Inspired by April Hines’s recent tweet about what academic librarians can learn from public librarians, I’ve been thinking about the topic myself. It’s been especially front of mind as someone who transitioned from working at public library branches to working at a community college library. Similar to April, I’ve also heard academic librarians shy away from conferences that they consider to be too focused on public library issues, such as social work and safety and/or security. In the back of my mind, I’m reminding myself that those are issues that those working in academic libraries are, or at least, should be concerned about as well.
Many of us have had an experience where we didn’t know how to best help a student who was in distress. That’s social work. Many of us have had an experience where we were faced with an emergency or natural disaster. That’s safety and security. Dismissing these concerns, and dismissing public librarians in general, does us all a disservice; especially at a time when librarianship, in and of itself, is under attack. There are many ways that public and academic librarianship are similar, including having to constantly prove our worth to stakeholders and having to manage and maintain collections and other resources on limited budgets.
Among others, here is a list of skills that those of us working in academic libraries can learn from all staff working in public libraries.
Performing Outreach: Public libraries excel at outreach because, well, they don’t have a choice. When you’re constantly asked if you’re still relevant, you brainstorm ways remind your community of all you have to offer. Milwaukee Public Library has become known for their clever use of social media, including viral videos on both TikTok and Instagram reminding people that reference librarians can, in fact, help you with whatever questions you may have. Meanwhile, DC Public Library used Twitter to satirize current events, and remind the community about the library’s robust audiobook selection. In a time where many academic libraries could stand to do better at making our voice heard, it’s in our best interest to not only learn from, but also to ask our friends at public libraries for advice.
Navigating Censorship: Navigating bans and challenges is not new to public libraries (and school libraries as well). Voices of censorship have long sought to cater library collections to their point-of-view; since 2020 these attacks have increased in intensity. Academic libraries should not dismiss these as concerns that are only facing our colleagues working at public and school libraries. These concerns have already started moving toward higher education, with debates about what students should or shouldn’t be allowed to learn. Academic materials and collections are already becoming the next target in these ongoing attempts at censorship. We could learn from public libraries about strengthening our collection development policies and reconsideration forms, and learning more about First Amendment Audits, so that we can be better prepared for when, not if, these challenges arise.
Offering Literacy Resources: From answering complex reference questions to teaching courses to first-year students to staying up-to-date with ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, literacy is at the core of what we do as librarians on college campuses. Like all skills, developing competency in assisting students with information as well as digital literacy takes time, and we don’t always get it right on the right try; I know I don’t. And it’s always a good reminder that public librarians offer information, digital, financial, and even health literacy resources for their communities, both through programs and classes as well as at the reference desk. Instead of dismissing public librarians for not having a specialty, we should be appreciative of the fact that they are able to navigate complex fields of literacy, often with limited time and resources.
Lastly, in the past few years, we have already seen colleges and universities throughout the United States eliminate departments and majors, scale back on tenure, and reduce library staff. Not only have public libraries been used to fewer staff and static budgets, they have also had to continue performing outreach, navigating censorship, and offering literacy programs while doing so. We are fighting the same fight in terms of figuring out how to best serve our communities while trying to prove our worth to those who might not value it otherwise. The least we could do is communicate with and learn from each other.