In the previous issue of American Libraries, I outlined my ALA initiatives for the coming year, with a focus on ALA’s public awareness campaign, Libraries Transform, which was launched last year. This year, we’re building on the momentum with an additional focus for the initiative—Libraries Transform: The Expert in the Library. In talking about this, I always envision myself looking a little like Steve Martin in The Jerk, shouting proudly, “I’m in print!” I think this feeling comes from my years of pushing people to step up and credential themselves to their decision makers and constituents.
But the need to credential comes from years of hearing people say, “Do you have to have training to do this job?” and “I’d love to have your job—I would love to read all day!” My favorite request occurred while I was at the reference desk, when a student walked up to me and asked, “Could you babysit my child while I go to class?” Honestly, I find it hard to believe that any other person in a public position at any desk gets those questions or comments, but they just keep coming!
Early in my career, many decision makers frighteningly rolled back taxes to a previous decade that in some institutions caused cuts in the high double digits. These same decision makers suggested that we accomplish balancing our budgets with draconian cuts through staff salary savings. We could use volunteers or just eliminate staff while keeping a high level of services, it was argued.
Amazingly, in previous organizations I had been asked to cut deeply and not tell constituents, and to make those changes invisible to the public so that decision makers would not have to field complaints.
Then there are the leaders who plan a new building and leave out space for staff, expecting librarians to sit at a public desk all day or have office space in another building but travel to the library for their reference shift.
Some things have improved but often for unfortunate reasons. Public buildings have been recognized as environments needing increased security and staffing levels to ensure constituent safety. While librarians typically have said they can’t stay open full hours with few or no staff members, an increasing number of them are willing to say the library will close a certain number of hours until the technology assets needed and people with expertise are funded.
The best messages we can communicate for our libraries are those that include our value and—if you don’t already—include the value and expertise of your professionals as they connect their constituents to the resources and services they need.
Speak up. Credential yourself. Identify the expertise that you have. When you give someone an answer or provide them with the perfect pathway to finding what they need and they say “Thanks so much!” your reply should not be, “Oh, that’s okay, it’s my job.” You should respond, for example, with, “Of course! It’s what I do, and I have specific expertise in materials for children at that grade level.” Or, “Let me know what else you need; health care content is my specialty.”
When you stand up in front of a group of people, give them your name and where you work, but before you talk about your services and resources, start by saying, “Staffers in the library, including me, have unique training and education in organizing information, searching the millions of pieces of content out there, and assisting you in finding what you need.” It’s simple to do, and it connects the value of the institution with the real value of our profession—the expert in the library.