It occurred to me this week that this situation is similar to the one I currently find myself in. Everyone thinks LibraryLand is full of homemade baked goods and the sharing of comfortable shoe suggestions. This may have been the case in the 1950s, but today's librarian is the polar opposite. We have tattoos (I do anyway), few of us wear our hair in buns and many of us are a daredevil group of freedom fighters. You don't have to believe me. Look what David Schmader wrote in his October 2002 column in The Stranger:
"Libraries are far from the rarefied cathedrals of secular humanism they pretend to be, while librarians are the shadiest creatures this side of the Russian mob. Scratch the adamantly bland demeanor of any librarian and you'll find trails of broken hearts, bathtubs full of meth fixings, and covert careers in porn."
OK - so maybe he's exaggerating a little bit. But I get his point.
My husband is the ultimate computer geek. Recently he came home with a bootlegged copy of the first season of "Game of Thrones." He knew this was trouble. Even after prison-like questioning, he wouldn't tell me who let him borrow it - because he knew that person would get my lecture about copyright infringement. I investigated. I ruled out the usual suspects. When he returned the DVDs, it was a cloak and dagger activity because he truly feared I would follow him to the bootlegger's house and give them a piece of my mind.
Today's librarians - if they are doing their job - are all Guerrilla Librarians. It's not due to ego or bad childhoods, although I'm sure there's plenty of that - it's because we are part of the checks and balances system for democracy. Now you might be thinking that I'm making a much bigger deal out of the job than it should have. You are wrong. I don't have to argue with you, because you are wrong. Librarians have a rare opportunity...a civic duty...and that, my friends, is ACCESS. We don't control it, but we do make sure that everyone has it.
I hear the case at many a municipal meeting that everyone has the internet and libraries are a leftover institutions from a time when there weren't Barnes & Nobles in every city. They are wrong. If they were correct, we wouldn't be so busy. In June, my library circulated more items than any other month in its history - over 70,000 items. Even if only one of those books was checked out by a person who was too embarrassed, ashamed, poor or scared to purchase the book they checked out, we've done our job. Even if only one of the people who used our computers used it to find a job, we've done our job. And I don't tell people about it, because the relationship some patrons have with their librarian is incredibly private and confidential. As librarians, we've all had that patron that asked for help and, in the end, left the library with books about their newly-diagnosed cancer, or information about leaving an abusive spouse. We have teens checking out books about what to do if your parent is an alcoholic, or how to get help for self-mutilation. The most important thing about this is that they know that no matter what they check out, they have ultimate privacy. We're not going to tell anyone. In fact, we'll hire a lawyer and fight for their privacy if someone tries to find out. This, my friends, is democracy in action.
Now - add all of that together, along with my persnickity personality - and you might understand a little better why my frustration explodes at times. Add into this formula the fact that I get bogged down in minutia, a fault I am diligently trying to overcome. Back to the record-breaking circulation: in June, we circulated more items than 3 or 4 libraries in our System did all year in 2012. And do you know what? My opinion has no more weight than those libraries. If you look at how our democracy is run, we all know about the electoral college. Some people have a real problem with how that works, but it is the best solution we have in the development and sustainability of our democracy. If libraries are the bastion of democracy, how is it that we do not follow some of the rules that make it work? This is not minutia - it is a flaw that is the reason that our Library System continues to be the "ugly stepchild" in the entire state. When I vote in an election, I know how it all works. I know that my vote goes into a pool and, ultimately, that vote becomes a mere part of the final outcome. When I sit at the table voting within my Library System, there isn't any consideration of the fact that we serve more patrons, we circulate more items and we invest more into the overall System than some others. Is that fair? I'm not sure...but it has consumed my brain lately.
Currently, my drive to work and back takes about 6 hours a week. Our new house is very close to the library and will total less than an hour each week. That's 5 extra hours that I'll have to do awesome things. But it's also 5 hours that I won't spend in a car thinking about my role in the scheme of county libraries. I'm sure that some folks will think that's a good thing. Maybe I'll stop constantly questioning things. OR, maybe it will give me 5 more hours a week to work on ACTION. The jury is out on that, but what I do know is that this extra time will be spent fighting for the rights of my patrons and, ultimately, the library that serves as their slice of democracy.
Libraries, and the framework that controls them, are far more complicated than most people realize. This is particularly true in federated systems where libraries are all independent with different ideas of what we should be. I sympathize with the folks at the Library System that walk the daily tightrope to make everyone happy. They are much like the local politicians who get visits from me each year with funding requests. I tell them the same thing that I would tell those people working at the Library System. You're responsibility is to do what is fair and right, not popular. Could it hurt some of the smaller libraries who struggle to come out in the black each year? Yes, it could. But just like a politician who doesn't get the votes to win, this is the price of democracy. Their goal should be to make the decisions that positively impact the most patrons in the county. This has nothing to do with the population of service areas. It has everything to do with shifting the resources around to help the most people. Ultimately, it is about access. And in order to have access, you need money. And that's what we fight about. A waste of our time, I believe.
Many librarians are a touchy-feely group of people who never want to hurt each other's feelings. Some can't see the Big Picture because they are worried about making sure there's enough money in the bank to make payroll. This is where a Library System needs to step in, make some very difficult decisions and take the lead in explaining and implementing the best services for the largest group of users. And, yes, this would benefit my library. Then again, that's how democracy works.