historic views of librarians

The Librarian 1947 Vocational Guidance Films

We are discussing The Librarian by Vocational Guidance Films in my management class this week. I saw this video quite a while ago as it was being passed around social media sites. To be honest, this seems like a very cute video to me. As a promotional film, obviously it’s going to show the best of the profession at the time. Sure there are some weird quirks, but overall it does make you want to become a librarian, which is its goal. Some examples of the things that I thought were odd or unusual compared to the current LIS field are listed below:

  • “Do you like people? And do people like you?”- So I can’t be a librarian if people don’t like me? Is this some sort of popularity contest? On the flip side, I suppose you do have to be personable to work in libraries, but but other people’s opinions of you are discovered through references these days.
  • “All kinds of people? The young and the old?” Are those the only two kinds of people? Last time I checked there were a lot more. It speaks to the fact that the greatest dichotomy at the time was intergenerational, rather than racial or class based (because post-war was a time of the rise of the middle class, and racial inequality was so ingrained into the community that most people were complacent with it). I think the biggest division these days is class based, as one of the most difficult and contentious issues in working with the public is dealing with people struggling from mental health issues, drug addiction, and homelessness (and often more than one of these at a time). To me, this comes down to issues of class and social injustice.
  • The Library of Congress is the “greatest of all”– I don’t know if greatest is really the correct term. Largest? Yes. Greatest? That’s a matter of opinion. I don’t think libraries these days are worried much about competing for these dubious accolades. In modern libraries it’s much more about serving the community to the best of your ability with the limited resources you have. The challenge lies in how to measure this, but labels don’t really help in that battle.
  • “task of the individual librarian remains the same: bringing books and people together”- Of course, modern librarians now know that the book are only a tool for sharing and teaching information. A modern version of this statement would replace the word ‘book’ with information. Surely, it would also mention the fact that uniting people with information isn’t the only step, as once they have the information source they need to be able to navigate to the exact piece of information they need and be able to retrieve it again on their own: This is where the concept of literacy and essential skills comes in—incomplete or non-existing concepts at the time of this video’s production.
  • Reference is “a very important money and time saving service to the pubic”- I love this statement and it’s not something that libraries often promote these days. As the number of reference questions decrease and search engines become increasingly better at solving users queries, libraries are downplaying their reference services. In my experience, people come to libraries when google can’t solve their problems. So often reference questions are more challenging, even if there are fewer overall.

To me, this video is a tool to contrast the socio-economic realities of the post-war era with those of today. I think it’s worthwhile for MLIS students to look at in comparing, but is essentially harmless. I anticipate some of my colleagues might not be so forgiving.

Vintage libraries have an undeniable nostalgia to most people in the LIS field. Though I’m not sure I would want to actually go back to live in that era, I do really like the aesthetics. For example, here are some photos of Calgary Public Library in the post-war era:

Ms. Georgina Thompson circa 1955

ImageInglewood Branch- Interior view: Adult section circa 1950s

ImagePhotos retrieved from Our Stories in Pictures and used with permission from the Calgary Public Library.

What librarian hasn’t fantasized about working in a library that looks like that?