This is a Commentary.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.
When I tell someone that I am a librarian, I often hear one of two responses: "Oh, I love the smell of books" or "That must be fun. You get to read books all day." I'd like to take a minute to bust some myths and replace them with facts about libraries, what happens in them, and the important role they play in our society.
Myth #1: Libraries are only about books.
Libraries still value books, but they have also kept abreast of new sources and formats of information: periodicals and indexes and audio and videorecordings are now offered digitally. Public libraries circulate tools and professional clothing for job interviews. College and university libraries host regional archives and digital collections of local works. The main goal towards which most libraries work is the common good: making resources available to many people, including those who could not afford their own copy or subscription. At Western Illinois University, we extend our permanent library collection by hosting materials on reserve for courses and borrowing items through our Interlibrary Loan service.
Myth # 2: Librarians spend all day reading.
Libraries offer a wide variety of resources, but the dynamic center of the library is its staff: public librarians help entrepreneurs, medical librarians ferret out studies for doctors, and academic library faculty teach students how to find, evaluate, and organize information for projects as diverse as freshman papers and doctoral dissertations. Librarians perform many functions that connect users with the resources and services they need. I have never yet met a librarian who sits around all day and reads books.
Myth #3: Libraries are quiet places and librarians like shushing people.
Yes, libraries usually provide quiet space for those wishing to concentrate, but that’s not the whole story. If you visit the Malpass Library at WIU, you might hear any or all of the following: a conversation about a class project between a librarian and student at the Reference Desk; a session of Management 474G or Sociology 323, during which a librarian teaches how to conduct research; or a computer beep, announcing the arrival of an instant message reference question. The upper floors are quiet space, but lower than that, you can hear the learning, and librarians are just as likely as students to be making noise.
Myth #4: Libraries are becoming obsolete because everything is available on the internet.
In reality, the need for libraries and librarians is stronger since the advent of the internet, because the sheer volume of data overwhelms many. At WIU, we offer hundreds of research tools: some general, some specialized. How does one decide which is the best to use for a project? Librarians are intermediaries, and according to a 2019 American Library Association report, they are busy. In the college and university setting alone, librarians interact with almost 38 million people each year, more than the four million people who attend men’s college basketball games. Furthermore, the early hope that the internet would make all information freely available has proven false: today, companies package information and sell temporary access to it for exorbitant prices.
Why am I talking about this now, when there are so many other challenges facing us? Because the societal trend towards valuing only what is easily quantifiable means that academic libraries and the institutions of higher education they serve are under attack. The myths I’ve described are being used against libraries, including WIU’s. So I encourage you to visit and support your local library—public, school, or academic. That wonderful smell of books will not be as important as the wealth of learning, activities, and resources available to you.
Krista Bowers Sharpe is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Reference Services at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.