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Librarians, Enough With the Hero Complex

March 15, 2010 7 comments

Last week, I was chillaxing on my couch, enjoy some crackers and cheese whilst watching tv, and I checked in on my twitter feed.  My twitter feed is an interesting mix of folks–writers, publishers, libraries, gardening tips, celebrities who amuse me, veg folk, real life friends–but predominantly other librarians.  Well, suddenly everybody started tweeting at once.  The freak-out was over loss of funding for Florida libraries.  This turned into everybody bemoaning the fact that nobody understands the importance of libraries.  Then out of the blue, a male librarian said, “Simple truth- police & firefighters can always rehire when times get better. Close a library & what are the chances they’ll bring it back?”
I replied, “Well, y’know, I’d rather my house not burn down than be able to use old crappy computers for free.”
To which a different male librarian replied: “If a fire starts, no matter how much you spend on fire fighters, your house it totalled in a matter of minutes.”

I have refrained from naming them, because this isn’t about these individuals.  It’s about a general attitude going on among librarians that is just wrong and self-centered, and I wanted to illustrate it with actual quotes.  The attitude that libraries are the most important public service, and they–and by extension, librarians–are misunderstood and under-appreciated.  I mean, a book just came out whose subtitle is How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (LibraryThing record of the book here).  You know what? No.  We’re not more important than policemen and firemen.  We’re not even as important.  As librarians, we’re not out there risking our lives to save strangers’ lives.  Contrary to what male librarian #2 said, not all houses burn down anyway, and even if they did, there’s still people to save.  There’s also the fact that the blaze needs to be prevented from spreading, but I digress.

We are librarians.  We are not out there providing for the safety of lives.  The fact that we exist doesn’t make it so people can sleep at night safe in the knowledge that if a fire starts in their house, someone will show up and run into the blaze to save them.  Public librarians, at best, provide educational support outside of the public school system.  At worst, public librarians are providing entertainment to the low income masses, and do you think the low income would rather be entertained or be alive and able to walk down the street safely?

I don’t enjoy the fact that libraries and fire departments are pitted against each other for money.  However, it is an economic crisis.  The money just is not there.  Of course I would rather see libraries’ hours cut instead of the doors closed, but if the choice is keeping the library open a few hours a week or maintaining a safe number of firemen for the community, I would choose the firemen.  You know why?  Because I don’t have some hero complex.

What we’re really seeing is people freaking out because they think either their job won’t exist in the short-term or that libraries are going to cease existing entirely, making their career choice a really poor one.  I get it.  I do.  It sucks to be worrying about getting laid off.  It sucks to wonder if your career will still exist in 10 years, but you know what?  Almost everyone is having to worry about their job right now, if they’re even lucky enough to still have one.  There are also plenty of people worrying that their careers will cease to be an option due to technological advances, changing world economic climate, etc…  I saw it happen to people I care about when the Silicon Valley happened.  Yes, it sucked, but maybe it’s time to admit that you chose your job because you like it.  Because you enjoy organizing things, helping people, books, literacy, and more, and yes that’s more noble than becoming a back-stabbing CEO.  However, it’s not this superhero career.  It’s just a nice one.  One that I certainly hope continues to be needed, but I’m not about to go out there and over-inflate it because I’m worried about jobs.  I’m realistic, and the fact that other librarians are being so unrealistic in the face of this economic crisis is just making us look like a bunch of snobby, privileged, unrealistic bookworms.

(Yes, I realize this post is mainly about public libraries, which is something I strive to avoid, but I haven’t been hearing much of the same thing regarding academic or special libraries.)