Twice in the past week I’ve been asked to opine publicly about the future of books and libraries for children, first at the NYLA conference in White Plains and then at the investiture of Eileen Abels as the new dean of the Simmons GSLIS. I had far fewer answers than questions, which I present to you for possible mastication:
Whenever I worry about the future of publishing and, in particular, the demand for professional book reviews in an increasingly Amazoned world, I think, “well, I could always go back to being a librarian again.” I’m twenty-five years out from the Chicago Public Library but I still hold my union card in the form of an MA from Chicago’s Graduate Library School (itself gone for almost a quarter century as well).
But then I think, could I? My library school curriculum included no courses in electronic reference, never mind the web, which did not yet exist. In Don Swanson’s required computer class, we learned assembly language and how to program IBM punch cards. As a children’s librarian in the early 80s, I worked at a branch that boasted the first public-access microcomputer in a public library, the brain child of branch manager Patrick Dewey. Adults used it to access BBS networks; kids used it to play Pong-like games and use very elementary, black-and-white, educational programs. For story hours, our idea of high-tech was a filmstrip projector.
Still I tell myself that the basics of library work with children remain the same as when I was working in the 80s and in fact when Anne Carroll Moore and Alice Jordan, cheered on by the Horn Book’s Bertha Mahony Miller, were establishing children’s librarianship as a profession a century ago: Library service based in book collections and storytelling, presided over by librarians with deep knowledge of literature and methods of bringing children and books together. Last week I was at the White Plains Public Library in New York and while the place was so high-tech that I expected lasers to shoot from the ceiling, books—regular old print books—were everywhere.
How long will this remain true? As reading becomes increasingly at one with the ether, will librarians have a place? As even reader’s advisory becomes more automated and egalitarian, to whom do we give advice? If there is no physical collection of books to maintain and promote, what do our jobs become? I would like to believe that there are 21st century Alice Jordans ready to colonize and civilize the brave new digital world, and I hope that our library schools are getting these pioneers packed and ready.