Honoring the Core | Editorial

The field needs to support innovation to meet our changing communities’ needs—but focus on invention can lead to taking essential duties, and the people who do them, for granted.

Foundational library work is as crucial as growth

Meredith Schwartz head shot“New ideas are exciting, but then there’s all the maintenance work that’s happening. Recognizing all library workers is recognizing the value of all that unsung work that’s required to make everything flashy happen in the first place,” Matthew Noe told LJ in our article honoring all library staff as Librarian of the Year.

That got me thinking. News organizations have a novelty bias; it’s in the name. In some ways that makes sense: By definition, if it’s new, people don’t know it yet.

But the reverse—that if it is not new, people already know it—isn’t necessarily true. Library work is diverse, not only across library types—what a scholarly communications librarian does is miles removed from a school media specialist—but within them. An outreach librarian and a cataloguer in the same public library may still be largely unaware of each other’s daily tasks. A generalist in a rural library has a very different experience than a specialist in an urban system. And, of course, it’s all new to those entering the profession. Encouraging understanding among colleagues and helping newcomers find their feet are good reasons to amplify the essential underpinnings of library work.

It’s also true that where attention goes, resources and recognition tend to follow. The field needs to support innovation to meet our changing communities’ needs—but focus on invention can lead to taking essential duties, and the people who do them, for granted. That’s disheartening for the library staff putting their heart and soul into the core work, which is still what most patrons want and need from their library.

It can also pit those tasked with launching a new initiative and librarians offering core services against each other, which is no good for either. Innovation, inevitably, has a higher failure rate than tried-and-true services; the churn that trial and error produces, especially if there’s a lot of hype about the possibilities, can easily make new experiments feel like a waste of time and money to those who feel their own work delivers the lion’s share of value to patrons without receiving enough support. Meanwhile, those focused on new projects often feel isolated, with a lack of backing from their colleagues. Beefing up both material support and recognition for everyone in the library has the potential to improve both problems. If workers don’t see innovation as coming at the cost of basic services, they’re likely to value it more.

Too much novelty focus can also undercut the very innovation it’s intended to support. It’s comparatively easier to get a grant to run a pilot project than to get a grant to continue and expand a successful pilot into an ongoing service. Many promising projects die on the vine not because they didn’t work, but because funders are focused on finding the next thing, not sustaining the current one.

Of course, LJ will still be on the lookout for news and trends in library service, and for movers and shakers who are changing the field. But we also want to celebrate the achievements—and recognize the struggles—of the vast majority of library staff who are engaged in foundational library service: getting the right materials into the hands of the right readers at the right time; making space for information, entertainment, and solace; providing essential access to technology; inculcating children with the love of self-directed learning; and helping adults get jobs, receive social services, study languages, and otherwise reach their goals. Sometimes just being the place with a comfortable chair, a clean restroom, an available power outlet, and a welcome is the most important service of all—and, as the past few years have taught us, sometimes providing that service is difficult, risky, or even irresponsible.

Now that libraries are cautiously reopening, it’s important that we keep front and center the lessons from early in the pandemic: that frontline workers, as well as those behind the scenes in technical services, are essential; that workers can and should be honored for taking care of themselves, not only patrons; and that what’s new is great, but what’s always been the essence of libraries will not remain robust if it’s not prioritized, resourced, valued—and validated.

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Meredith Schwartz


Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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