Public Library system from 1908 to 1937, but he was way ahead of his time. He organized story hours for children, collected work in Lithuanian, Yiddish and other Eastern European languages for immigrant readers and organized the branch system of libraries. Locke was the first Canadian to head the august American Library Association, and brought the needs of the people to the library.
And that is increasingly what libraries and librarians are doing today. Just drop into the Grande Bibliothèque, the Westmount Library or any of the various community libraries in the city and across the province. You will see that they have changed – in some cases, so much so that they are unrecognizable.
Free Wi-Fi, DVDs, CDs and video games are on loan. Food and drink are allowed in more and more libraries. Activities and billboards abound, as do talks and seminars, reading gardens, chess and other social clubs. Just when community seems to be collapsing, the library has become a kind of village green.
FIGHT FOR THE LIBRARY, IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD AND IN THE SCHOOLS
Meanwhile, Canada is falling way behind other countries in terms of school librarians. The Globe and Mail reports that, as other developed countries increase their budgets for libraries, especially in schools, Canada is getting rid of its school librarians. Digital records cannot replace a person who can guide kids through the maze of dreck on the net. Librarians help kids go beyond Wikipedia and Google searches, protecting kids’ privacy and dealing with cyber-bullying. In Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Finland, there are big national programs to improve school libraries, not close them, as we are doing.
If your neighbourhood doesn’t have a library, fight for one. It’s a municipal issue in Quebec. There are fewer libraries per capita in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada. Why not take over the churches and other religious buildings, converting them to places where there is a communion of knowledge? After all, the check-out counter at Dawson College, once a convent, is the altar of what used to be the chapel.
Seems fitting in this new age.