Cloudy, with a Chance of Rant

I thought about deleting yesterday's posting before I released it into the world. Then I thought no, people feel a variety of emotions. Maybe someone else who's sick and tired will take a measure of comfort knowing others dip low and feel no shame talking about it.

Watching the TV news this morning, I saw David Letterman admitted a filmmaker with no scruples was attempting to extort millions from him, threatening Letterman he'd write a tell-all screenplay about the comedian/talk show host having had sex with more than one woman who's worked for him. I thought how brave of him to come forward immediately, admitting it was true, thus foiling any shock value the weasel may have achieved from his plan. And if David Letterman can admit something so personal in a venue millions of times bigger than this, I can post a note written from a bipolar pit.

I think my final straw yesterday was reading another take on something I already knew, that some sort of prep school here in the States had done away with their print books in order to bring in all digital resources, instead. When the news originally broke I went to the school site and let loose with all manner of invectives – minus profanity. In no uncertain terms, I told them exactly what I thought of them. And then some.

I get Google Alerts, filtered to capture library and other interests, so the news came under my nose again. I followed the link to see if anything was new. It wasn't, but there were a few comments on this recycled version, the majority of which said, in effect, "Good for them! I hope other schools follow their lead!"

A person can only take so much disrespect directed at one's chosen profession. The general public seems unaware it's the library that's the repository of written history. Museums conserve the artwork and other items (including some written materials – sometimes handled by trained  librarians) of historical value, but it's the library profession that's worrying itself sick about how it will afford conserving, digitizing and protecting all manner of important information – both text and audio-visual – indefinitely, so it's available to future generations.

Every day librarians employed by "special" libraries (the term applied to academic, archival, museum, etc. libraries and repositories) are forced to make the often wrenching decision as to what stays and what goes, as there's not infinite room for storage.

A big part of the job is begging and wheedling for funding through grant-writing, rubbing elbows with the "right" people, generally attempting to communicate the importance of conservation, competing with other worthy causes all trying for a piece of that same pie. All the while – if the position is in the academic realm – struggling to publish articles and books related to their discipline, lest they "perish," and not receive tenure. Add on the everyday job working with the actual materials and supervising employees. Easy, eh?

Oh, but that's only history. That's yesterday. Who cares about that? We're a right-this-minute society, exchanging our information in real-time, news about important things like the effects of raging teenage hormones and their lack of impulse control – necessitating they share every "important" thought with  everyone they know (have a listen at the constant vibrating buzz of my daughter's cell phone if you need convincing), lovers making dates or breaking up (classy), and where to go or what to have for dinner.

Reality TV, the internet, social networking sites, e-books, paparazzi taking photos of Britney Spears and her *bleep*. What matters outside that?

The original correspondence of writers like Louisa May Alcott? She's dead, isn't she? And that must have been digitized, if anyone really cares. Why should the paper she wrote on, the ink she used, be of any relevance? No one wants to see that, except a few decrepit, dusty old scholars worshiping at the altar of bodies long ago turned to dust.

What movies are playing tonight, and at what times. Now that's what I want to know.

The public is also largely unaware it's the library that's up front and center when our First Amendment rights are threatened, picketing state and national government to let it be known someone does care – very deeply – about maintaining our rights, and protection from the violation thereof. Who fought the statutes in the Patriot Act giving law enforcement the right to access the records of library patrons,  because you may have recently checked out books on Islam, the Koran or terrorism?

Hint: no one in any town hall meetings.

And the lowly public library, providing services to all, including educational and cultural entertainment. Books – those outdated paper and glue things that gather dust and take up loads of space. Books and music on CD, films on DVD, language courses, genealogical collections, archived print newspapers containing more than the online versions. And more, like worldwide searches for materials too rare to be available locally, and too expensive to purchase. Books written in other languages? Some have that covered, too.

If everyone in this profession stopped doing what we do, how long would it take for anyone to notice? Regulars would immediately, at the public level. People who can't afford the cover price of new books, or would rather allocate the money to silly things like food and utilities in this – and any other – economic environment. People looking for out of print books because they've become interested in, or affected by, a particular topic and want or need to learn more. Those who've been diagnosed with something scary, and need reliable medical resources to know what they're up against.

Students would notice, in the academic environment. Then the slow trickle down to the public environment, even if it's only a matter of space to hold meetings or a quiet place to study.

And who else? Eventually the world, when the public realizes records have disappeared – POOF! All gone, because no one cared enough. Because the only people interested were bad-tempered spinsters, hair scraped into grey buns, holding a finger up to their lips to stifle conversation.

It starts with one library tossing out its books, cheered on by a digital world. And it ends… where? It's enough to make anyone about to earn a degree in the profession feel sick to her stomach.

I knew the profession wasn't highly respected. Hell, the pay scale told me that before I started grad school. I knew the prospect of an all-digital world was snapping at our heels, that the necessity of keeping ahead of the technological curve – using technology to our advantage – meant our very survival. I just wasn't expecting snarling detractors to take immediate steps to degrade the profession even further. At least not so soon.

I'd been prepared for the fight. Now I feel the wind's out of my sails. I thought I had enough snark and stubbornness in me to rally, to push back at those who don't care about the very real threat to the future of information conservation and storage. First Amendment rights, and free access to information. But yesterday I let the seeming futility of it all overtake that part of me that's angry at those whose first reaction to hearing I'm "studying" to be a librarian is, "You need a degree for that?" That, or "How nice. You'll get to read books all day!"

Yes, that's precisely why I'm doing it. So I can read all day. Because I couldn't do that without a degree, and that's all the profession's really about. That, and yelling at people talking on cell phones. So I chose to spend upwards of $ 25,000 getting a Master's degree teaching me how to, I don't know, speed read? Check out books? Show people where the bathrooms are? Make copies?

How about telling people Google only searches roughly 20 % of the web. Showing them libraries pick up the slack by paying to access specialized digital databases providing more in-depth information. That what they don't have they can find somewhere else, employing the help of other librarians the world over who are connected with each other, forming one big educational database. Or, providing them with a microfilm copy of their great-great-grandfather's death certificate, naturalization papers, or marriage license, and sometimes the opportunity to actually touch the paper copy, once held in the hands of a relative long dead. Because someone does actually care about connecting people with what they need to know.

Big whoop, eh?

What matters is my cell phone's vibrating. It seems we're having pizza for dinner tonight, and my daughter needs to be picked up from school. Useful to know, but not exactly the answer to everything. Oh, but if it can't be answered in a minute on Google it's probably not important, anyway.


3 thoughts on “Cloudy, with a Chance of Rant

  1. I love this rant. You said it beautifully. I personally worship libraries, and librarians, and if either was removed from the world I would not only notice, but probably have to fling myself off of something. The story to which you’re referring really depressed me, and I can only hope that I myself will be long gone from this earth by the time that all the libraries are replaced by digital information about, I don’t know, Paris Hilton’s chihuahuas.
    Just discovered your blog, already love it. Thanks.


  2. As an ex-librarian I loved this post and do so agree. The difference between getting information from a real, live person rather than from Google is immeasurably better. This summer, while staying with my brother, I used his local library to find out about a 19th century local man. There was nothing on the web but the librarian found lots about him for me. Even apart from the need for the libraries (and there was a big fuss locally when they tried to close ours down this year) I just cannot imagine a world without books. How much of what I have learned over the years has been by serendipity – comning across something on the page next to the one with the direct information on; or the adjacent book; or a reference in the back of a book. And what about my night-time read in bed – holding a laptop surely could never be as cosy…
    Please keep up the good work – there will always be folk to support you and who appreciate your efforts.


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