If you’ve gone to school, you’ve almost certainly asked a librarian for help finding a book for one of your classes. In my formative years, the librarian at my local library was a staple in my life, recommending books, asking me questions about what I liked and didn’t like, what I thought of the last book she had suggested, and how I did or didn’t relate to the characters in whatever story I was reading at the time. She had a tremendous impact on my discovery of and ability to handle books of different styles and genres, as well as my overall reading success, both in school and in life.
Too often we dismiss the librarian as just “someone who sits behind the desk at the library and answers questions,” but there is a lot more to the job than just that. Were you aware that librarians are required to obtain at least a master’s degree in library science or the equivalent in an education-related field? It’s true. In fact, library science goes all the way back to the 17th century, with a number of important historical points along the way.
Thomas Jefferson had a library of thousands of books at his home at Monticello. He used a classification system inspired by the Baconian method; it grouped books more or less by subject rather than alphabetically, as it had been done previously. Jefferson’s collection became the start of what is now the Library of Congress, the largest repository of books in the United States.
The first American school of librarianship was created by Melvil Dewey on January 5, 1887 as the School of Library Economy at Columbia University. Dewey was widely known for his 1876 decimal classification system that we still use today. The term “library economy” was common in the U.S. until 1942, when it became “library science,” a term used widely through much of the 20th century.
In the 21st century, the digital age has transformed how information is accessed and retrieved. According to the American Library Association (ALA), “The library is now a part of a complex and dynamic educational, recreational, and informational infrastructure.” Library science continues with its mission of equal access and remaining a community space, in addition to creating a new means for information retrieval called Information Literacy Skills, where all catalogues, databases, and a growing number of books are available on the internet. The ALA defines information literacy as the ability to “determine the extent of information needed, access the needed information effectively and efficiently, evaluate information and its sources critically, incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base, and use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.”
But a librarian is more than just a degree and a fancy job description. Fran Kaplan, the Head of Children’s Services at the Aspen Hill Library in Rockville, MD, says she is the “bridge between the reader and the book.” It is her job to take the reluctant reader by the hand and walk them across that bridge so they come to love reading, and it’s also her job to take the avid reader by the hand and run them across the bridge to expose them to new genres and new materials. She tailors her book displays around themes, such as the seasons or a particular holiday, and she always includes a “new books” display to introduce readers to material they haven’t read before. She says that the latter display often leads to word-of-mouth recommendations, and that way friends and classmates have reading material and stories they can share with each other.
So the next time you go to the library but don’t know what you’re looking for, ask a librarian to help. Questions are critical to building the reader-librarian relationship, and you may just find yourself engaged in a story or subject you had no idea you would love. And your children? Like me, they may find a passion for reading that lasts the rest of their lives.