My Turn: Librarians are essential workers

My Turn: Librarians are essential workers

By Robert A. Scott

During the Covid pandemic, we began calling certain jobs “essential”. These included physicians, nurses, ambulance drivers, EMTs, teachers, food delivery people, trash haulers, and others on the front line of service to the public. I would add librarians to this cadre.

Andrew Carnegie recognized more that a century ago that free public libraries were important places of congregation, education, and leadership.

Carnegie thought that access to information and knowledge would permit those from limited household circumstances to find advancement in careers and civic engagement.

That certainly was the case for me. I recall my mother taking me to the Mount Vernon, N.Y. Public Library for Saturday afternoon Children’s Hour of stories and to borrow books to read with me during the week.

Librarians are licensed professionals, experts in disseminating good information and ensuring that we can gain knowledge. They are crucial resources who not only encourage an appreciation for literature but also help communities strengthen their digital literacy skills and circulate credible information. Businesspeople and professionals as well as students use the library, and seek the help of librarians, for research assignments.

According to a national report, “the American library … is a barometer of where we currently stand as a society when it comes to access to knowledge and information, as well as a catalyst for the enlightenment and coalescing of communities and individuals across the nation.”

However, against this backdrop of historical and contemporary acclaim for libraries and librarians, we see increasing instances of attempts at book banning and even book burning. In the year 2021-2022, PEN America found 2,532 instances of individual bans which covered 1,648 unique books in 138 school districts in 32 states, including Long Island.

In the past, such efforts were isolated and local.

Now, they are ideologically motivated and politically advantageous. Some of these campaigns simply compile lists of books whose subjects or authors, especially black authors, are deemed questionable without any evidence they were even read.

How can this be when so many cite the Biblical verse, “The truth will set you free”?

This verse means that the light of truth is the only reality. Lies, falsehoods, cheating, and deceptions may be someone’s reality, but that does not make them true. The library is a temple to truth.

Yet, it seems that increasing numbers of people question the expertise of librarians, just as they question the expertise of doctors and scientists.

None of these professions is infallible, of course. What sets them apart is that they are honor-bound to change their conclusions when new evidence is discovered or uncovered.

For the librarian, this means curating as well as collecting and storing sources of information, whether on discs, in the cloud., or in books.

The Swedish designer, Josef Frank, has a wonderful quote about books. He said, “The world is a book, and the person who stays at home reads only one page.” The librarian is our travel guide to new vistas.

While is high school and college, I worked each summer at a public pool in Mount Vernon. For two days each week, I had the evening shift in the Pump House, meaning that I had only to test the water every hour.

As the pool was closed, except for an occasional kid who tried to hop the fence, I had uninterrupted time to read the books I had borrowed from the library.

I was interested in law and the librarian introduced me to Clarence Darrow and the book, “Attorney for the Damned.” I probably read around two-dozen books each summer on various topics.

In college, I worked in the library 20 hours per week, asking for the Saturday afternoon hours when in the fall most students were at the football game. This gave me quiet time to talk with the librarians and peruse the books on reserve for classes in all subjects. (My schedule did not curtail my social life, however, as I went to the after-game parties. I just couldn’t discuss the heroic plays of my classmates.)

In the Navy, I borrowed books from the base library to catch up on reading that was not finished in college and to learn new topics. Never great in math, I remember studying calculus with material the librarian recommended.

At Adelphi, I realized that the librarian was a critical resource in curriculum and program development. The librarian was someone who could tell faculty and deans in different departments that they were considering the development of similar programs and could collaborate on the purchase of materials.

After retiring from Adelphi, I was a visiting scholar at the New York Public Library where the librarians helped me find books and articles for a book, and a book chapter, I was writing on university governance and leadership.

For these and so many more reasons, I think of librarians as “essential” to each of us as citizens and professionals. They deserve our respect and support.

Robert A. Scott is President Emeritus at Adelphi University


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