Getting into a library I mean.
Normally this isn't something that most people would assume would be a difficult task, and yet, depending on where you go, it can be a herculean effort. A few years back my uncle and I decided to spend a day in New York City. Since I had just recently decided that I wanted to pursue a M.S. degree in LIS, my uncle wanted to celebrate by showing me the library of his former grad school, Columbia University. As a then student worker in my undergraduate's school library, I was accustomed to the idea of non-students visiting a school's library. Sometimes it's tourists, other times researchers. In the case of where I worked, it didn't matter who you were; the library was part of the local community. Considering this, you can imagine my surprise when we arrived at Columbia's library and were stopped at the door. "Sorry, only students and members of the faculty can enter," said the guard. "Well," my uncle replied back, "I am an alumni of the school. I wanted to show my niece the library while I am in town." He showed the guard his alumni card. The guard paused for a long moment and then said this: "You check out, she has to wait outside." I couldn't believe it. I had just been turned away from a library. A LIBRARY! Looking back on that day, I thought it must have been an odd fluke of nature. Little did I know...
Yesterday afternoon I accompanied a friend to a local university's library and was reminded that sometimes, not all libraries are the super friendly and awesome places that we hope that they are. The reason for this adventure? She needed to gain access to a book for a project and this particular library was the only one in Boston and Cambridge combined that had it. After speaking with a representative on the phone, she had been assured that it was quite alright for her to come by on Saturday to make some scans. Easy peasy. Or not.
When we arrived at this university, which will remain anonymous, we were greeted by a less than enthusiastic librarian. I say librarian but really, I think her position is something more akin to a gate keeper of the books. After all, her responsibility seemed to be guarding the library's entrance. When we tried to explain that we were visiting students from Simmons College, she replied bluntly, "You need to go over there." Note how she doesn't say where we are supposed to go. When we managed to figure out where 'over there' was, we walked into a room that was reminiscent of a DMV. One man sat in front two rows of empty desks. My friend stepped forward and tried for a second time to get some assistance. "Hello, I am a student from Simmons College and am working on a project. There is a book here that I would like to look at. I spoke with a library representative and they said I all I needed was a temporary day pass to look at the book..." she trailed off as the man looked up and frowned. "Where is your letter from your school?" he asked. My friend looked at me and then the man. "Letter? The woman on the phone didn't say anything about a letter." The man grabbed a piece of a paper and wrote out an email address for my friend: "You need a letter from your school's library explaining that they do not have the book you need hence why you need to look at our copy. Everyone who works here has been here for fifteen years and knows the policy. Whoever you spoke with clearly wasn't from this department."
My friend and I were stunned. This library was supposed to be one of the best in the world. Students and scholars alike visit this library on a daily basis. The Library of Congress, said one my roommates later, wasn't this hard to gain access to. And yet, never before had either of us encountered such a horrible experience within a library. In school we learn that part of being a librarian was knowing how to have good customer service skills. Sure these people probably weren't librarians but still, this isn't how you treat people. No matter how famous your institution is, that doesn't excuse the act of treating two graduate students like they are trying to break in and steal the library's first edition Bible (more on that later).
In the end, we finally did manage to get inside. The actual librarians on the inside were, shockingly, much nicer than what we had come to anticipate. Within five minutes, my friend had her book and was making the scans that she needed. But of course, before we could leave this library -never to return by the way- we had to pass through good old Ms. Gatekeeper. "Open your bags" she ordered. And by open our bags, she meant open every zipper compartment that we had. "Wow," I said trying to be funny, "You guys treat this place like Fort Knox." "Well," she replied, "We do have a first edition Gutenberg Bible here." "I feel like if I actually tried to steal something like that, alarms or something would go off." Missing the humor in my voice, the woman answered back curtly: "Yes, they would."
While I understand that some libraries need to be more protective than others, especially when considering their library collection, that does not give them the right to treat people like the way my friend and I were treated. I am grateful that certain SLIS courses require us to go out in the field and observe different library and archival institutions. It is a good lesson in the fact that not every library or archive is perfect, and that sometimes, you are simply going to encounter people who are hard to work with. It is a sad truth, but one that we can rectify if we all make a conscious decision to treat others with respect. It's basic 'treat others like you like to be treated' logic.
The students within SLIS are the next generation of information professionals. Let's strive to create a future where there is one less grouchy librarian stereotype lying around.