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What’s a children’s librarian to do?

JeaneDTwice 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.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Goodness, Roger, all you need to add is a bugle summoning the soldiers to rally round to protect those pioneers from the “wild Indians” that need “civilizing” and “colonizing.”

    Obviously, I object to your words. Do I ignore you and those words?

    Clearly, I chose to object so that readers of the post will (perhaps) read my objection and not use similar words/phrases.

    When I (a Native woman, critic, and scholar) see “civilize” in the contexts that Roger used, I think of federal government policy that sought to “civilize” us in schools set up with a dictum to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

    We weren’t “wild” either. Any people whose land and ways of being are threatened will fight to defend said land and ways. It is incorrect and anti-Indian to call any people who responds to that threat “wild”.

    I realize my response has nothing to do with the point of your piece, but I do think it important to take a minute to note the problems in the word choice you used to talk about the future of librarianship.

  2. Beverly Slapin says:

    “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.” (Emphasis mine.)

    I absolutely agree with you, Debbie. No matter how well turned a metaphoric phrase reads, there’ s no excuse for racism, especially from someone so well known as Roger, someone who should know better.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Can we give the “racism” card a rest for once?

    All Roger is saying is that he hopes that new librarians coming from school are savvy and educationally-equipped to help patrons with their digital needs.

  4. C. Elizabeth says:

    Wow. I was already in disagreement with the bulk of this message, but Debbie called into focus a very important issue. As I think she has done a lovely job of delineating the problem with the metaphor, I would just like to state that those of us in the field are already part of this future. Maybe it’s a good time for you to talk to those of us who are doing our work and loving it and doing RA and helping kids find new ways of enjoying stories and bridging the gap for those kids who might not have all of the technology in their own homes.
    Since I entered this profession 15 years ago, I have heard warnings of the impending death of the “librarian”. I don’t see that happening and I wish we could stop the internal nay saying to embrace the future.

  5. I do talk to them, Elizabeth, and they are doing wonderful things. My point is that while children’s librarianship 25 years ago was essentially the same as it was even a century before that, the next 25 years could be very different. If physical book collections disappear, will children’s librarians–and the Horn Book!–disappear as well? How can we make ourselves necessary in a virtual world?

  6. I think, or at least I would LIKE to think, that children’s librarians and reviewers will become all the more important to sift out the good stuff from the mediocre, as more and more people self-publish. In any case, I do believe that libraries that make sure they keep up with the times will often be the heart of the community. And as I have said before, children’s librarians are the ones leading the way in terms of being welcoming and offering lots of ways to interact with books and computers and each other.

    I was in a library yesterday that was weirdly 1980s all through the adult section, but the kids’ area had great signage and collections pulled together in a way that made you want to stop and browse, and lots of things to do while you’re there. I think that’s pretty typical.

    The part that makes me a little sad is I see many children’s librarians over-focusing on the short and punchy in all kinds of books. But maybe that’s another topic.

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Susan, that does make me think about something I brought up at NYLA: will the growing dominance of ebooks change what we expect books to be? The codex changed literature; the paperback changed literature; and I’m happiest using my Kindle for genre fiction! Of course, ereaders will only get better and better, and I’m guessing they might go through a phase of feeling and looking and working like a print book. But eventually, like Apple’s old “Address Book” icon, people will start to think “Why does it have to look like this old thing?”

    Do you think the librarians are recommending short and punchy because that’s how they find their own selves reading?

  8. As the very public discussions of racism demonstrate, it is something a lot of people are thinking and talking about. It is uncomfortable for many, and as I think Stephanie’s comment suggests, some are feeling fatigue over it.

    I’ll just ask that those feeling that fatigue consider that for literally hundreds of years, day in and day out, certain segments of the US population have had to deal with racism. I do not believe Roger is racist. His remarks, however, are an example of one of the many ways in which (in this case) Native people have had to deal with unthinking or racist or anti-Indian speech for hundreds of years.

    Calling out such word choice makes you uncomfortable, Stephanie, but perhaps the very act of calling out/noticing will move us towards a time where that language is not used as a matter-of-course.

  9. Susan–I’m with you on the short and punchy. It is easily consumed. Like a Twinkie. And then we look for the next one. Years ago I read an article (can’t recall author/title) about series books and why kids like them. Nothing much different in one from the next, but they read them anyway. That seems what is happening with short and punchy books. The content might be different, but the punchy part of it may have the safe effect as series books. Satisfying a need for what?

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Harry Potter had given me so much hope, not because I thought they were great but because they were so darn book-like, and I hypothesized that their appeal was a reaction to all the fast and shiny things around us. Maybe not.

  11. Susan Dove Lempke says:

    Roger, I do think that children’s librarians are just as bad as anyone else at committing to reading something longer and meatier. I started to type that before but it kept coming out sounding condescending.

    Debbie, I just did a presentation on Saturday about series nonfiction where I said it is the mac & cheese of children’s books–comfortable, reliable, not forcing a kid to try something new. Twinkie works too but I think a lot of the short, punchy books are pretty good in their own way. I’m thinking here of something like Tap the Magic Tree, for instance.

  12. Stephanie Bange says:

    Roger, I don’t think physical book collections for children will disappear completely during our lifetimes. There are too many people like us around — they like to experience a book using all their senses: see the illustrations (particularly those with large illustrations and tiny details), smell the paper (and perhaps the ink and/or scratch-able surface), hear the magical words come alive (from a parent reading and cuddling with their child), touch the illustrations (Eric Carle was genius with “The Very Busy Spider” and “Press Here” is brilliantly conceived to touch, as well), and even taste them (babies still love to teethe on board books, plastic books, cloth books, etc.). I think children’s librarian’s (chilibs) have job security built in — after all, who is going to teach future generations of parents how to read aloud to their kiddos? We role-model this weekly during storytime. BTW, I think you could probably jump right back in as a chilib. I went through library school hearing “one day you will have computers in your libraries” and watched many of my colleagues retire because they didn’t want to learn to work with a computer or change with the times. You seem to have done that, so you’re good to go! Though technology may have changed how we deliver some/most content and information, the skills required to introduce and entice the kiddos to read great material hasn’t changed too much. Story times are still packed at many libraries. There’s just something special even to teens about reading a great book that a mentor or peer has introduced. That human touch is so magical. Finally, what would we do without our Horn Book — where to discover the latest in outstanding books and materials? Also find inspiration and enlightenment in the columns and articles? (I still make reference to the piece HB ran years ago — Robert Cormier talking about “I Am the Cheese” being made into a film….)

  13. Janice Del Negro says:

    Part of the difficulty with new formats is that the technology (not just books, but all kinds of digital media) drives the content; that is, the tech allows a certain presentation of content, so that is the presentation we get. While many elements in this discussion are fluid, some elements stay the same: the fight to convince non-readers that reading is valuable is ongoing.

  14. Yeah there was no racist implications at all here. Stephanie’s retort rightly citing Roger’s sole concern about media savvy librarians is right on the money!

  15. Roger’s concerns are vital for sure. And Stephanie’s response here is magnificent. Nothing can ever match the sensory appeal of a book, and I’d also like to believe there will always be a good number of people who connect with this experience.

  16. I must confess that I have never really understood this reaction. Debbie was perfectly aware of the main focus of the piece, and the specific intention of the last paragraph. Her point was that the language has another profound and painful meaning beyond that intention. Calling attention to this does no one harm– rather it affords an opportunity to listen.

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Ongoing but changing–children’s librarians were never so much interested in convincing non-readers that reading was valuable as they were in convincing people that BOOK-reading was valuable. It will be interesting to see what happens as books become less discrete objects. I’ve already heard one elder statesman in our field declare that texting was proof of teens’ engagement with reading. (I wanted to shoot myself. No, him.)

  18. Mary Beth Dunhouse says:

    While I don’t believe physical children’s books will disappear from children’s rooms I am concerned about the fate of children’s books that become part of the historic record. Research collections such as the Alice M. Jordan Collection in the Boston Public Library were committed to maintaining a copy of trade titles published for children. Circulating collections must change to meet user needs so weeding or deselection is inevitable. Digital copies, while more accessible, are not long term preservation. Multiple electronic files in many locations (LOCKS=Lots of copies keeps stuff safe) will help but if unknown computer disasters destroy those files where are hard copy books for re-creating the files going to come from? The Internet Archive,one of the mass digitizers like Google Books, has been storing physical books discarded by libraries. This will be fine as long as Internet Archive continues this commitment. There are many research collections devoted to children’s literature. Most have institutional support, but in these times, priorities and administrations change. Libraries should be maintaining hard copy collections, where possible, and not relying on outside entities to maintain the historic record.

  19. It’s interesting, because I think the conversations about race and children’s publishing (wide ranging discussions that have occurred on the pages of the Horn Book, and which are now actively taking place on all kinds of platforms) and questions about traditional vs. new media are not unrelated. There is, of course, a general societal shift towards digital media (and I agree that librarians have not necessarily been behind the curve when it comes to this transition.) With this, there has also been a tendency to see content itself as expendable– or at least, as something that should always be offered for free, not just at the library. But along with these overall trends, I think one can look at something like the statistics from the CCBC, and see in them a certain intractability that has pushed large numbers of potential readers to leave traditional trade publishers and gatekeepers for other outlets. Amazon offers ready access to content that the major publishing houses simply aren’t supplying (and which they still insist has no market.) As long as diverse perspectives on topics such as race are stifled within traditional venues, I think those discussions will tend to move to less traditional arenas, like twitter and tumblr. And as long as the statistics on diversity stay flat among traditional print publishers, I think the move towards more open and fluid platforms will persist. Again, I’m not saying this is the only reason for the shift– nor judging whether it will ultimately be a positive or negative one… nor how best to negotiate it! But I do think these two conversations are related.

  20. I think the power of story will always exist, but the ‘book’ may not. In othr words, the experience of seeing the world through another’s eyes and words will continue to appeal and engage. I am less concerned about the physical object that contains that experience. That can change. So far, I am not worried. Wasn’t it Isaac Asimov who said something about as soon as they find something as cheap, as easy to reproduce and as portable as a book, the book will not last long. I personally don’t find ebooks very easy to share or bookmark or cuddle up with as I do the physical object. I agree that a kindle on a long trip is just fine, and no one has to know from raggedy pages how many times I’ve re-read my favorites, but for engaging in conversation about stories and ideas– then the ebook is not very useful. The world is social and I think we are not yet at the end of this journey with story.

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