10/09/2013

The Politics of the Librarian, or the Identity Crisis - 15th LIASA Conference Day 1

Its like I never left....

Yes more than 5 years have passed since the last conference I attended, and things have changed significantly.
We have Twitter now.
We still have Facebook but its not as cool as it was.
E-readers are not the pipe dream of a few academic librarians.
And Public Librarians are still manning (or woman-ning) battle lines against illiteracy and ignorance. 
For all the things that have stayed the same, Public Librarians have changed. In Cape Town the Public Library service has found a stability in its practices that only strong leadership and foresight could bring. And who doesn't love us, with our books and  free internet access?

Well the people of Ratanda in the Westonaria municipality in Gauteng certainly didn't like us last year. (Click here.) 
 In a display of frustration at the lack of service delivery, the people burnt the library down and the librarians went into hiding for fear of attacks against their houses. The people of Ratanda were definintely not loving us.

As a topic to spark a discussion in the one of the interesting plenary sessions, its certainly set my brain a-tingle. The people of Ratanda weren't burning down a library, they were burning down a building of the local municipality and targeting the workers of that building. To the people of Ratanda, the noble intent of librarians didn't mean a thing because all they saw was the corporate image of an organization that was making their lives literally stink of crap.

When I walk into my library, I know I'm a librarian. I have the tag, the designation on my payslip, the people that take out books and visit the internet all know me and name as  Librarian. But I can't help but be aware that the tag has a logo on it, the sign out front loudly proclaiming that the building you stepping into is a library is the same plain carbon copy of the plaque that adorns all the other buildings in the City, the tariffs that indicate what I charge as fees and penalties all have that logo affixed to it, and that little doubt that I have, is slightly less worrisome when I look at that payslip with its logo. 

 Lyn Steyn,  when she was Ruler of Fish Hoek Library, stated quite vehemently that she felt that a Corporate Image and the drive to sterile same-ness was stripping away the character of the Public Library Service in Cape Town, till we just became another department that gave books to people, interchangeable from the Valuations department. I scoffed, because the Library Department had always been on the outside of the behemoth that was the Local Authority, and conformity was a small price to pay for a seat at the grown ups table.  But here's the thing, when Ratanda Library burned all they saw was a way to hurt the municipality for crappy service. They didn't see the books, they didn't see the kids reading, or the helpful librarian they only saw the logo, and decided to punish it. 

A public library serves the public's need, so what if the public only sees you as a logo? What then? Do you have the right, to throw off those local authority shackles and take on a situation you know is unfair? Are we Local Authority employees first and Librarians second?

If we are Librarians first then we need to recognize that the burning mob is someone that was pushed that far by the indifferent treatment of the "Logo".  If we are Librarians first we need to make sure that our patrons know that we are MORE than the "Logo", better than even. If we are Librarians first, we need to look at these "Logo" rules, regulations and decided what will make my patrons experience just that little bit better in these harsh times. 
If we are a Librarians first, we serve our communities needs first, and corporate interests second.
Perhaps it will be enough to halt the flames.
Perhaps it will be enough to prevent standing in front of a smoldering pile of ashes.



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