librarianship is about showing up

I always love reading philosophies and manifestos and that sort of thing, so I’ve been enjoying the philosophies of librarianship that people have been posting lately.

I’m better at reading these things than I am at writing them myself, but it dawned on me this afternoon that probably what I mostly believe about librarianship is that it is about showing up.

Today I have not worked any desk shifts, nor have I placed any book orders or run any reports or done much else of a concrete and quantifiable nature. What I’ve mostly done is what I think of as staffing the Reference Desk of the Library Staff. That means that I sit in my office, and then sometimes I get up and walk around and do roving reference, and I talk to people on staff who come and have questions, or I go say hi to them and see what conversation ensues.

The first thing I asked for, before I even started work here, was that they rearrange my office furniture so that I didn’t have my back to the door. I like being able to see people coming, and while it’s sometimes useful to have a private office for certain conversations, I like having my door open and my windows into the main work room uncovered. And I like going to talk to people in person instead of just sending them emails.

So yes: I show up. I engage with people. I help people find stuff. That’s half of it, at least.

But the other half of librarianship, to me, involves something else I’ve written about: that the encounter between the librarian and the patron is meeting between two experts. I don’t mean that to deny the expertise of the librarian, which I think is real. But I want whenever possible to remember that along with that expertise comes a power dynamic, and that just because I may have more perceived authority in the library than the patron does not mean I am more important.

People talk a great deal about how libraries are great socialist institutions, and I think that’s true. But I want them to be great anarchist institutions, too: places where we face each other not as supplicant and benefactor but as people with different skills involved in mutual aid, both trying, in our fumbling way, to build a better world.