So begins the 1947 short, “The Librarian,” one of a series created to showcase various professions and their role within the community. The opening scene is not surprising; why would it be? The public perception of libraries as a place to store books has been around for a long time, so for a vocational movie to emphasize that aspect, particularly in 1947, isn’t surprising. What should be more surprising is how, despite the changes within society since then, the public perception hasn’t changed much at all.
Familiarity abounds in this short, even if it dates to forty years before I was born: it describes reference librarians, cataloguing librarians, circulation librarians, school (or academic) librarians, special librarians, and children’s librarians. None of these jobs have vanished, only changed: the card catalog has largely been replaced by computers and databases, but the same central function is there; librarians no longer physically sign out a book for a patron, but often scan the library card barcode. The way the library is run in 1947 is very similar, if not identical, to the way the library is run now.
“Why then of course the public’s perception of the library wouldn’t change!” you are undoubtedly crying out, “Why would it, when the basic structure hasn’t changed?”
The thing is, librarians’ perceptions of themselves has changed. Librarianship, according to old manuals of the time, was something done out of a love of books and helping people – sort of like nursing, except with books instead of medicine. Even, as Jessamyn West points out, U.S. Army Special Services had librarians on staff. They were classed under the “Army Hostess and Librarian Service.” That alone should speak for itself.
But now? It’s all about professionalism. There are agonizing debates over whether or not librarians are ‘true’ professions, with no one side winning a majority opinion. Some say they are, some say they’re not, but there is a distinct preoccupation with professionalism that just wasn’t around in 1947. Even the narrator of “The Librarian” stresses this with an offhand, “By the way—this job [circulation librarian] belongs to a classification that does not necessarily require college training.” I would argue that this shift to a more profession-driven focus would naturally affect how library services are run, even if that focus has been contained to librarians themselves, and hasn’t crept into the public consciousness yet.
The chief argument against being a “true” profession is that professional library organizations, such as the ALA in the U.S., have no teeth: they can set guidelines and rules of ethics, but unlike the College of Physicians or the Bar Association, cannot enforce them. They’re guidelines, not hard and fast rules. The ALA never disbarred someone from being a librarian. This might be true, but it seems like a rather flimsy argument: libraries (and librarians) have a distinct managerial structure and chain of authority, and are called sometimes to make tough decisions – whether that’s an unruly patron or needing to plead their case to not get their budget slashed. They juggle a lot of roles on top of helping patrons with information needs. To say they aren’t “real” professionals is somewhat elitist.
In the grand scheme of things, however, I feel such debates don’t really matter. Whether or not they are “real” professionals, many of them see themselves as such, which is enough for me. With some luck, maybe some of the old ideas about libraries and librarians might go out the window, to be replaced with something a little more…current. But who knows? As “The Librarian” has shown us, sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.