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The Wrong Love

December 20, 2013

heartMuch is written about love and libraries.  There is, a site created by the American Library Association.  The site does many things toward library and librarian advocacy, including the I Love My Librarian award.  There is also the Love Libraries website run out of the UK, promoting UK libraries.  There is also a We Love Libraries film and Pew has been doing a ton of research on libraries, much of it focused on how much people love and value libraries.

I believe that we are having the wrong conversation.

The conversation we should be having is how much we in libraries love our communities.

We who work in, for, and around libraries know that people love and value the work we do. The loud rumblers, grumpy naysayers, and anti-all-public-service stinkpots are few and far between (though indeed they do be loud).  We get validation all the time from our communities, from the small “thank you” after a reference question to a huge donation from a grateful patron.  If we know that we’re essential to the community, that people love and trust us…why are we constantly expending energy to remind the people we serve of that very fact?

In thinking about this issue, I can’t get away from the image my brain conjures up of a librarian hurriedly following someone on the sidewalk shouting pronouncements like “All your neighbors love libraries!” and “You love us. Don’t forget that you love us!”

Are we truly that defensive that we feel we have to prove our worth through reminding the people we serve that they think we’re so frigging awesome that they’d better keep loving us or else risk societal shunning?  This defensive posture does not serve us well.  It does not prove our worth, but rather sounds like a whinging adolescent trying to convince himself that he’s cool by telling the cool kids “I’m cool – no really I am!”

And that’s the crux of the issue.  I don’t think we focus on “library/librarian love” for the sake of our communities, to remind them of what we do so they’ll use us more, as an outreach or advocacy tool, or as a political move to solidify our value in the minds of stakeholders.

We do it to make ourselves feel better.

In a time of decreasing employment for MLIS-holders, reductions or (at best) stagnation of library funding, and a nearly unprecedented increase in demand and workload (my library is a good example of this), I think that some librarians and other library workers are feeling rather unappreciated and pessimistic about the future.  But of course we can’t say that out loud in public, so instead we mount these library/librarian love campaigns and beg other people to validate our existence.

What bothers me most about this is that nearly everyone I’ve ever met who works in a library, no matter the position or type of library, believes wholeheartedly in what we do for a living.  The way I phrase it is “We democratize information and expertise.”  We all believe in that goal.  We fight for it.  We believe in what we do because…(wait for it)…we love our communities and want to serve them to the best of our ability.

Most library staffers I know bend over backward to serve people.  We live in the communities we serve.  We love our neighbors.  We love information, freedom of access, education, and entertainment.  We who work in libraries love them more than anyone else.  But what do we love more than libraries?  The communities we serve.

And that, my friends, is what we should be focusing on.  We should be campaigning that “The Library Loves You”…not begging for loving scraps of endearment ourselves.

Shifting that viewpoint, changing the looking glass, is going to be my goal for the beginning of 2014.  I hope you will join me.

“The Wrong Love”

  1. Max Macias Says:

    I only love some libraries.

    Many libraries make me uncomfortable and are not welcoming, or worse–their late fines are worse than video stores.

    You are right on in making this observation–if the libraries I dislike so much changed their attitude to, “I Love you!” I think I would like most libraries.

  2. Roy Tennant Says:

    A blog post that I have in my queue to write will be called “Librarians Empower”. That’s the conversation I want to have, and it was inspired by a talk I heard David Lankes give at the Digital Library Federation Fall Forum. As much as I love the guy (and he knows it) I want to take his formulation of what librarians do (and he gets full credit for changing the mission of *libraries* to a mission for *librarians*) and tweak it to be all about *empowerment*. Because that is what we do. We empower individuals with information, knowledge, and tools, and we empower our communities with empowered individuals and groups. The message should be if you want to be more powerful, come let us help you to become so. If you leave loving us, then great. But that isn’t why we’re here.

  3. Rachel Collier Says:

    So true Sarah! I love this.

  4. Matt Weaver Says:

    Very true. Even the recent Pew study showing how Americans value libraries showed a huge distance between the idea of the library, and the actual importance people put on libraries in their lives: One chart shows a huge disconnect between responses to the question “If your public library closed, what impact would that have on you and your family? On your community?”

    29% said it would have a major impact on their family (32% said NO impact) while 63% said it would have a major impact on their community (only 7% responded it would have no community impact).

    The broad response to this report was, “See? Everyone loves us!”

    If libraries are not of value to individuals/families, our value within the community will deteriorate, and why shouldn’t it?

  5. Annie Says:

    Excellent Point! As our libraries would be nothing without our communities!!!

  6. Paul Signorelli Says:

    As always, you’ve written a beautiful and thoughtful piece that should inspire many of us toward additional efforts in support of community and collaboration.

    Taking a similar approach through a day-long workshop with library directors a couple of months ago, I was delighted to see how quickly the participants began looking for ways to collaborate with community partners to even more effectively meet conmunity needs rather than focusing solely on what libraries need. Sometimes we simply need to step away from the daily grind to see what we are capable of facilitating. You’ve managed to help us do that with this article.


  7. Mindy Says:

    Excellent. Just in time too. We are getting ready to do our first ever “love your library” campaign in February where canned goods would eliminate patron fines. I think we should change it to” your library loves you.”

  8. Brandy Says:

    Thank you for this.

    We had a very similar discussion a few years ago at my previous institution. The library was planning NLW activities, and one of my colleagues, an older man who was close to retirement, insisted that the whole “I love libraries” campaign was misguided and suggested that we change the t-shirts to “My library loves me.” Although the planning committee ultimately decided to stay with the original “I <3 the Library" slogan, I thought that my colleague's suggestion was a better idea and that we should have embraced the wisdom that he had to offer.

  9. Shannon Acedo Says:

    Thanks for this useful re-framing of an important issue, Sarah. The image of desperate librarians as the nerdy kid proclaiming his coolness is very apt. But I do have to mention the elephant I envisioned in the BarcaLounger as I was reading this. You touched on that elephant when you referred to decreasing librarian employment and library funding and increasing workloads. Our advocacy of libraries and librarians is so important right now precisely because of this funding crisis. We can pity the poor nerd who is trying to fit in with the cool kids, but imagine if the cool kids got to choose whether the nerd could keep coming to school, or if they controlled how many days the nerd could come to school– Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays only, so sorry, that means you can’t take Biology. Those who fund libraries and librarians– public, private, academic–seem to be hazy on the importance of said libraries, as evidenced by their funding choices. How do we advocate for future funding and continuing existence without sounding desperate? That’s the question.

  10. Changing the rhetoric from “I love libraries” to “Libraries love communities” | Active Learning Says:

    […] Sarah Houghton writes in a recent post for the Librarian in Black blog: […]

  11. Great post from @thelib about changing the rhetoric from “I love libraries” to “Libraries love communities”’m Thinking About … | Active Learning Says:

    […] Sarah Houghton writes in a recent post for the Librarian in Black blog: […]

  12. Bonnie Powers Says:

    Thank you. This is one of the best posts (and perspectives) I’ve read anywhere in a long time.

  13. Greg Schwartz Says:


  14. Shorn Says:

    Meh. We don’t need to crow about how much we love our communities. We need to prove it. I think most of us do that every day. To start with libraries need to take a hard look at their policies and start removing the punitive ones. To this day I hear librarians, board members, managers, etc, talking about people with fines as if they were lepers. Talking about hard core users as if they were a problem. Talking about high-demand materials as if they needed special limits (fewer renewals, no holds, etc). Find a way to say Yes as often as you possibly can and you will have the support of your community.

  15. floatingclouds Says:

    Once again you speak the obvious, remind us of the obvious, yet your words come across as profound. I so agree with this post and your outlook. A true leader has the nerve to speak truths, even when controversial. I wonder why there is so much tunnel vision and lack of vision or confidence or self-respect in our profession? Why as a collective profession are we submissive and insecure? Why is there so much cliquishness and clannishness and insularity and defensiveness? Why is there so much tight-fisted control and micro management? We do not always act like we love our communities. We act like we abhor and fear them. Yay for the Directors who work on ‘getting to yes’, in embracing change and new ways to perceive. I was lucky to once have a Director who also thought this way. He changed my whole outlook and approach early on, as did you, Sarah, via your blogs and speaking engagements and tutorials. I don’t really want anyone loving me as a librarian. Makes me uncomfortable. I have my cat for that!

  16. World Book Night | Field Notes Says:

    […] much is written about loving libraries, Sarah Houghton points out at Librarian in Black that what we should be focused on “is how much we in libraries love our communities.” […]

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