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Where is our Melvil Dewey Today?

(Reflective essay assignment from LIB 200 class at SJSU SLIS)

I draw a blank.  It’s been 35 years and I can remember the name of nearly every teacher and staff member of my high school but if you ask me who my school librarian was, I can’t tell you. I spent hours in the school library and I vaguely remember a middle aged, thin and quiet woman at the circulation desk. She probably helped me and she probably was very good at her job. The library was a very popular place to study, hang out and do research. But why can’t I remember that librarian?

Fast forward 25 years later. I am a library assistant in an elementary school. I thought when I applied for the job that library assistant meant I would be assisting the librarian. It did not. I was handed the keys, shown to the library door and as far as 300+ kindergarten through fifth graders were concerned, I was the librarian. I knew the Dewey Decimal System, I enjoyed reading, I’ve used a library and I liked children. That was the extent of my qualifications. It was made clear to me that no real teaching was required. But district standards dictate that students should learn basic library research skills beginning as young as second grade. The teachers didn’t teach basic library skills as far as I could tell, and I thought it was a good idea for students to learn these skills. Nobody objected, so I taught them what I knew, qualified or not. It bothers me that parents and teachers never questioned my instruction or had expectations for it to align with standards or classroom instruction. Did these educators feel library and research skills were no longer important?

Now we fast forward again to the present. My title is Library Resource Specialist in a small professional library at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. I have worked at this library for five years. Our library is supervised by a credentialed teacher librarian. Our cataloging, procurement and research is done by a Library Technical Specialist with an MLIS degree. About a year ago I took an on-line training course in basic cataloging.  There was nothing that felt “basic” about that class. I foolishly believed cataloging only required a knack for being organized. It was a very difficult eight weeks. I could be no more proud of completing that class than I if I ran a marathon. After that experience, I developed an even greater respect for my librarian co-workers.

            Since the need for organizing, storing and retrieving information began around 3000 B.C., the regard for libraries rose to noble levels in Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome. It was clear sharing books helped powerful societies remain powerful as they evolved, conquered and grew. Libraries continued to fuel both secular and religious scholarship at the end of the Middle Ages and served as part of the growth of knowledge during the Renaissance. Literacy was a privilege and those who had access to literature not only enriched their own life but could possibly enrich the culture of the society they lived in (Rubin, 2010). Librarians were the keepers of powerful treasure. That gave them status and influence throughout history.

            In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, libraries multiplied across America. Melvil Dewey founded his library school. Due to Dewey’s charismatic and zealous advocacy as well as that of his disciples, librarianship was lifted beyond clerical management to a movement that would provide education and equality to all citizens. In so doing, libraries would strengthen a democracy by providing citizens the knowledge they required to make informed decisions. Free public libraries armed with librarians on a mission to teach skills to patrons, promote literacy and self-improvement embodied and reflected the progressive movement that was sweeping the nation. Librarians were young, professional, influential, well-educated public servants.

By 1920, census data reported 88 per cent of the 15,297 librarians in America were women (Maack, 1998). This old profession was fueled with great purpose and life in an emerging and powerful society.  It was one of the few scholarly professions that welcomed women whole-heartedly in one of the most defining times in history for women in America. The battle for gender equality was fierce in the 1920s.  Also, a growing number of librarians filled with passion for their roles as agents of change were organizing into professional organizations and writing for widely read professional publications. They were most certainly part of the national dialogue on matters of women’s rights (Maack, 1998).

            Considering the ancient and relatively recent history of libraries as they continued to be valued institutions, I am curious about the perceptions and stereotypes that have developed around librarians. Throughout history they clearly had influence on the culture and arguably had great influence over leaders and great thinkers alike. At the turn of the century in America, librarianship was revolutionized into a movement to educate and lift up an entire society one community at a time. At the forefront, deep in the ranks as well as all throughout all levels of professional management and leadership, women and some men very publicly and successfully advocated for libraries, education and intellectual freedom. This was a movement for strident visionaries and dedicated revolutionaries. Yet, if you type the term librarian in a Google image search box, up pops a disproportionate amount pictures of  bespectacled and seemingly ill-tempered women of a certain age dressed in matronly clothes surrounded not by computers and mobile devices of all sizes and flavors but by piles of musty, dusty books.

            I don’t know why I can’t remember my high school librarian’s name or face nor do I understand why it took me years working in a library to recognize the value of the scholarship it takes to be a librarian. Out of curiosity to see if anyone shared my old misperceptions, I asked a friend what she remembered of her high school librarian. She snickered as she described a woman who fit the description of the images I found in my Google search. Then she proceeded to ask me why I am training for a profession that will most likely be replaced by Google in a “few short years”.  And why would a progressive, extrovert-type want to be a librarian anyway?  I smiled when I realize what I have learned:  progressive, extrovert-types are just what this profession has always required.  We also need some serious help with branding. Where is our Melvil Dewey today?

Maack, M. (1998). Gender, culture, and the transformation of American librarianship, 1890-1920. Libraries & culture, 51-61.

Rubin, R. E. (2010). Foundations of Library and Information Science Third Edition. New York: Neal-Schuman Pubishers, Inc.



Library Summer Camp

I work for the Santa Clara County Office of Education Learning Multimedia Center also known as the Professional Library for Educators and Administrators. Yesterday our library hosted what we call a Library Summer Camp. It sounds like a book festival for kids but it is really a professional development conference for school library staff. “Campers” enjoy book talks, workshops and networking. It is a favorite day of mine because it is a rare opportunity for librarians and library aids to emerge from their schools and mingle with others in their field. Probably the most overlooked scholars working in the beleaguered school system today, we celebrate school librarians, cheer for them and lift them up as best we can. In times of budget cuts and administrators fatally underestimating the value of a strong library system (“now that we have the internet, we don’t need libraries! They are a thing of the past”), a day like this is sorely needed. Numbers had been dwindling but the good news is this year attendance has started to climb again. What this means, we don’t know. Santa Clara County school librarians and aides used to make up the greatest number of participants. Today, they are replaced by librarians from all over the state. I suspect this is because not only have the County school libraries dwindled but so have the professional development opportunities for school library staff statewide. We may be becoming one of the few acts in town, so to speak. Some county offices across the state have closed their school library support programs and professional libraries. The reach of our support may be filling a gap for the few districts around still trying to properly staff their libraries with trained professionals and paraprofessionals. In any case, it is still my favorite professional event and I can’t help but hope we make our colleagues in the schools feel they are not alone and maybe just that much more prepared to greet the new school year.

Welcome school library staff!

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