ASSOCIATES (2005, March, v. 11, no. 3) -

Guest Editorial


Bessie Mayes

*Associates In War*

In recent years, those of us in the “library information” arena have encountered many challenges. Technology has changed the way we perform our daily tasks and how we interact with our fellow workers or employers. Much of what was accomplished by many hands has been relegated to fewer personnel who now manipulate computer modules in the main library database. The need to remain current in the operation of these functions has turned a once stale library environment into an urgent computer-analysis department, attempting to remain ahead of changing software and hardware upgrades that utilize every aspect of computer operations. Libraries that once held ritual Friday meetings that provided respite from the “problems-out-there” and offered “coffee-in-here” discussions are now calling impromptu group conferences to resolve new issues that require immediate action. And there have been other changes as well—some that we in the library community never expected to happen, changes that affected our personal lives as well as those of our co-workers. Those within the library profession, the world’s “information experts,” were particularly affected by emerging world events on September 11, 2001.

September 11th will remain as one of the most pivotal times in our nation’s history. We saw our cities and states come together, united and enraged against an unknown but deadly enemy. Our nation’s President launched our best and brightest American troops into the hills of Afghanistan and Iraq to destroy enemy terrorists. Our enemies had nebulous reasons for the attack, often changing their reasons for that attack and others as often as they did their tactical methods of destruction. The Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security continue to rebuff these attacks, supporting our troops as they risk their lives on a daily basis to protect our nation from further harm. These attacks have extracted a cost in lives on American soil and abroad. The effect is felt all across the land, as with our allies in the war to restore the rule of law. However, the war on terrorism has also exacted a smaller cost in the library communities.

Due to some sections of the Patriot Act, our ability to pass along certain information to the general public and/or our customer base has been reduced. The Patriot Act itself does not interfere with the majority of the information available for public consumption, but the war on terrorism has affected the way we approach our tasks within the library communities. Those once relaxed Friday meetings now also include discussion on how a library will best safeguard all personnel in the building from what has become an indefinite crisis in our nation. The desire to safeguard our homes and work places has emerged as an important issue to be addressed by all involved. Possible scenarios or mock drills now occur on a regular basis throughout the country in an attempt to prepare employees for what many view as the inevitable second attack. Questions now arise as to how libraries can best approach a situation that requires the input of all its member employees. What posture, system, or institutional structure might impede or prevent such analysis from happening at public library facilities that welcome strangers on a daily basis? Could we perhaps suffer because of our current model of traditional operations?

Status - Divisions – Polarization within the Ranks of Information Experts

The library community has debated many times the issue on division of rank or status among library employees. Over the centuries, the libraries have redefined their role in the larger public community. Librarianship, as defined in the 1950s and 1960s, concerned itself with organizing collections and providing the “patron” with the tools to locate and retrieve items of interest from the shelves within the confines of a building. In this age of technology and with the introduction of the “Integrated Library System (ILS),” those same resources can be obtained anywhere. Library web sites allow the general public, students, or even those confined behind prison walls to access resources from anywhere in the world. Now, cell-phone customers access library web pages via the Internet to “place an order” to put a book on hold, all while running other errands. In one decade, the “walls” of institutionalized one-stop checkout libraries have been replaced by wireless “virtual” libraries.

How have such changes affected the traditional role of a librarian? The Random House dictionary defines “librarian” as “a person trained in library science and engaged in library service.” This definition can amply express an array of services provided by individuals of certain rank or standing within the library structure. No one would argue that the larger academic and general public libraries have standard rank and staff divisions based on a centuries-old paradigm. However, as we can see from the examples of accessibility, technology is destabilizing this older support structure and could seriously disrupt or completely dismantle that particular outdated method of organizing personnel.

Given the spread of technology throughout the world, the library community can expect even more advancements in the library operating environment. Such rapid changes will require rapid response, as was the case and still is, for the war against terrorism. Now, if we stretch a little and take the status of Librarianship and its rapidly evolving environment today, and compare it to the challenges confronting us and other nations, the implications of a shift to a more inclusive and more cooperative paradigm among all libraries become clearer. In so doing, we can determine ways to involve the entire colony of worker-bees, focusing on what makes the entire organization function as one entity, instead of what stands between or separates each function by status.

Former Chief Editor, now Emeritus, Kendall Simmons of the Associates Newsletter, quoted supervisor Janet Anderson-Story in explaining the reason why she, Kendall, had decided on the name, Associates, for the newsletter.

“The name ASSOCIATES comes from a quote by my Stacks Supervisor, Janet Anderson-Story, who was writing something else:

“We chose ...[the term] associates because we wanted a title that was descriptive of ‘our’ work, not our work in relation to others.
This is not to say we don’t like librarians [but rather] ... we are associated with others who perform library work, not supporters of, or those who work around, those who do library work.“

One aspect of the September 11th attack has been that the war on terrorism has drawn the library work place into a more cooperative space. Ms. Anderson-Story’s comments make a case for relevancy in our present work environment. If we stay with the old boundaries of Librarianship, of rank and division, we will miss the more relevant definition of who we all are collectively.

The positive aspect of September 11th can be seen in our approach to the work place under a new paradigm of working groups. For example, this working group paradigm in Librarianship can be found when the first line of defense for the library building becomes the Circulation Technician or Specialist whose main security concern in the past might have only been a disgruntled customer who couldn’t find what he was looking for. Now any walk-in stranger could be carrying a bomb or an assault weapon. With work group Librarianship, the Circulation Department Librarian comes to assist, or risk his/her life too, if any staff member is involved in a threatening situation. Work group Librarianship can be observed when all employees are aware of unusual occurrences, like extensive circulation on single subjects of interest under chemistry by one or more individuals. Work group Librarianship plays an important and inclusive role when all personnel have input into plans of escape from their work sites, or if lock downs may occur due to external exploits in their personal work space, stack, or other places around buildings. Status no longer is important when strategies have to be implemented to limit potentially serious harmful attacks against library personnel and library users. Measures have to be taken to ensure that Interlibrary Loan personnel are made aware of dangers lurking in their shipments, much like U. S. Postal workers are trained to handle mail.

The role of higher management has also evolved. Just as military logistics has a structure in place to support the columns of troops in an active or non-active operating theater, so too our Library Directors now must have a plan in place to observe and prevent dangerous actions from occurring at their work sites. For the first time in library history, the Director has to have “situational awareness” of every aspect of the library operation. This awareness includes knowing what each employee does (understanding individual functions and how they relate to the organization as a whole), scheduling work hours (knowing what time employees begin and end their tasks), and knowing where employees are located while performing those tasks (lock-downs require head counts). Many of our stationary troops drill in the field of battle to keep alert and ready to engage the enemy. In today’s world, the Library Director is now responsible for keeping library personnel alert to possible obstacles or stressful situations that could occur while at the work place. The “new reality” requires cooperation above and beyond what has been practiced in past decades. Efforts to bring new organizational methods into the workplace should be studied and applied for the benefit of all, no matter the impetus or impediments.

We in the library information business have a lot to be proud of, and we constantly strive to provide the best service possible to our visitors and customer base. Libraries supply the public with the ability to tame the wealth of information and knowledge now available throughout the world. Libraries focus their resources so that everyone can have access. The information container might be in a physical building or on a laptop computer, but the organization and placement of that information falls under the domain of all libraries all over the world. Enabling the public to access desired information is our best reward for a job well done. Nevertheless, individual efforts can and should be noted and appreciated within the library work place. Individuals who show a willingness to take on higher levels of responsibilities, who show initiative to enhance the department, and who put forth their best effort everyday should be acknowledged and rewarded. Management and peers should all strive to assist those who can affect change in the library work place. Professionalism, maturity, and a sense of worth are not genetically acquired traits; these desired attributes are best learned in a positive and rewarding environment. Cooperation and encouragement within the library community are vital to promoting employee satisfaction in today’s stressful times.

Bessie Mayes
Technical Service Senior Advisor – Cartographic Consultant
Technical Knowledge Management Division, Research Library Branch
Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center
San Diego, California
(619) 553-5715
(619) 553-4882

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