[a preamble: This post was originally written for a class assignment that asked us to respond to the following video from 1947 and how librarianship has changed. My TA didn’t care for what I had written and challenged me on several parts, specifically on prioritizing resources for at-risk patrons over curated reading lists, and if specifically reading books by BIPOC authors made a difference. While I’m sure she had her reasons, I don’t think they’re good enough to justify the gatekeeping and whitewashing of library collections and services that happens too often. As someone who holds some authority from my position in the world, I aim to use it and to use it well.]
In this short film from 1947, librarians are defined by two qualifications in a snappy catchphrase that could have been grabbed from modern ad copy: a love for books and a love for people. Librarians are described as “radiating [this love of books and of people] to the public” through their ultimate task of “bringing books and people together.”
While I generally agree with these qualifiers, there are other pieces of this video that plant it firmly in its context. The librarians affiliated with educational institutions (interestingly, the video groups K-12 and academic librarians together) have a distinct role to “direct the young reader’s interest into approved and worthwhile channels,” noting that this is “a challenging and rewarding job.” I think it’s a fair move to unpack “approved and worthwhile channels” to mean Euro- and white-centric literature, something that still happens now, but is being pushed against through directed efforts to increase readership of works by BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of colour) authors. Sunili Govinnage wrote for the Washington Post about the effects of a year of reading only books by minorities.
The final call of the 1947 video, the call to action, is the narrator confidently telling his listeners of “a need for thousands of trained librarians.” In this 2016 LIS economy of contract work and precarious labour, I want so badly to believe him.
For a fresher perspective on librarians and the work they do, I watched this video of Pam Sandlian Smith, a librarian from Colorado, presenting at TEDxMileHigh about her experiences as a public librarian, what the library means to her community, and by extension, what our own public libraries can and should mean to us. Through an emotional story of a young at-risk boy using the library in unexpected ways, Sandlian Smith explores the role of librarians as social actors, serving a community’s true need by opening space for what they actually require. To compare to the 1947 role of librarians interacting with children and youth–one of directing them to “worthwhile channels”–it’s vital to recognize that people need and want programming and resources more than they need approval of reading material or to be force funneled into a channel.
Sandlian Smith also explores libraries as first responders, describing the roles that public libraries played following Hurricane Sandy by distributing water and goods, and in Colorado during a time of fires and floods. This role that libraries can play points directly to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library that remained open as a safe haven during the riots in late April 2015 following the murder of Freddie Gray.
Sandlian Smith also sees libraries as places to “create and collaborate,” seeing that learning happens differently for everyone. She also speaks to creating conversation, and discussed a visiting exhibit from the Holocaust Museum that the library combined with a talk from a local resident, Walter Plywaski, a Holocaust survivor. He ended his talk with the lines, “Don’t be an evildoer. Don’t be a bystander to evil.”
Sandlian Smith asked him, “Isn’t this [work] exhausting?”
He responded, “Who else is going to do it?”
The “it” that Plywaski speaks of is disruption and reveal. Mexican artist Jorge Mendez Blake has created pieces, one of which is currently making the rounds, that explore these same actions through literary sculpture. He has two pieces that speak so well, Das Kapital and El Castillo, both named after the book they contain. In these pieces, Mendez Blake layers bricks subway-style to form a wall. In each piece, a physical book has been placed within the first layer, causing the bricks layered on top of it to noticeably shift. In the final wall, the disruption of its structure is apparent; in Das Kapital, it is dramatic as cornerstones crack and shift. Mendez Blake shows the disruptive power of books, of ideas, of information: even though these may become buried under much weight, their presence and influence are seen and felt.
Sandlian Smith ended her TED Talk with the call to action borrowed from Plywaski:
“Who else is going to do it?”
The onus is on us, librarians or otherwise, to not do harm or stand by as it happens, and to use the disruptive power we have. Though libraries look much different than they did in 1947, a love of books and a love of people are still vital roles for librarians. Now if the narrator from the 1947 video can connect us with the opportunities for “thousands of trained librarians,” we can begin to answer Plywaski’s and Sandlian Smith’s call.