The library world should not always go into defensive mode online

For the past week I’ve debated with myself whether or not to write about what I perceive as a negative trend in the library profession. I think opinions are worth sharing so I’ll do so in what I hope to be a constructive manner. First I’ll start off that I think the online presence from librarians is fantastic. Every online newspaper that prints articles about libraries will have an active comment feed or letters to the editor. What I don’t like is the overreaction to minor issues and the automatic defense mode we take when library issues come up in the general media.

Two specific things came up this year that I’ve noticed overreaction. I’ll start with a super bowl commercial. Oreo aired a commercial with a library as a setting. It starts at a table, one person says, ‘cookies,’ and the other person says ‘cream’ or some variation of that. They are shushed by a stereotypical elderly spinster librarian, and then start fighting. All the patrons in the commercial argue over which part of the cookie tastes better, and it ends with cops coming in speaking in shushed tones. Obviously it was an attempt at humor. I saw a few people on my facebook feed mad that the commercial used stereotypes of librarians and a library setting. To me it’s similar to getting upset about a spoof movie, where the intent very much is comedy, not social statements.   I enjoyed the commercial because it was goofy. I’m sure there were online discussions in depth on library forums. I think the only people that should be thinking lawsuit though is Budweiser. The great American beer company came up with ‘taste great,’ ‘less filling’ in the 1980’s and Oreo simply ripped that off using different words.

My second instance of overreaction and probably more important has to do with an employment list that yahoo or msn posted. The topic was ’10 least stressful careers’ and it included librarianship. I read the article and it was lame. It was two paragraphs describing our profession with a quote saying the most stressful thing ever was helping kids with homework. I agree completely that whoever wrote that article had no clue and did not research the topic. Nine other professions had the same fate of being misrepresented to the online world.  MSN or Yahoo (they both write the similar junk) did make a folly, but is it a terrible and tragic misrepresentation? Are state, federal, and local governments going to say that’s the last straw for public libraries? Are future library workers going to decide that sounds boring? Answering questions myself might be foolish, but the answers are all negative.  People don’t put much judgment in the online fluff articles. Afterwards though some of the blogs, comments, and online opinions I read made it look like a vicious attack on the library profession.

Libraries are in a weird time right now. We constantly have to justify our work, and give reasons not to cut funding. With technology trends of online resources and ereaders some believe the importance of libraries has passed. In the cult classic movie ‘Office Space’ a consultant asks the workers, ‘What exactly is it that you do here?’ and the characters fumble the answers. If you ask a library worker what they do, they’ll tell you, but you might get ten answers if you ask ten different people. So the problems is that there are misperceptions and lack of knowledge of what libraries do by a good proportion of the population. Libraries change the lives of people that use the facilities, but the population that does not use the libraries needs to be informed or enlightened.

I think the library profession is not going to do that by sweating the small stuff. Instead of blowing up a comment feed with don’t stereotype us, make a discussion of we are perceived like that but the libraries of the today are diverse and multi-purposed. Better yet librarians should submit articles to mainstream publications more often. The articles are read more seriously than any disgruntled comments that are after the publication.

People change their viewpoints by experience, so making them aware that they can make use of our services is better than fighting them. That means offering a wide range of programs, use of space, and things that by example bring respect to the library. I think by planning services, actively doing services, and promotion is how people’s negative opinion of libraries will change. I don’t think anyone has changed a firm negative believe by reading online complaints over trivial matters.


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