Some things never change.
I am about 4 months away from graduating with a Master’s in Library and Information Science (MLIS). I live and breath libraries. I go to the library probably 6 days a week. I read books and articles about librarianship all the livelong day. I go to happy hour with librarians. I wear my librarian cardigan around the house. It can be really easy for me to forget that a good portion of world doesn’t really know that we still exist–or thinks that we do exactly what the folks in this 1947 sizzle reel do. And indeed, I have had conversations with library patrons that are exactly the same as some of the ones in this video.
“You’re looking for a book about 2 inches thick with black letters on the cover? Let me go get my magic wand…”
I can’t lie. There is something romantic and quaint about a time when even the American Library Association could boil down the requirements for becoming a librarians to two questions to ask yourself: “Do I like books?” and “Do I like people? All people?” This is what new friends and acquaintances think when I tell them I’m in library school.
While the core purposes of libraries haven’t changed too much over time (preserve, organize, and provide access to materials), we have moved far, far beyond just putting books in patrons’ hands.
It’s pretty funny to think that the 5 basic job descriptions you could hold in 1947 (cataloger, reference librarian, circulation librarian, school librarian, or subject specialist) are still around, but facing the job market today with an MLIS, the options are impressive. You could be Prince’s archivist, a wine librarian, a movie studio metadata analyst (go watch Desk Set), or a software developer for a digital library…..the list goes on. When libraries started moving online, our field started incorporating all types of new roles.
So now that it seems like I’m trying to talk you into getting your own MLIS because of all the cool and important jobs to which you can apply it, I do have to pump the brakes.
Our field is not perfect, and sometimes maddeningly so. There are parts of that 1947 video that are not so funny, and frankly kind of painful to think about. As one YouTube commenter put it: “A fun watch, yes, but you sure gotta wear shades to not be blinded by all the sexism and lack of ethnicity.” This is still rings true today. Some things have not changed.)
Librarianship is still overwhelmingly female, and overwhelmingly white. Men in the field tend to hold higher positions and are paid more than their female counterparts. Sexism and harassment exist in libraries, archives, and museums. Libraries tend to inspire trust and respect among patrons, but there are deeper questions that we have to keep asking about the nature and shape of our work if we want things to get better.
There’s space for us to look at librarianship with a critical eye and still push forward so in 71 years our videos aren’t still so uncomfortably familiar.