I love libraries. I mean, what’s not to love? They’ve got DVDs, computers, audio books, magazines, newspapers from all over, and, oh yeah! Books! And it’s all free, if not to check out then to use to your heart’s content there at the library, in a comfy chair or a private study carrel. I’ve known libraries that check out toys, works of art, tools, and fancy cake pans. Libraries host movies with free popcorn, readings by favorite authors, story time for kids and their frazzled parents, and summer reading clubs. They exist in inner cities and in bucolic suburban settings, inside malls and zooming around in bookmobiles.
When I was little, my friend and I would walk a good half-mile to the closest bookmobile stop. As much as I loved the big library downtown, it never ceased to amaze me that a big bus cruised around town all day, crammed with books smelling that good booky smell, and with just a paper card I could take a passel home. In fact my friend and I would usually sit on a curb just outside the bookmobile and begin reading. She got mad at me for reading faster than her, but I couldn’t help it. From the time I mastered Dick and Jane, I was born to read.
The Iowa Library Association (ILA), representing public, academic, medical, legal, school, and every other kind of library in the state, held its 120th conference last month in Coralville. It was great to be surrounded by other people who do what I do, even though medical librarians were a decided minority there. (That was okay, since I had just attended the Midwest Medical Library Association conference a few weeks before, thanks to a scholarship from the ILA.)
The sessions were as varied as the librarians presenting them (and if you think we all look alike, think again) – Cloud Computing, Graphic Novels and Anime, Discovering the Storyteller Within You, Disaster Preparedness, Humor in Libraries, and Getting Things Back While Keeping Customers were just a few on offer. At a session on consumer health, I learned that you can watch videos of actual surgeries on the Web, should you want to know what your upcoming appendectomy is going to look like before you go under the knife (not for the squeamish). At another, I heard about how each of five different generations differs, bringing its own strengths and challenges to the world, to the workplace, and especially to libraries.
At the same time, I was reading a book. The day before the conference began, I had stopped at one of the world’s all-time best bookstores, Prairie Lights, as I always do when I’m near Iowa City. Browsing the shelf of staff recommendations, I was startled as one of those staffers whizzed by, stopping for a moment to point at one while declaring, “This is a wonderful book!” It was one I probably wouldn’t have picked up – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – but of course I did. Then I sat down, started reading, and, hardly bearing to put it down, paid for it and went back to my hotel room to read some more. Throughout the conference, I managed to find pockets of time to return to the book, finishing it before leaving town. (I wasn’t the only librarian with her nose inside a hardcover between sessions.)
The funny thing is, the speaker at the opening session, who was not a librarian, told us that her second choice of profession had always been librarian because – big surprise – “I love books!” I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one who winced through her smile. How many times have we heard this from our customers? “You must love books!” “Have you read all of these books?” “I’d love a job where all I had to do was read books all day!”
Hey, so would I. Too bad such a job doesn’t exist. (This reminds me of something a college professor friend said to me once. Standing in his book-lined living room, he sighed and said, “I wish someone would pay me to sit on my sofa and read all day.”) In case you hadn’t noticed, the people who work at libraries aren’t sitting around reading books. They are looking up facts (the population of New Delhi, the eating habits of wombats, the number of miles between here and Goshen, Indiana), locating videos for people to “rent,” recommending new mysteries, fixing copiers, or figuring out that when someone asks for information on “circumspection” they really mean “circumcision.” If they’re reading anything, it’s a journal full of book reviews, which they speed-read so they can order more books to meet the demands of, well, demanding readers.
I know I haven’t read all the books in my library, nor would I want to. Take Schwartz’s Textbook of Surgery. At 1,888 pages, it’s a book for doctors to consult or students to memorize. As the librarian, it’s enough for me to know it’s a necessary book to have. I don’t need to read it. (Let’s hear it for the experts who review these 10-pound tomes.) I used to be a reviewer for Library Journal, but I reviewed videos, mainly on domestic violence, Alzheimer’s, and, as a sort of treat, raising cats.
Librarians go into the field for all kinds of reasons. They like helping people. They’re fascinated with computer databases. They have a thing for bringing order to chaos. They keep entering the field even though government keeps cutting funding for libraries. So if you love books – or movies or magazines or information or staff who really want to help you – visit a library today, and don’t let your representatives cut another penny from its budget.