Imagine that you are the principal of your old high school. It is a tough economic time, and you’re preparing for major budget cuts and less funding. Your school is allowed two of the following positions: Music Teacher, Art Teacher, Librarian, Nurse, and Physical Education Teacher.
Who would you choose?
Principals are faced with such decisions every year. While some still recognize the value of skilled and experienced librarians, many have few doubts about getting rid of them. Parents rally to raise money for such extracurricular activities as marching bands or sports teams, but are rarely willing to do the same for libraries. The result: school libraries are closing and librarians are being laid off. At James Logan High School in California, “the 4000 students…are starting the school year without access to the aisles of books and computers sitting in a darkened room, unused.”[i]
However, principals and parents aren’t solely to blame. This issue extends beyond the realm of school librarians. Regardless of the type of library, hours are being cut or librarians are being let go altogether. Law firms and corporations view librarians as expendable in times of economic crisis. Can you blame them either? In a capitalist society, how can a profession that doesn’t provide direct financial benefits be seen as an asset?
It depends how one defines “librarian.”
According to Merriam-Webster, a librarian is “a specialist in the care or management of a library: a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials are kept for use but not for sale.” Whether or not one acknowledges that the term has evolved over time, it’s difficult to comprehend what a librarian does from this definition. It’s static and outdated, and if this is the public’s perception of what librarians are, the field will begin to disappear.
The only people who can adequately provide a definition are librarians themselves. To be considered an indispensable part of society, librarians have to establish that they have a skill set that cannot be duplicated, substituted, or outsourced. Using this skill set as the basis, librarians will be able to defend their contribution to the workplace, even if it is not an obvious financial one. Until they do so, librarians will continue to be perceived as replaceable and will have no way to articulate an argument against this view.
The fact is librarians do possess a skill set: “the organization, representation and retrieval of knowledge and information.”[ii] However, establishing this is only the first step. As Jack Anderson claims, it doesn’t matter “whether a librarian has mastered particular techniques or principles, because the latter do not demonstrate that they themselves can make a difference in society.”[iii] Librarians now need to explain why this skill should matter to the public in a way the public can understand and digest. Over the past few years, librarians have begun to do this and, in turn, successfully defend their worth.
Ironically, their arguments all start with the very skill librarians possess: research and retrieval of information. Within school systems, librarians are conducting studies on their impact and articulating their findings to the public. Much of the focus is on the relation of school librarians to student achievement. “In a 2010 study conducted in Colorado, more children scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in reading in schools with a full-time, credentialed librarian than those without.”[iv]
This link between library programs and student achievement is well-documented, but there is also an effort to change the outdated stereotypes of librarians. Flexibility is a term often used to explain librarians’ work in recent articles. “Today’s librarian is less a stern guardian of the collection and more like a curator, eager to share resources she has found and the skills it takes to distinguish good information from bad.” [v] This new portrayal of librarians involves them in more than merely helping students check out books. It instead emphasizes their working directly with students in both libraries and classrooms. In addition, library programs are shown to help expose students below the poverty line to new technology they would otherwise not have access to.
These arguments and statistics, if explained to a principal in these terms, will help change his/her perception of the value of a librarian and may lead to second thoughts during budget cuts.
The logic is the same regardless of the type of librarian. There are many arguments against having a law librarian, especially in the Internet age when information is so readily available. John Lamb articulates this in his article, “Does It Pay to Hire a Law Firm Librarian?” He expresses the need for librarians to change in light of these technological advancements, or risk becoming irrelevant.
However, more interesting than his article was the response of law librarians, detailing their value. The arguments are well articulated and include a theme of uniqueness to the abilities of librarians. They are shown to possess the skills which help create relationships with clients, write research memos, and not only conduct research, but do it efficiently. “In fact, our recommendation is that an attorney contact us if they spend more than 15 minutes researching without finding their answer. Implementing this rule reduces the amount of potential write-offs to a mere 0.2 hours.”[vi] These points all direct attention to the bottom line: the net value of a librarian position. They find that an attorney performing the duties of a librarian would result in $12,000 of billable time lost per week, which equals $624,000 lost annually. This, as opposed to $65,000 for a librarian’s annual salary.
Librarians may be seen as liabilities in times of financial crisis, but the onus is on them to advocate for the profession and “earn the status of being indispensable.” [vii] They have the skills; they just need to translate them into an argument.
[iii] Andersen, Jack. “Information Criticism: What is It?” (2005)
[vii] Andersen, Jack. “Information Criticism: What is It?” (2005)