On the Perception of Librarians

ReadWriteWeb offers these 5 Commandments For Smartphone Owners. In particular, #2 (I will help people with my smartphone) and #3 (I will support my community with my smartphone) speak to me very powerfully. These are the reasons why I got into public service in the first place!

I recall an incident that occurred while I was still living in Chicago…

There was a homeless man standing on a street corner downtown, which wasn’t the least bit unusual or remarkable. He had a suitcase with all his possessions in it, and he had that lost and scared look endemic to the indigent. What made this homeless man different from the rest is that, unlike every other homeless person you pass on the streets of a big city, he wasn’t asking for money. He was asking everyone who walked by if they knew where the nearest homeless shelter was. He just wanted to get off the street and get help.

It occurred to me that this probably wasn’t the most effective information gathering strategy to achieve his goal. Ask 100 random strangers on the street and the chances that any of them know the location of a shelter is pretty much zero. Some people might direct you to a church or tell you to find a cop and ask them for help. But I doubt anyone was able to actually give him directions to a shelter.

I directed this man to the nearest public library branch. If the public library doesn’t already maintain an up-to-date list of local resources for homeless people, then any librarian there could find the information he needed very quickly.

But if I’d had a smartphone at the time, I could have looked up the nearest shelter for him myself, right there while I was standing on the street corner with him.

One of the major problems that libraries and librarians face is the largely inaccurate public perception of who we are. When you say the word “librarian” to people, too many of them still picture a stern person sitting behind a desk in a brick-and-mortar book museum, shushing and judging them for their lack of research skills.

That’s not the way it should be. That’s not how I want my community to perceive me. When I tell people that I’m a librarian, I want them to see me on a busy street corner using my smartphone to help find shelter for a homeless guy.

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