Monday, February 05, 2007

A School Librarian on "Making the Sale"

Going on my rule that anything Joyce calls "well worth reading" probably is, I followed her link to this column from last week's Charlotte Observer. The author, Thomas Washington, is a librarian at a DC private high school, and he's got some interesting things to say both about the state of librarianship and reading culture (at least among the students at his school).

There really are two points (separate but equally important, to use a "Law & Orderism") in this essay: that the focus of librarianship has shifted in an important way in the last few years, and that reading (particularly the somewhat-nebulously-defined "literary reading") among young adults is in a steep and troubling decline.

To the first point: Yes. Librarianship is changing, and we're right smack dab in the middle of it. In my program, I would say it's still a majority of people who got into the field because of their interest in/love for books and reading. But books are no longer the focal point of a library education: as Washington notes, "[t]he buzzword in the trade is 'information literacy,' a misnomer, because what it is really about is mastering computer skills, not promoting a love of reading and books. We teach students how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material."

This is not to generalize universally: there are classes in which books remain a primary focus. But they are not the core classes that everyone shares - they are the niche classes, taken only by those being shunted into "school librarianship" or "childrens' librarianship", &c. For the rest of us, books hardly feature at all (hence my decision to focus on archives - which at least gets me closer to books - and history, where I actually get to read them). Book history, a field which is of great interest to many of my student colleagues, gets one course a year (which is always packed to the gills). People want this knowledge, but it can be hard to find time for in the course of a typical library science (excuse me, library and information science) education.

Library education needs to "get back to basics", but it's going to take a long time to get there. Educators have been lulled by the siren song of "information literacy" and I suspect it will take a significant sea change to return books to their preeminent position in the curriculum (if it ever happens at all). Yes, electronic media are of great importance, and will continue to be, but they can only ever hope to complement the printed word, not replace it. Google Books is great for finding mentions of a topic in various books (I think of it sort of as a giant index) but its limitations are such that I almost always head for the library after a quick overview search there. Other databases can be extremely useful (and the ability to update them regularly is a great advantage) but they can't do it all.

To Washington's second point, about students and reading, I should say first of all that I admire him and others like him who choose to go into school librarianship (or even public librarianship, for that matter). I couldn't do it, I don't think - it'd depress me too much. Give me a rare book or scholarly reference collection that brings people in because they want to study the books and glean knowledge from them and I'll be happy as a lark, but I don't think I could spend my days fruitlessly trying to persuade students to pick up a book. The success stories must be incredibly rewarding (I've had a few even just selling used books, and they are fun) but the setbacks have to be disheartening.

I don't think there's a good answer to this problem except that we must all (and by this I mean we as librarians of all stripes, as readers, as bibliophiles, as citizens) try to make books and reading as accessible and enjoyable for others as we find them ourselves - and attempt to pass along the joy, provocation, sadness or knowledge that we have found on the printed page in the hope that it might pique someone's curiosity enough to turn that first page.

Today's students and young adults aren't "too busy," they're "too distracted." It's much easier to click on the t.v. and surf the channels, or waste hours IMing and playing around on the Web than it is to nestle in and devote a few hours to reading a book. Distractions happen (even for those of us with "to be read" piles stacked to the metaphorical ceiling). But no, movies aren't substitutes for books; nor are video games. It's not the same. Persuading someone to watch a DVD isn't "making the sale"; persuading them to pick up the book and give it a spin when they return the DVD is.

We cannot throw in the towel; this is too important an issue to surrender.

No comments: