Welcome to Librarians in the 21st Century, a biweekly column that will explore a profession that everybody knows but nobody understands. Including the librarians. Each essay will add another librarian’s voice to the conversation.
I’m delighted to start our series with an essay by Robin Bradford, a public librarian whose work is devoted to one of the most enjoyable duties in librarianship: buying books. It’s not uncommon for library patrons to assume that librarians buy books based solely on their opinions or on what’s popular. Most are unaware that behind the New Fiction shelf of their library lurks a long and complicated history of arguments about what to buy and who to buy for. Buying lots of books without spending your own money may sound like a reader’s dream—but with great power comes great responsibility.
–Stephanie Anderson, librarian and Lit Hub contributing editorAs Stephanie has gone on to explain in other places, this really is a column to educate the rest of the world on what we do as library workers. However, this first column, contributed by Robin Bradford is important for all of us who work with leisure readers to read right now [whether we do the collection development or not].
I have highlighted the work of Robin Bradford here on the blog before and I whole heartedly stand by all of her convictions and opinions on creating diverse collections. [Actually, I agree with her on all things in librarianship.]
Below I have reprinted [with Stephanie’s permission] the beginning of the essay. Please, I am not only calling you to action to click through and finish reading the entire column, but also, really chew on what she is saying here, take it to heart, and start living your best life as a Librarian in the 21st Century.
After spending a lifetime in libraries, as a user and then as an employee (and still a user!), I’ve been thinking about the cultural discoveries I’ve made through libraries. The first books that had me considering what it meant to understand someone different than yourself through fiction were Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. I can’t remember where I jumped in, somewhere around Day of Atonement or False Prophet. But by the time we got to Justice, in 1995, Kellerman was permanent on my auto-buy list. I had just graduated from college, but I’d still had limited interactions with people who practiced Judaism. The books are mysteries, first and foremost, but the culture and traditions of Judaism are central to the characters in a way I’d never experienced before. But it wasn’t until I started buying library books for others that I began to think of my job as being a bridge to someone else’s cultural discovery.
As a black nerd in the 1980s who read just about anything she could get her hands on, reading about people different than myself, or reading about people like me written through the eyes of people different than myself, was a common occurrence. But the idea that reading about people different than myself, living their ordinary lives between adventures, could give me an understanding of different cultures: that was a new idea for me. If Kellerman’s books hadn’t been in the mystery section of the library, maybe I would have discovered them, but probably not. If my tiny library hadn’t ordered them, I definitely wouldn’t have discovered them.
So, now that I’m selecting materials for the community, doing collection development, I think a lot about not only what materials we add to the collection, but also where they’ll live in buildings, and how to get the most eyes on those materials. Collection development is what librarians call the process by which we add materials to library collections, and it’s one of those library terms that sounds like it means a lot, but actually tells you very little. In the broadest sense, collection development librarians are charged with seeking out and acquiring materials in accordance with the mission of any given library. If you’re an academic library, the primary focus of the collection is usually to support the curriculum of the institution. When I did collection development in an academic library, as a paraprofessional, it was for a tiny popular collection project. It was 1996, and the most notable book I selected for that collection: some fantasy book called A Game of Thrones. What I learned from that experience was that I needed to be in a public library. If you’re a public library, the focus of the collection can be as wide and varying as the community you serve. “Community” can be, and usually is, defined in a variety of ways by a variety of library stakeholders, including librarians....
Wait, before you go, I have more to Call to Action here.
- Share the entire article [and those yet to come in the series] with your entire staff.
- Put them on your social media and website.
- Let patrons know what you do and why you do it-- all the time!
- Educate yourselves and your community about the immense power the Library as an institution holds in your community and in their lives.
You can follow all of Stephanie’s Librarians in the 21st Century with this link to help you take up this Call.
For more Call to Action posts, click here to access the archive.