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Being a Librarian—It’s a Wonderful Life

by on December 20, 2013

What would the world be without librarians in it? Many see Google or Bing as modern day replacements for a librarian at a much cheaper cost. They fail to see a librarian’s true worth in a technology driven world and fail to see what would be the loss. Walter Cronkite, famous news broadcaster of the 1960s, accessed a librarian’s true value when he said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation”[1]. A world without librarians would not be a wonderful place. It would not be a wonderful life.

I mark the arrival of the holidays with my own private film fest, egg nog, slippers and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” producer Frank Capra’s 1946 film, now turned Christmas classic. A befuddled and kindly guardian angel, Clarence, who also happens to read Mark Twain, interrupts the George Bailey’s suicide attempt. Clarence gives George the chance to see what life would be like without him.

Of course, without him, all of George’s friends’ and family’s lives are dramatically changed. Most of us would be surprised to know the ways in which we touch and influence each other’s lives. George and Clarence travel the course of George’s life and see how George’s loss affects almost everyone he knows. The most memorable life, of course, is his wife’s Mary’s, gasp, who has become what Capra must have viewed a great tragedy in 1946—a spinster  librarian. George and Clarence encounter her on a snowy Christmas Eve as she locks the Potterville, not Bedford Falls, Library doors (because, of course, Bedford Falls without George’s having been around, is now owned by evil Mr. Potter who has claimed it as his own.

Well, it’s 2013 and what a wonderful life it is—for librarians, that is. Librarians are working everywhere and we aren’t dull anymore. We are inside the public library like the one in Bedford Falls and we are lively and intelligent and fun. We’re still behind reference desks, well, information centers, sometimes virtual ones available 24/7 online. We are mobile, at sea, and in the air. We’re specialized—some of us are digitalizing data and metadata and things like the 1946 film version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Library of Congress. Others are at law firms, museums, theology schools, music conservatories and many, many more places.

And like George Bailey, without us, the world wouldn’t be so wonderful at all. Last year, without the Freeport Memorial Library, the residents of Freeport, Long Island, wouldn’t have had any place to charge phones or access the Internet or email after Hurricane Sandy tore through their community and flooded homes [2]. Displaced families and local communities came to the library for weeks on end as it was the only place for miles that had electricity. Likewise, Staten Island residents affected by this same hurricane couldn’t have found the help they needed filling out the endless number of insurance and FEMA forms without the assistance of the New York Public Library’s staff at its New Dorf branch [3]. In fact, “The Federal Emergency Management Agency classified libraries as an essential service — like one of the things that would get early funding so that communities could recover,” says Jessamyn West, founder of library.net, and moderator of the popular blog MetaFilter in response to the many recovery efforts made by libraries across the US after hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters [4].

In 2000, a Denver Post editorial acknowledged what a wonderful gift librarians are to the world by stating, “Librarians are very special people. They are the caregivers of the world of the mind, the nurturers of dreams and the defenders of truth. Perhaps no other profession is so marked by the singular generosity of its practitioners” 5.

Fittingly, at the end of the film, Clarence donates his copy of Tom Sawyer with the inscription “No man is a failure who has friends” into the collection basket for George Bailey. It reminds me that books and information and knowledge are powerful forces of change in the world and that a librarian is as much a guide as Clarence was for George. George realizes that he is grateful for his life and his family and his friends. So am I. Like George Bailey, I’ve discovered that as a  jail librarian, I do have a wonderful life. All librarians do.

(1) “Library Quotes: Media & Journalists.” United For Libraries. America Library Association. Accessed December 21, 2013

(2) Hogan, Matthew. “Nov. 6: Hurricane Sandy Updates From LIRR, Nassau -Government.” Rockville Centre, NY Patch. Accessed December 21, 2013.

(3) Rose, J. (2013). “For Disaster Preparedness: Pack A Library Card? [Radio series episode]. In Keys to the Whole World: American Public Libraries. New York City: National Public Radio. Accessed 11/18/2013.

(4) Ibid.

(5) State Library of Iowa. “Quotes About Librarians, Libraries, Books and Reading.” Iowa Library Services. Accessed November 19, 2013.