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Spring is in the air, making me want to climb out of my hibernation and attend some conferences.  Unfortunately, as I’m not actively job-hunting, funded by my job, or spurred on by the student rates, I’m limiting my conference attendance to one day at the New Mexico Library Association in April. I really wanted to go to ARLIS this year (in Denver), but it just isn’t feasible. I’m in that career spot between discounted student and successful career librarian – right now I’m just impoverished early career librarian who can’t afford to go to conferences.

Now I’m brainstorming new ways to fill in the gaps.  Online library training and programming is becoming more common, even though I haven’t attended any lately (combination of time and utility – and my computer at work is ancient and largely useless for such things).  I finally broke down and bought an MP3 player, so free downloads are now a mobile opportunity for whiling away the long park-n-ride hours.  Library Journal is offering podcasts from the “Library 2.0 Gang” that sound interesting, including lots of info on Open Library. According to the Library Journal article, “Each month, the Library Gang will focus on a technology topic at issue in the library world.”

The thing is, I miss the conference networking the most.  I miss the librarians! These days that aspect of my identity is only validated when someone at work asks “Heather, you’re a librarian – you must know how to spell ‘cantankerous’.”  I’m not sure where the spelling/librarian corollary comes from, but as a matter of fact I DO know how to spell “cantankerous” and I’m proud of it. But I’m also looking forward to chatting with some fellow bibliophiles in a couple weeks.

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As I commute back and forth on the park-and-ride bus (50 minutes each direction) from my new house in Espanola to work in Santa Fe, I listen to a lot of National Public Radio.  Along with keeping me properly distressed over the U.S. involvement in foreign affairs and anxious about the free-falling economy, I also use it as my bellweather of popular trends and opinions.  I don’t get cable, so I can’t watch MTV.  The pulpy content of glossy grocery aisle magazines makes me queasy.  So these days my pop culture sensibility mostly comes via Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

I particularly enjoyed the story this week about how “websites let bibliophiles share books virtually“.  Even though LibraryThing has been around since 2005 and these biblio-social networking sites are proliferating like rabbits at a love-in, I’m glad to hear it’s not just me and my bookclub/librarian buddies using them as a nerdy alternative to MySpace. So who (besides Steve Jobs) says nobody reads anymore?

And now something to counterbalance the negative effects of the Wausau controversy and negative public perceptions, at least at the local level.

I was pleased to read a piece in the Albuquerque Journal today (“Librarians Help Students Navigate Their Way to Correct Information”) about the role of libraries and librarians, particularly for students doing research.  Because this is an extremely important demographic that is being increasingly disconnected from libraries in any manifestation, I thought the PR was particularly timely and encouraging.  The story delineates pretty succinctly why libraries are unique purveyors of reliable information.  I couldn’t help but be cheered by the words of 18-year-old Britny Rasinski, who realizes that when it comes to free online information, “you don’t really know who put it up or anything.”

This kind of marketing is great, but not necessarily proactive.  Yes, people (for the most part) love and support libraries.  We can wait for public support in the form of human interest stories, letters to the editor, speeches at town council meetings.  But how often are we making these efforts on our own behalf?

By now I’m sure everyone has heard about the controversy over the librarian demotions in Marathon County, Wisconsin. Is this indeed a sign that public libraries are approaching the end of days – another nail in the coffin of the public perception of librarianship?  The comments to the original news story certainly highlight the big old “kick me” sign taped to our backs.

The most thought-provoking perspective I’ve seen on this issue on the many blogs and discussion lists that have tackled it confronts that old sticking point that we as a profession are INEPT at marketing ourselves. Unlike the CIA, which has many legitimate reasons for professional secrecy, it should not be our goal to be undercover agents. This false modesty is going to be (maybe already is) our demise. If we can’t sell value-added service to the public as our raison d’etre as librarians, then we really ARE just wasting time and money. And if the library director in Wausau, Wisconsin can’t even find reasons for keeping a library staffed with professionals paid a living wage, this very certainly is the beginning of the end.

Surely our value does not come from being the warm bodies behind the reference desk, as this story distortingly implies. But what is it that makes public librarians essential to the library? And how do we sell that to the public? There are services we provide as information professionals that are completely unknown to most of the public (and, apparently, to many library boards).  These are the useful things we spend our valuable time learning in grad school, skills which make us more valuable than generic customer service representatives (or whatever they’re calling the new librarian positions in Wausau).

1. Complex research/subject expertise/knowledge of databases

2. Instruction and programming – 1 on 1 and for classes and groups

3. Collection development – tools, collection, users

4. Tech skills (NOT just how to unjam the copier)

These are important, valuable skills.  We all know that.  We’re proud of our accomplishments and tend to come through in a pinch.  But all too often we can’t even offer these skills, because the point of need goes unannounced by a public still ignorant of our services. 

So how do we sell ourselves? Some random thoughts: THINK LIKE A BUSINESS. Stop being martyrs. Advertise on tv and radio. Do presentations for schools and other local groups. Hey, why not put up a billboard? It’s only by selling ourselves as unique and intrinsic components of 21st century society that libraries – and librarians – will maintain any sort of relevance.