Librarians in Dystopia

1930's_-_ca._-_Alma_Custead,_Librarian,_and_Staff

Patchogue-Medford Library, [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia

Remember when the role of the librarian was to help you find research materials for your homework, sign you up for a library card, help you log onto the library computers, and check out your books? Remember when librarians were the guardians of a safe, quiet place of discovery?

Our news is filled with accounts of opioid abuse and overdose deaths, gun violence, and sexual harassment and abuse. In many of our minds, we consider the library a sanctuary from such things, a place to read the newspaper, to hunt for your next read, to do research on a business start up idea. When, in my mind I conjure up my idea of a “safe place” or my “happy place” some version of a library often comes to mind.

Sadly, the reality of the evening news has invaded my safe and happy place. A recent story run by our local CBS affiliate cited the statistic that police answered 3200 calls to our city’s libraries in the last two years. They received calls for drug overdoses, shootings, gang fights, and sexual harassment and assaults.

In one incident, a librarian was punched in the head by a 12-year old boy after asking him to be quiet. Plainly, librarians are being called upon to deal with situations most of them probably never dreamed of when they decided to pursue the profession. This was the subject of a recent Bookriot article by Katie McLain that gives a glimpse into the brave new world librarians are confronting each day. In some major cities, for example, librarians are receiving training in administering Naloxone. One Philadelphia librarian, Chera Kowalski, has saved dozens of lives and was recognized by Hillary Clinton for her work at the 2017 American Library Association convention, according to Fobazi Ettarh’s article, Vocational Awe and Librarianship.

In addition to confronting crises like those named above, librarians often are confronting issues once addressed by social agencies, the health care system, and other neighborhood institutions like churches, parishes, and other religious bodies. They are called upon to address homelessness, unemployment and mental health issues along with the more usual questions for which they trained. McLain asks the question of whether we are asking librarians to be our local “superheroes,” a role that can be exhausting, albeit rewarding.

It seems to me that this new reality that our librarians face in our dystopian world is something they should not face alone. It seems at least three things are important:

  1. If they are expected to regularly handle these situations they should be trained, institutionally supported and appropriately compensated.
  2. Libraries will need to spend more on security. The local news report I mentioned above indicated that our metropolitan library has spent $600,000 in upgraded security cameras in addition to hiring more security personnel. If we want our libraries to be safe and to provide the same or enhanced levels of service, in most municipalities, we should be prepared to pay for it.
  3. We need to recognize that, in addition to societal factors, the erosion of other neighborhood institutions puts more stress on the libraries to fill the gap. In particular, I think we have seen a decline in neighborhood religious institutions, which, along with mom and pop stores, have yielded to “big box” facilities 5, 10, or 20 miles away that have no connection with where their parishioners live. Likewise, many social agencies are in a central location, often distant from different parts of the city, and inaccessible to those lacking transportation. What can we do to strengthen networks of care in our local communities?

Finally, it probably won’t hurt to thank your local librarian for all that he or she does. It may in fact be far more than you think.

2 thoughts on “Librarians in Dystopia

  1. Thank you for drawing attention to the changes that are occurring in libraries today. I have been to several libraries that have security guards ie. Hartford Public, New York Public. When I worked at the Connecticut State Library, in Hartford, CT, there was actually a police force in the building since the library is in the same building as the state supreme court.

    Libraries are not just about books and information at this point. Libraries are taking on more of a community center role. This was even brought up when I was in library school from 2011-2013. In many cases, the community involvement is intentional not accidental. I think of the programs that I heard about at the New England Library Association conference in 2016 that are taking place in Springfield, MA and Boston, MA. In one of the Boston branch libraries teens and seniors were quilting.

    Way to go public librarians and public library staff members! Thank you!

  2. Ditto! – I’m still like a homing pigeon when it comes to libraries.
    I’m chagrined, though, to learn from your post that librarians are having to deal with “drug overdoses, shootings, gang fights, and sexual harassment and assaults.” I wasn’t aware of that. I do know that in many places, libraries are the only safe haven for a number of people who are unemployed, homeless, and have mental health issues – especially during the cold and dark of winter. It’s rough, but libraries, librarians, and other library staff are extending compassion that isn’t found in many of our religious and public institutions. On another note, I was surprised to learn that during the summer months my branch library (in Chicago) loans out fishing gear!

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