Saturday, June 30, 2007

As a librarian, granted a pretty inexperienced one, I have discovered quite a few things about an entrenched bureaucracy recently. More on that later... I think we need a little background info first.

I graduated with my MIS in December of 2006. Since that time (and a little before) I have been working in a large public library system as someone near the bottom of the totem pole in my caste. For those of you who are unaware, the library professions are separated into 5 very segregated classes. While each class definitely has subgroups (which I am currently working on classifying fully)they are so segregated that I shall, from now on, refer to them strictly as castes. They are listed in order of salary, greatest to least.

(the descriptions below are solely stereotypical, and should be treated however you desire)

The top level caste is known as administration. Perhaps they were librarians once, but they are no longer. Not that this is a bad thing. The function of this caste is to herd the other castes toward the goal, or mission, of the library. There are many other, dirty, nasty, sweaty responsibilities too, but since I don't understand almost anything that they do, we shall just leave it with the generalization that they run the library.

Next are the librarians. Members of this caste vary widely in age and responsibility, but share certain characteristics. You can often find them in meetings. They can find you what you need if they want to. This is not to say that members of the other castes are unable to do this, but more along the lines that this is what this caste does. There is also programming, reader advisory, babysitting, etc.; but, mainly these are the information seekers and disseminators. It should be mentioned that, as we speak, this caste is involved in a civil war of sorts. The future of this group hangs in the balance. On one side sits that "old guard" who might not actually want to help you anymore. The information you want to find might exist in a medium that was invented long after they stopped keeping themselves up to date with current trends. They have, rightfully so(?), earned their pensions and want to be left alone (or talk about books with their chronological peers). Pacing up and down the other side of the divide are members of the "cult of technology". These librarians want to overhaul everything so that patrons (that's what libraries call customers and the homeless) can get at everything they need to know without getting out from in front of the public access computer screen. They are the Gods of the Diest's library. They hope to set things in motion, tweaking once in a while, and watch the beauty of library life as it unfolds. "The more the patrons can do for themselves," this group says, "the more time we can spend doing important things." These important things seem to include figuring out other ways for patrons to help themselves. Of course, most librarians fall in between of these two sides, but what group isn't defined by it's extremes?

The third caste is made up of Clerks. Clerks check out your materials, take your fines, complain at you for leaving disc 2 of that platinum special edition DVD in your player when you returned it on time. They are also the ones that, probably, answer the phones when you call, and relate your situations to management. This group can hold a lot of power, and they're not afraid to use it. They, generally, do not help you find something, unless you just returned it, or you never really returned it at all and you're trying to fool them. They don't like things to change, and can often be found explaining how past procedures are better than current ones.

The 4th caste's members are known as paiges. They do not page people. They do shelve books. They shelve the heck out of books. Good paiges make clean, nice and easily navigable libraries. Bad paiges make libraries where nothing can be found, and is often still in the back. They require no special training, education, or experience. I would like to call them the unsung heroes of the library world, but too many of them would be too quick to point this fact out themselves. Smaller library systems do without this caste, adding their duties to those of the clerks, or subsisting with work performed by the next, and final, caste.

Finally, there are the volunteers. There are two main types, both of which should be on the endangered species list. The first type is court ordered. These are people who have to perform some sort of community service, and would rather work indoors at the library than scraping gum off of toilet stalls at the rec, center. The second type are far more uncommon, much more rare than anything you can order at your favorite steakhouse. These are the volunteers who are actually volunteering their time, not giving it in exchange for something else. Volunteers can be amazing or horrible. They can save you money, or waste your time, do the things no one else will, or do nothing much at all. They are the great gamble in the library, or they would be if they cost anything.

This is the underlying nature of the society of public libraries. The constant push and pull between these groups, caused somewhat by the extreme, nearly impenetrable, caste system, has led to the state of public libraries today. I'm sure I'm missing whole groups of people who will feel extremely left out and offended by the fact that I don't realize that the library wouldn't function without them.

Soon I will enlighten you on the way that libraries actually work (or rather how the interactions between these caste members and the public allow the library to float along with no end in sight.)

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