It is the first day of spring break and I am staffing the reference desk this afternoon. It is believable, today, that libraries are nice quiet places. All I see is chairs, desks, and cubicles waiting for students to park their bottoms in order to study alone or study together. All I hear is the annoying hum of the printing station and people walking through to their offices. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the 21st century academic library is still a nice quiet place with librarians on hand, just waiting to
shush help you!
That is far from the case here most days. There is a tumult of activity for the students, faculty, and community using the library and for the staff. In our library, we have other campus offices, a very busy and wonderful cafe, computer labs, multimedia labs and a merged technology help center and library circulation desk. The first place anyone goes for help on campus is the library — in the ideal — as evidenced by the noise, traffic, and activity. People come to us angry, lost, fearful, happy, exuberant, and full of trepidation. They may be studying together or seeking a quiet place. They may need something or just want to be alone. We try to provide it all.
The assumption and stereotype remain that libraries are bastions of scholarly quiet and intensity. They are but libraries are also more. In particular, public libraries most often experience, first-hand, the charms and ills of a free society. Libraries with their warmth, openness, and free access to information and computers attract people seeking a place to sit, sleep, and learn. Often times, people will leave their responsibilities in the library. From babysitting their children to guardians looking for a place to put a special needs adult, librarians are often surprised (unpleasantly) by the things/people left in the library. Libraries are not exempt from the ills of our society, though in our imagination we would like to dream of them of a place of soulful retreat. Academic libraries tend to be more insulated that public libraries but in my experiences we’ve had more than our fair share of dealing with crime, criminals, the mentally ill, the scary, the quirky, and the weird. Sometimes it’s a fraternity bet (“Go pee in a library trashcan) to a transgendered person denied her right to use the lady’s room.
There is some dissonance, this difference between our romantic dreams and the varying reality of libraries. As an insider, it is both fun and irritating to encounter the stereotypes and assumptions about my work and my profession. By the same token, it is a great profession with where change is embraced and the past is preserved. If you think you are confused, those of us in libraries are also confused.
Where did the picture come from? I am not sure. I’ve had it since the 1980s when my job was to go through old magazines and newspapers for the ephemeral file. It’s the cover of a magazine, I think The Atlantic Monthly. I couldn’t find a citation or reference to it after a rather cursory google search. I thought at the time (and still do) it was a perfect picture to convey the difference between expectation and reality of day to day working and living la vida library!