Libraries Without Librarians, Archives Without Archivists

Libraries, and especially public libraries, are routinely an early target of budget cutting initiatives. It seems HR pros and other administrative types typically have not personally experienced how valuable sustained contact with high quality reading material is.

Where closing libraries is unpalatable, Librarians are fired. After all, the common perception of librarians is that “Librarians check out books. They read a lot. They tell people to be quiet.”

But libraries can’t run themselves, and more crucially, Librarians teach, by example and by the collections they build, how to detect BS. And lawyers, having spent a lot of time reading critically, know that there is a lot of BS out there.

That function is core to the work of the most underrated of all librarians: the school librarian. But where else do 6-year-olds begin to understand that, quite literally, you are what you read? Garbage in, garbage out, people.

Here’s a good, ‘elementary’ example of that kind of service. The selection function, which depends on excellent and current knowledge of the available materials and the needs of the library clientele, flies under the radar. Nevertheless, it continues though all levels of education, and into the professional world, where institutions like the LAC can, or could, provide the highest levels of expert curatorial and reference service. As long as there are capable professionals on staff.

Here’s what Ian E. Wilson, one of Canada’s best, and former head of the LAC, had to say on the topic of selecting materials and offering access to information back in 2000:

In a world where every second person is now called a knowledge worker, archivists have been quietly plying the “KM” trade for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Using his or her professional skills and knowledge of the creation and use of records, the archivist sifts through mountains of information, identifying and linking those records containing information and knowledge which have value for the future […]

A management consultant colleague once likened the archival selection process to that of an oil refinery, which transforms a rather useless material into a variety of valuable products. I myself think a distillery may offer an even better analogy. We take raw, natural ingredients — some of it corn and some of it rather wry— and produce a fine, flavourful, and fully aged product. Like other such products, it has strong medicinal benefits, and is guaranteed to rejuvenate memory if stored carefully and used liberally.

Ian E. Wilson, “Information, Knowledge, and the Role of Archives” 25 (1) Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 19 at 19.

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