This 1947 vocational guidance film on librarians depicts a sunny post-WWII librarian which is hardly recognizable today. Aside from the importance of enjoying working with people and books, there is little else that remains the same in the librarianship profession today.
Here are five key differences between libraries and librarianship from then and now to show how we have grown — and perhaps fallen short — as a profession over the past 60 years.
1. Libraries are now spaces for learning and creating
Libraries are no longer simply considered spaces for gaining knowledge, they are now also places associated with creating knowledge. Whether they are creating their own music videos at the Vancouver Public Library’s Inspiration Lab or 3D-printing at one of the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Information Hubs, library patrons now have unprecedented access to tools to help them create. Providing access to what would otherwise be prohibitively expensive technology and putting it directly in the hands of library users to develop their own creations is an important step forward for libraries.
2. Librarians need to be willing to work with “all kinds of people”
The 1947 vocational guidance video says librarians need to be willing to work with “all kinds of people”, but it only depicts variations in age and professional status of patrons; factors such as socioeconomic status and race are entirely absent. Today, librarians are actively reaching out to all kinds of people in an effort to make the library a more inclusive space, particularly for individuals and groups that are typically excluded from society. This is particularly evident in libraries which practice community-led librarianship, a philosophy and practice which embodies librarianship’s values of access and the public good.
3. So many types of librarians!
Rather than having only five types of librarians — catalogers, reference librarians, circulation librarians, children’s librarians, and school librarians — we now have countless types of librarian positions. This is a positive shift because we are paying specific attention to issues surrounding access or the new digital and web information realms. However, we have also shifted away from some of our core tasks — such as circulation and cataloging — by frequently charging paraprofessional library staff or outsourced services with these tasks.
4. Libraries as precarious workplaces
While many institutions across Canada have unionized library workers, this does not necessarily equate to job security. Employers are often still trying to find ways to reduce the costs of running libraries by outsourcing services or reducing positions to part-time roles, as illustrated by the concerns voiced by Toronto Public Library workers during the 2012 strike and renewed in their current campaign against precarious work in the library system. This is a slippery slope towards the McDonaldization of libraries, which is a fast track to leaving the values of librarianship in the dust.
5. Competitive job market for librarians today
Demand for thousands of trained librarians is called for in the 1947 vocational guidance video, but the reality of today’s job market is that the competition for librarian positions is quite high due to unstable economic times, budget restraints, precarious library work, and an abundance of MLIS graduates all vying for the small pool of available professional roles.
One step forward, two steps back
These five examples of how librarianship has shifted since the post-WWII era demonstrate that the library as an institution has taken positive steps towards becoming an even more highly-valued social institution. Libraries are better serving their patrons by providing access to technology for creating, reaching out to underserved communities, and targeting job titles to meet specific needs. On the other hand, librarians themselves have slowly been shuffled backwards to becoming less valued, as we can see through the precarious nature of library work today.
We may not yet be seeing how undervaluing librarians is impacting us today, but the ramifications of such attitudes will sneak up on us sooner or later. Sure, it is possible to run a library without librarians on staff (as illustrated by the LSSI takeover of municipal libraries in the United States), but a library without librarians is kind of like a ship without a captain — it moves, but in which direction is it headed?