When I first tell people that I’m a librarian, I’m often asked about what the profession is like in the digital age. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but people sometimes have a difficult time imagining just what it is that I do now that “the books are gone.” For starters, the books aren’t gone and libraries are still and have always been about information. Despite the changes that the library has encountered in the centuries since Alexandria, there is one thing that stands out in my mind when I think about the mission of libraries –
This past week I attended the Texas Library Association Conference and caught this nugget from author David Baldacci’s speech during the General Session,
“With rising illiteracy rates comes increased inequality.”
It reminded me of the role that libraries play in providing equality within the information landscape. Baldacci highlights the level of inequality that is experienced by those who are unable to read. A person who is not able to read is at a significant disadvantage in our information culture that relies heavily on the written word. But what about those who can read and aren’t able to access the information? They also are find themselves on an unlevel playing field when it comes to making life decisions and engaging with the world around them. I would add to Baldacci’s statement in saying that with limited access to information comes increased inequality.
Libraries attempt to stand in the gap to provide access to information for all regardless of race, gender, or income level.
The American Library Association advocates for information access and makes strong statements about the library’s call to providing “equity of access” to its patrons.
“Equity of access means that all people have the information they need-regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. It means they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats-electronic, as well as print. It also means they are free to exercise their right to know without fear of censorship or reprisal.”
As a Christian and as a librarian, I consider my role in working to provide this access to information as a high calling on my life. Librarian and author Gregory A. Smith highlights the core values of Christian librarians in light of the biblical commandments to love. In his essay, Smith discusses several different virtues of librarianship that use Jesus’ teachings about love to provide a framework for library service. Smith uses Jesus’ call to us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” as confirmation that God intends for us to continue to grow throughout our lives in each “facet of our personality.” Smith suggests that this command to continue in all aspects of our growth has implications for librarians –
“We are called to provide access to information so as to lead our patrons to well-being in every area of life–physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.”
So when I’m asked about the library “since books” or if I think we will be able to continue our mission into the 21st century, I try to respond by talking about information access. While illiteracy is still certainly a recognized barrier to equality, the evolving information landscape comes with its own hurdles for access.
But everything is free now since we’ve got the internet, right?
Since I entered the profession in the late 2000s (and probably years before that) we have been talking about the digital divide. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 16% of American households do not have a computer at home (desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone) and one quarter of Americans do not have any form of internet access at home. Some may say that 16% and 25% aren’t terrible numbers when it comes to digital access to information – that’s unless of course you happen to find yourself within the 16 or 25%. Access continues to be a problem despite and because of the digitization of information.
Access and equality go hand in hand. Libraries still have a place in today’s world and as librarians we have a call to continue to provide our users with access to information be it print, digital, or otherwise.