On the drive to work today, I was thinking about the last couple of blog posts and listening to the radio. The overall point that has been pressed is what the current older generation of librarians have done for the field: the expansion of the total number of libraries, the creation of the modern online catalog, modern shared sources and databases, and other advances in information access and sharing systems. Even with all that, I really can’t get past the haphazard funding models. How could there be so much heavy lifting in one area and inconsistency in another?
During that drive, it hit me: libraries are a lot like NASA.
Over the years, NASA has built rockets for taking all sort of payloads into space. They’ve created a re-usable space craft that has served in hundreds of missions. They have constructed a pair of space stations (first Skylab, now the International Space Station). The scientific experiments that are carried out during the missions or on the space stations provided key scientific data that cannot be replicated on Earth. They have put men on the moon, probes and rovers onto other planets, and spacecraft that have exited our solar system for parts unknown. The Hubble Space telescope has returned images from the edges of the expanding universe, a glimpse of the primitive moments of the universe after the Big Bang. It has shown us the wonders of the universe.
But when it comes to funding… well, it’s a mixed bag. It even has its own Wikipedia entry to chart the relative flatness or decline of funding since the 1960’s. But for such a respectable institution that brings scientific advances and greater understandings of Earthly problem through experiments in space, how is it that the funding remains relatively flat? Don’t people see the value and merit of what they do?
And so it is with libraries. I’m preaching to the choir on this one, so I will spare the rehashing of library value. But for all the things that NASA and libraries do on behalf of society, for whatever reason it becomes a hard sell. Overall, both have the same likeability factor. People say that they are provide useful items to society. But when it comes to the funding, there is a disconnect. The talk becomes that the cost is too high, the area of effect is haphazard, and that people simply don’t see the need anymore. And for all the advances and technologies that have been built by NASA engineers, for all the information networks and growth that librarians have built over the years, it can far too easily get set aside when the value is not articulated to those who control the budgets. That’s a serious problem.
Despite my sloppy handling on the Sunday Speculation post, I did receive one answer to the underlying question as to what happened to the political and financial relationships between libraries and their communities. Stephen Abrams wrote:
The simplest answer is that those people and the people/politicians they built the relationship with retired or were voted out of office. These relationships need to be continuously cultivated, evolved and sustained, and worked on through the political process and through association work. As can be noted ad nauseum, many next gen librarians (certainly not all) have abandoned library associations (I have seen the demographic and renewal membership numbers) and, according to research surveys, distrust the political process and vote/participate at very low rates on top of GenX being a small generational cohort. So we’re in a Catch 22. How do we engage the next generation of advocates in library issues?
It’s a good question. I don’t recall anything in the graduate coursework about building and maintaining relationships with funding bodies. Should the MLS programs start addressing this issue through coursework? Within my own state, I’ve seen advocacy sessions offered during the state conference and a single day conference. Should this be something that state associations are doing on a year round basis? There are certainly people within the field who have had tremendous success building these relationships. Should they be tapped as mentors, role models, and consultants for libraries looking to improve their standing?
I’d be interested in seeing how this issue was handled historically and what the profession will do about it at the future. What do you think is the best approach? Should this be something in the core classes at MLS programs? Or is it really something you learn on the job with mentors, conferences, and workshops?
On a related note, I am finding the discrepancy between the number of replies from the Sunday Speculation and the Mea Culpa post rather interesting. I would have thought the idea of competencies and metrics for evaluating members of the profession would have gotten a stronger response. With the number of complaints about the younger generation of librarians that went with some of the replies for the Sunday post, I would have surmised that people had a specific idea of what they wanted a librarian to be able to do in terms of job skills and abilities. For all the insults that were hurled in my direction in regards to being a young librarian, there is a notable silence when it comes to actual expectations. In building this new gilded age of libraries, what are the skills, abilities, and knowledges that young librarians should know and/or look to master?