The Backroad Librarian: Generation Next
Most librarians don’t say “shh!” anymore. They’re “information activists,” and rural communities need them more now than ever.
“PAR-TIC-I-PA-TION, or 37 pieces of library flair”
Photo: Cindi Trainor
“Aren’t you a little, well, young to be a librarian?”
I’ve heard this line more than once since the beginning of the year, when I moved to southeastern Kansas to take a job as the director of a rural community college library. I try not to let it bug me. At twenty-five, I probably am a little young to be running a library of my own, although I figure that whatever I lack in gravitas at this point, I can hopefully make up with a combination of hard work and youthful exuberance. Over the summer, it looks like my library is going to get painted for the first time in thirty-eight years. So I must be doing something right.
Part of the confusion that my presence in the library engenders surely stems from the fact that many Americans still have a pretty clear mental picture of what a librarian is supposed to look like: a dour-faced spinster in sensible shoes, with wire-gray hair pulled up into a tight, unforgiving bun. And while a handful of recent trend stories have heralded the emergence of a new archetype—the cool hipster librarian! —the unwritten assumption in these stories is that the edgy young professionals they profile are living and working in urban areas. The closest they’re likely to get to rural America are the Carhartts that they’ll ironically don on their way out to the bars in Brooklyn.
Photo: Cindi Trainor
There’s really no template for the young, rural librarian, and so those of us who have taken jobs in rural areas can’t help but notice that we’re swimming against the current. Nor is it necessarily easy to find a job in a rural community, even if you decide that you want one. Throughout much of the library world, a Master’s degree in library and information science (an “MLS”) is the prerequisite for an entry-level professional position. Yet earning an MLS actually takes you out of contention for many rural library jobs, which are frequently filled by retired teachers or other community members with supplementary sources of income.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that, of the 5,432 public libraries in the United States with a service population of less than 10,000 people, just 1,098 actually employ a degreed librarian. Of the 3,949 libraries with a service population of less than 5,000, there are just 453 with a degreed librarian. That’s about one in ten. Moreover, many small public libraries are open for less than forty hours a week, which means that even if a recent graduate gets hired on, he or she could easily end up not working enough hours to qualify for benefits.
Now, I would never argue that a person absolutely needs a library degree in order to be an effective librarian. There are nondegreed librarians throughout this country who are doing admirable and sometimes legitimately innovative work in the communities they serve. But I would argue that an influx of young, highly trained information professionals could have an enormous impact on rural America, both by enriching library services with innovative new practices (check out my library’s Facebook page!) and by participating as full partners in a broader process of rural community development.
From library science’s pre-digital age
You see, librarians today increasingly see themselves as information activists, empowering the communities they serve by promoting technology literacy and helping patrons to navigate a media landscape that is changing by the day. Today’s librarians understand that a community’s attractiveness to outside investment is measured not just by the size of the tax abatements it offers, but by the quality of its workforce. Today’s librarians are teaching the skills that are fundamental to success in a 21st-century knowledge economy, while remaining as committed as ever to the transformative power of the right book in the right set of hands.
So how do we attract more of these young, credentialed librarians to rural communities? One possibility is student loan forgiveness for librarians working in high-need areas, a model proposed by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) in The Librarian Act of 2007. At the local level, rural library boards would do well to start thinking about sharing degreed librarians between half-time positions in different communities (and then splitting the cost of benefits). Most importantly, though, library schools need to teach their students how to function as librarians in situations where resources are scarce, how to practice a truly scalable librarianship.
I don’t begrudge the big urban and suburban library systems all of the bells and whistles that they have their disposal. Out here, though, it’s librarianship by the seat of your pants.
(Note: For lots more images that may challenge your ideas about libraries and librarians, see more of Cindi Trainor’s photography. A 2.0 librarian to be sure, Trainor works in Madison County, Kentucky.)