On Communities

When I first saw this old recruitment video for librarians, it was easy to have a good laugh over how dated it was. But at its core, I see something more serious being expressed. Librarianships’ commitment to the community is an ongoing value, evident in this video as much as in any current library. However, this value is dependent on the definition of “community” and the goals associated with assisting them, both of which have changed over the nearly 60 years since this video was published.

While this video from the 40’s emphasizes services for people from “all walks of life”, it’s clear from the lack of racial diversity that this value applies mainly to white patrons, although of various class and physical ability. Libraries over the years have not been free of racist policies, such as segregated service, and so the definition of “community” was not intersectionally inclusive. The type of service provided has been problematic at times as well. The goal of the library was to provide information and education, but originated as a prescriptive service. This can be seen in the video, as librarians choose books for students to read, and in other vocational guides of a similar time, which describe a librarian’s responsibility to “nurture taste” in patrons (Currie, 1958). While it may have seemed admirable, having predominantly white, college-educated people controlling information dissemination comes with some pretty obvious issues.

Thankfully, libraries today, have made some steps forward with the rest of society in providing more inclusive services. But there are still more similarities with the libraries of the past than we might want. Like the librarians in the video, librarians in Canada today are predominantly white (8Rs Research Team, 2005), and there are still community groups who feel unwelcome in the library space. We might try to paint more hopeful picture of libraries today with a justification of our value of neutral service which, at the very least, is better than prescriptive service, since it lets the patrons pick and interpret their own information. While a truly neutral service may play a role in upholding principles of freedom of information, I’d argue that library service is not neutral. The systems and tools we use, such as DDC and LCC, are still outdated, with euro-centric bias. We’ve pushed our own ideas of information literacy, only recently recognizing the value of recognizing that literacy takes many forms depending on the patron or community (Elmborg, 2006). In order to move forward from the picture of libraries seen in the video, we need to recognize these problematic prescriptive practices.

However, there are some instances where breaking from neutrality can be not only beneficial to libraries and their communities, but, in my opinion, necessary. When political causes arise that strive to improve their community, the library should be supportive. By listening to the community, perhaps librarians will move past the problematic aspects of prescriptive service and neutral service as they move forward.


8Rs Research Team (2005, February). The Future of Human Resources in Canadian Libraries [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.ls.ualberta.ca/8rs/8RsFutureofHRLibraries.pdf
Currie, C. (1958). Be a librarian: a guide to careers in modern librarianship. London: C. Lockwood.
Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2): 192-99.


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