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The Evolution of Public Libraries and Librarians


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This is a paper I did for LIS 450: Information Agencies and Their Environments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a part of my MLIS degree, which I earned May 16, 2010.

This is a paper I did for LIS 450: Information Agencies and Their Environments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a part of my MLIS degree, which I earned May 16, 2010.

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  • 1. Amy Byrne LIS 450 Final Paper The Evolution of Public Libraries and Librarians The public library and its librarians hold a different role in society now than in the past. Rapidly changing technology and higher expectations from the public have revolutionized the institution into one that librarians and patrons of yore would no longer recognize. Today’s public libraries and the librarians who work there have evolved and are cutting edge embracers of new technology, less of a simple information repository and more of a facilitator of the social aspect of society, and the information experience as a whole. This paper will discuss why this author feels these three topics are important to the forward evolution of the public library and librarian. Ask most anyone to describe a librarian, and they will have pretty much the same general description. The librarian will be a female who will wear her hair in a bun, she’ll probably wear a tweed skirt with squeaky shoes, and her glasses will be on a chain around her neck. She will also shush you for the least noise infraction. She will also be concerned that you are reading the “right” kind of book. But that image of the librarian, while some may recognize themselves in it, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. There has been an evolution of the image of the librarian as she has become more mainstream. This is evidenced in how librarians are being perceived in the media. In a recent New York Times article where the author states, “How did such a nerdy Amy Byrne, page 1
  • 2. profession become cool? Many young librarians and library professors said that the work is no longer just about books but also about organizing and connecting people with information, including music and movies.” As more librarians from Generations X and Y, who grew up with technology being a part of their lives either from the very start or while still I their formative years, have come into the profession they’ve put their questioning natures to use and challenged the status quo set by librarians before them. In order to stay in touch with library users, librarians today must embrace new technology and make it work for their libraries and their users. In order for this to work, librarians need to take the initiative and step outside of their comfort zones to learn technologies such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, RSS feeds, and text messaging through sites such as,,, AIM, etc. We cannot expect our customers to always walk through our doors in order to engage them in our services. We need to find them where they are, especially the younger generations who are very comfortable using technology. Seattle Public Library is doing just that. According to their website,, the preferred method for receiving notification about your customer account is online via email and RSS feeds. The librarians at Seattle Public Library are doing other forward-thinking things to engage customers such as a teen focused blog, podcasts, and providing separate web pages for neighborhood branches. The librarians at SPL are just one example of librarians embracing what is commonly called Library 2.0. According to Library 2.0 is: “Library 2.0 is a loosely defined model for a modernized form of library service that reflects a transition within the library world in the way that services are delivered to users. This includes online services such as the use of OPAC systems and an increased flow of information from the user back to the library. Amy Byrne, page 2
  • 3. With Library 2.0 library services are constantly updated and reevaluated to best serve library users. Library 2.0 also attempts to harness the library user in the design and implementation of library services by encouraging feedback and participation. Proponents of this concept expect that ultimately the Library 2.0 model for service will replace traditional, one-directional service offerings that have characterized libraries for centuries” By embracing these technologies and adopting a Library 2.0 model, librarians are making sure that they are keeping themselves and the library relevant in the lives of their customers. In his book Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles writes that, “The chief role of an ancient librarian was the provision of exemplars from which readers would transcribe copies for their own use…” (p.31). He goes on to further write that there started a shift in the idea of what the public librarian was to be in the nineteenth century when, “The principle image of the librarian switched from custodian to caregiver.” (p.120). It was at this time that the role of the library and librarians went from being a simple information repository and moved to a more social role in society. In olden times books were kept chained to the shelves, their chains long enough only to reach a nearby table. Libraries were meant for a few privileged men, not for the masses. The focus was on literature and scholarly pursuits. Even up until the middle of the 20th century in America there was still a division of equalness of access to library services. In her book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown, Louise Robbins writes that, “…some main libraries in the South allowed African American access to their collections under “special circumstances.” (p. 41) In contrast, today’s public libraries are social meccas for all segments of society. Oftentimes using the technological tools of Library 2.0, librarians are getting the word out that the library is a fun place to be. There’s a push to make libraries a “third Amy Byrne, page 3
  • 4. place”, a place after home and work/school where people will want to spend their leisure time. They’re building amenities such as coffee shops and business centers to attract more people through their doors. They’re engaging their customers through quality programs such as One Book, One Community reading programs. A Google search using that phrase brought up scores of pages of communities doing just that type of programming. This year’s One Book, One Rockford (Illinois) reading program brought the highest program attendance that program has ever seen when the organizers selected one of chef Anthony Bourdain’s books as the selected read and then brought the chef himself as the special guest. By bringing an author and celebrity as the main feature of the event, the librarians at RPL took a step forward to give the community they serve the type of programming that they want. Librarians are also staying with their tried and true programs like Summer Reading Club, story times, and computer classes geared at people of all ages. The difference is that they are making these events more exciting and engaging for their customers. Summer Reading Club programs are starting off with a big party and ending with a big party with prizes of books and toys in between. Story times aren’t just a librarian droning on about a book; they’re events with books, singing, dancing, visits from characters, and crafts. Computer classes are being tailored to the needs of the community. Many public libraries offer computer classes on anything from learning the basics of what the computer is and what it does to teaching you how to put together your resume or a Power Point presentation. Librarians are keeping ahead of the curve by listening to their customers and finding out what it is that they want from their library. Amy Byrne, page 4
  • 5. Libraries are doing other things to elevate their standing in the community and making themselves more of a social place. They’re refurbishing their buildings to be more inviting. They’re hiring consultants to select paint and fabric colors. They’re putting in comfortable chairs that let their customers know they want them to be in their buildings. Librarians want to create a positive information experience for their customers. They do this by providing reference services. The difference between being a librarian 10 years ago and being a librarian today, however, is that today you’re going to provide reference services in a variety of formats. You’ll still get the face-to-face contact with the customer who comes into your building or the customer who calls you up, but now you’ll also experience reference by instant messenger, email, web inquiries, and maybe even by text messaging. Who knows what the next method of communication will be! Libraries are one of the last bastions of freedom of information and access for all. Librarians are the gatekeepers of these ideals. By providing information and access to all people, regardless of race, color, creed, income, etc, they are upholding the values on which the public library has been moving toward. On a daily basis, a librarian somewhere is fighting against censorship, sometimes even against the very people the public library is meant for, so that all viewpoints are represented and all voices are heard. Public libraries and librarians have a duty to the public they serve. They need to stay up to date on what’s termed Library 2.0 by keeping up with changing technologies and making a commitment to the expense that comes along with this. They need to do all that they can to continue to make the library a place that remains relevant to the lives Amy Byrne, page 5
  • 6. of the customers who not only walk through their doors, but to everyone in the community. And they need to continue to provide the most relevant service of all: the giving of information without limiting access. These three topics that were discussed are key to the success of the public library and topics that every passionate librarian has at the forefront of her mind. This writer certainly does. Amy Byrne, page 6
  • 7. Bibliography Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. Jesella, Kara. “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers.” The New York Times (online). July 8, 2007. <> Robbins, Louis. The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship and the American Library. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Amy Byrne, page 7