A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Library and Librarian Are Powerful Words

by on October 10, 2016

Middle school media specialist and teacher librarian Diana Rendina recently posted on her blog, Renovated Learning, her wish to return to the term “librarian” as her title and the term “library” as the name of her institution.[1] “I think that there is a great deal of power in the words library and librarian that we have started to neglect,” wrote Rendina. Her endeavor to own the terms again and use them as advocacy tools for school librarians can speak to us as public librarians too.

Libraries and the Problem of Purpose

The problem of purpose in public libraries is not new. As has been well-articulated in Patrick Williams’ seminal study, The American Public Library and the Problem of Purpose[2], it goes back to the turn of the twentieth century with the rapid enlargement of the importance of the public library in American culture. The public libraries at the time debated the issue of fiction in the library, whether there should be fiction at all and if so, what type of fiction. Today we are living with the result of that debate, which came down in favor of the “popular materials public library” that include all types of fiction to give our patrons what they want, as the late Charles Robinson might have put it.[3]

School libraries have had a similar history dealing with the problem of purpose. To recapitulate, in the early twentieth century, school libraries were already responding to the presence of new audiovisual materials. The 1918 Certain Standards, jointly developed by the American Library Association (ALA) School Libraries Section and the National Education Association (NEA) Department of Elementary School Principals, though originally designed to manage change in the high school library movement, became applicable to elementary school libraries as well. The Certain Standards caused a powerful, significant change in all school libraries, in “that the school library should serve as a coordinating agency for all materials of instruction, including the new ‘visual materials.’ Certain [Standards] made it clear that visual materials and equipment to use them should be made available to all departments of the school through proper library organization…”[4]

This “repurposing” of school libraries eventually and perhaps inexorably led to the change of terms used for school libraries and librarians. In 1969 the ALA and the Department of Audiovisual Instruction (DAVI[now the Association for Educational Communications and Technology {AECT}]) of the NEA published the Standards for School Media Programs, which were national guidelines that unified the roles of librarians and audiovisual personnel under the terminologies of library media program and library media specialist.[5]

Return to Origins

Rendina’s return to the original terms of library and librarian is a source of pride and empowerment for her. Her claim that most people have positive associations with librarians is supported by the Pew Research Center’s finding that people “like and trust librarians.” [6] Her position acts as a confirmation of what we public librarians have gone through in the last two decades. We too have stretched these traditional terms to encompass all the new material and technology we’ve come to handle in this Internet age.

Public libraries and librarians have made passage through this recent repurposing with our original names intact, though surely with enhanced meaning, and this seems to have happened smoothly without much fanfare. Over the course of this recent past we had entertained rebranding our title as information specialist, knowledge worker, or information consultant. Rather than be replaced by these new terms, “librarian” has expanded with a natural ease to subsume all these terms within it. Our colleagues in school libraries have had a tougher passage through this time of repurposing, mostly due, as we have seen from our brief recapitulation of history, to the directives from the local school administrations and boards, as well as from state and national agencies.

Solidarity among Librarians

Public libraries typically have policies on services to schools. Let us review these policies with an eye to revision in language, incorporating the original terminology. Public libraries are part of what the Pew Research Center calls “community educational systems.”[7] In these times of cuts in funding to school libraries, we can stand in solidarity with our colleagues in the schools. We can knit our relationships closer and help them return to the traditional title of “librarian” and the traditional name of “library” with a renewed sense of purpose and perhaps in the process help save them from the cuts.


[1] @DianaLRendina. “Why I Still Love the Words LIBRARY & LIBRARIAN | Renovated Learning.” Renovated Learning. April 4, 2016. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. URL http://renovatedlearning.com/2016/04/04/love-library-librarian/

[2] Williams, Patrick. The American Public Library and the Problem of Purpose. New York: Greenwood, 1988. Print.

[3] Robinson, Charles. “Can We Save the Public’s Library?” Library Journal 1 Sept. 1989: 147-52. Print.

[4] Pond, Patricia B. “The History of the American Association of School Librarians, Part I: Origins and Development, 1896-1951.” The Emerging School Library Media Center: Historical Issues and Perspectives. Ed. Kathy Howard Latrobe. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1998. Print, p. 214.

[5] Latrobe, Kathy Howard. “School Libraries.” Encyclopedia of Education. Ed. James W. Guthrie. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002. 2137-2141. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.

URL http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=algo36745&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CCX3403200542&asid=2279568bbf6451f9f7ecd0c8a09217af

[6] Pew Research Center. Web 8 Sept. 2016 URL http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/06/27/how-the-public-grades-libraries-and-uses-libraries/

[7] Pew Research Center. Web. 8 Sept. 2016. URL http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/04/07/how-people-view-libraries-as-part-of-community-educational-systems/

Tags: , , ,