A tribute to librarians, heroes of modern times
By Marie Lebert, version of 25 October 2016.
Marie Lebert is a French librarian, translator and scholar. She has worked in different libraries and roles in various countries. Marie has recently concluded a fifteen-year research project on ebooks published in three languages (French, English, Spanish). These experiences inspire and give rise to this article, which celebrates the flexibility and adaptability of librarians everywhere.
What would we do without librarians? Although very discreet, librarians have had a pivotal role in the information society and in the world at large, a proof that true heroes of modern times are not those who first come to our mind.
Both traditional and digital libraries are extensively covered by the media, but what about all those who work there, especially librarians in small or underfunded libraries?
Since the 15th century, after the birth of the printed book, librarians have worked hard, with great conviction and little means, in all kinds of general and specialized libraries.
At first, librarians were local historians and had other volunteer roles. After decades of discussions at many levels (local, national, regional, international), being a librarian has become a job and a profession.
The library has always stuck to its time, so it has changed over the years. The contemporary library, often renamed multimedia library, now includes an exhibition hall, a conference hall (used for meetings, debates, book signatures, concerts, and even yoga or tai chi), a cosy room where children can listen to stories, a cyberspace with computers, a virtual library and, in the best of cases, a coffee shop rather than a beverage machine stacked under the stairs.
Librarians have proudly rounded the cape of the 21st century trying to read ebooks on their computers, PDAs, smartphones, tablets and e-readers, with more or less conviction at first, just to be in the game, before enthusiastically advocating for them.
Despite being very young, ebooks created a tsunami in a five-century economic model that had started with Johannes Gutenberg in Europe. Was the book family going to implode because of its digital offspring? No. Librarians were there, and cemented the book world by gathering around them many other trades: authors, publishers, booksellers, distributors, printers, bookbinders, translators, editors, illustrators, photographers, and of course readers.
“What is important is the author’s work, not the reading device”, librarians were repeating over and over. “Love is looking in the same direction.”
As often in the past, librarians have succeeded in their efforts to pursue Gutenberg’s work against all odds, i.e. provide books for all, no matter the support, no matter the time and no matter the location. All trades now peacefully attend the annual Book Fair (in Frankfurt, in Paris, and elsewhere). eBooks are on good terms with printed books. Tablets and e-readers patiently watch book shelves still stuffed with printed books, and even rest on them. Paper is not dead yet, but tablets and e-readers are looking forward to the future, i.e. taking the whole space as soon as they can.
In the meantime, librarians are busier than ever. In addition to their regular duties (buy documents, inventory them, catalog them, analyse them, index them, classify them, loan them, check them, clean them, and so on), they also answer all kinds of questions every day, while updating their professional blogs and wikis, and feeding the many library accounts on social sites, including the library’s Facebook wall and the library’s Twitter feed.
Some would go nuts doing so many things at once. But librarians have quickly learned to manage their stress levels, while working hard to achieve fair optional overtime for those who want or need to work more, fair optional part-time for those who don’t want or need to work full time, and for a relaxation area to be mandatory in all libraries.
During restless nights, non-techie librarians are dreaming of the past, when the internet had not invaded the world yet. Meanwhile, techie librarians are dreaming of the (true) electronic paper, still in beta test, but expected to rock the planet sooner or later, despite a worldwide launch postponed year after year. Some techie librarians are even dreaming about pursuing their career on another planet.
As we live in a busy world, it is now time to conclude.
Librarians were already there to bring order to what Gutenberg and his successors imprinted. Librarians were there to organise the first city libraries, and to tirelessly promote public reading to generations of young and old readers. Librarians are still there to deal with stacks of books, newspapers, magazines, journals, images, photos, films, diskettes, CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, web pages, text files, audio files, video files, ebooks and other digital documents, while checking the library’s emails, and responding to comments pouring in under their latest blog post and their latest tweet.
Given so many documents and so many formats, the task has become more and more challenging every day. But librarians have been there for five centuries, and they will still be there for a long time to come.
With many thanks to Derek Whitehead for his editorial suggestions.