This is a guest posting by Dave Obee, author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.
Every few weeks, it seems, somebody somewhere will come up with a list of professions that are dying, jobs that are disappearing, and so on. Just about every one of those lists will include librarians (and journalists too, but that is another matter).
Is there cause for alarm? Should we be worried that the librarian is a dying breed? Well, perhaps. But there is another way to look at it, provided we are willing to learn from the past.
There was a time when we didn’t have libraries, or librarians. Despite that, information was shared, and people found things to read and found ways to keep themselves entertained. They were sharing information, and sharing resources, and forming reading clubs and mechanics’ institutes. There was a catch: People were not reaching their full potential.
Things improved greatly when the first proper libraries opened, and the first trained librarians arrived in the province. Alma Russell, who was hired at the legislature in Victoria in 1897, was the first person in British Columbia with formal library training.
Russell was born in Douglastown, New Brunswick, raised in Victoria and educated in New York. She specialized in historical research, lecturing and cataloguing – in fact, she had to make a record of everything in the legislative library.
It was laborious work. Not only did Russell have to write every card by hand, she did not have catalogues from other libraries to guide her work. She had to devise subject headings and classifications as she went along.
“This was sometimes a difficult task, and one on which I should have been glad, very often, to have had the advice of some other librarian with more experience,” she said later. Making matters worse, the library was overflowing with books so sorting was difficult. Russell did not have book carts, filing cases or even a typewriter when she tackled her assignment.
Cartoon by Adrian Raeside
©2011 Hairy Dog Productions, Inc.
Russell created and established a system of cataloguing that won praise from international authorities, including Sir Henry Miers, who surveyed museums throughout the British Empire. She also served as president of the British Columbia Library Association and the British Columbia Historical Association.
Russell retired in 1933 and died in Victoria 30 years later. She is remembered with the Alma Russell Islands in Barkley Sound.
Another legendary early librarian was Ethelbert Olaf Stuart Scholefield, even though he had no formal training and was barely out of his teens was he was named the head librarian in the province. There is a good chance that Scholefield received valuable training from Russell, and of course there is a good chance that Russell would have had the top job if not for her gender. That was the way things were a century ago.
Scholefield added to the collection as quickly as he could. In 1905, he and Russell went to Portland, Oregon, for the American Library Association’s annual conference. Scholefield gave a presentation on B.C.’s travelling library system, which delivered books to the masses wherever they were.
Scholefield and Russell worked tirelessly to build the legislative library, and used it to spread library service throughout the province. Scholefield was a member of the Victoria library board when it hired the legendary Helen Gordon Stewart — the woman responsible for much of the development of the library network in the early decades of the 20th century.
Like the others, Stewart devoted her life to the library cause. When she ran the Fraser Valley regional system in the early 1930s, she worked six or seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, spreading the word about libraries. She learned to drive so she could travel from one community to another, and she carried tea and walnuts with her to ensure she never ran out of energy.
What do these people have to do with the worries of today? Plenty.
There were plenty of nay-sayers back then, plenty of people who did not believe there was a need for formal libraries or stuffy librarians, people happy with the way things had been working. After all, how could someone who had never met a trained librarian know what the librarian could offer?
It’s much the same today. Anyone who says that librarians are no longer needed does not appreciate the difference a librarian can make.
There is so much digital information available – some of it accurate – and a librarian can help us all navigate through it. A librarian can guide us to more resources in a variety of formats. A librarian can help people create their own works and share with the world.
Anyone who says a librarian is no longer needed just doesn’t get it. They are needed today, just like they were needed a century ago. What has changed is that in addition to guiding us through a collection inside a library’s walls, we need guides to all the wonders on the outside. Librarians are needed now more than ever.
A librarian is a dying profession? Nah. It’s changing, that’s all. It’s not dying, it’s on a new frontier, with plenty of potential yet to be realized.
Dave Obee’s The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia is published by the BC Library Association.