Sunday, 30 October 2011

Of libraries and librarians

I recently saw a documentary titled The Hollywood Librarian: A Look At Librarians through Film. The title is misleading, in that the documentary is more about librarians per se than on librarians as seen through Hollywood. Amusingly, the film treats Hollywood just as Hollywood treats librarians, relegating it to the background while the main story is taking place elsewhere.
Being a librarian (librarianship?) is an under-rated profession, a perception derived from the ‘no effort’ argument, i.e. there is very little work involved in it, apart from shelving books alphabetically. The perception is not restricted to those who are not librarians. Apparently, Melvil Dewey, who invented the Dewey decimal system, felt that it was ‘perfect’ for women, as it did not require brains to implement. But being a librarian is about more than shelving books. We live in times of information overload, where anyone with an Internet connection can use Google to locate information. What librarians have is the skill to distinguish between immense amounts of information in terms of relevance and insight, and where to locate the exact thing you need – not throw all information, unfiltered, at you. The film mentioned that librarians (mostly women) get paid almost 25% less than people doing similar jobs in other fields – such as researchers for law or technology firms. This is patently unfair, like most other things in the world.
One interesting contrast that I have observed in Adelaide, which also came across in the film, is that Western libraries carry out many other public service functions, unlike Indian libraries. They hold reading and storytelling sessions for children, sessions and workshops on computer literacy, language skills and so on. These are especially useful for immigrants and senior citizens, thereby helping those who have become outsiders to assimilate better. In India, the big name libraries, such as the British library (in Ahmadabad, Delhi and Mumbai) and the American library in Delhi, are expensive. Public libraries are not so expensive, but it is difficult to find good public libraries in Indian cities. In the West, on the other hand, libraries are free, so that in principle access to reading is available to all.
The film developed a strong sense of urgency as it looked at two different kinds of pressures on libraries. For one, there are financial pressures. Due to lack of funds and the dominance of the worldview that nothing should ever be free, libraries are forced to either close down or become profitable concerns, which means that libraries have to reduce the services they offer or charge money for them, thereby restricting them to only those who can afford them.
The second pressure seems straight out of a conspiracy novel. The passing of the Patriot Act of 2001 in the USA, one section of which is referred to as the “library records” provision, allows security agencies to access a wide variety of records of individuals: financial, medical and so on, including library records. The idea is, of course, that what you read indicates potential threat – if you read or write revolutionary poetry or Marxist theory, you need to be watched. It is not only libraries, academics and universities are similarly pressurized to monitor student research, as this brief digression highlights.
A Nottingham University student who was doing Masters and wanted to do a PhD on counter terrorism tactics of the UK downloaded an Al-Qaeda training manual. Given that there is a lot of research on terrorism, and on Islam in the Western academia these days, chances are that quite a few people research similar terms and items. However, the student in question here was Muslim, which could strongly be why he was arrested and held for six days:
Not just that, the lecturer who criticized the way the student was treated was suspended Information later came to light that the University routinely filmed student activities, if they belonged to a certain part of the world: The police recently paid damages to the student The outside settlement suggests that the police knew that they could not defend their case in court. While this is good for Rizwaan, a judicial discussion on the systemic abuse of preventative counter-terrorism laws shall not now take place.
To return to the librarians, librarians, unlike other professionals, challenged the demand for information under the Patriot Act, and This resistance is an ongoing battle, since the Obama administration recently signed a 4-year extension of certain provisions of the act, including the “library records” provision.
In spite of such and other pressures, what came across very strongly, was a sense of happiness in their jobs. One woman said “I’m a very lucky person” and I thought that I would say something similar with reference to my work. We’re both lucky in loving what we do, in being able to read, write and think for a living.

The trailer of the film: