Don't Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor

Under this pseudonym two young librarians have collaborated in writing a good-natured expostulation about their profession. Librarianship, they point out, is extremely demanding, and librarians need plenty of musclephysical, mental, and moral.

ABOUT a year ago one of our library patrons who was teaching fourth grade, studying for his supervisory credential, and moonlighting as an encyclopedia salesman had, as the euphemism goes, a nervous breakdown. He wound up in a state mental hospital for several months. When he emerged, naturally he was still in a somewhat shattered condition, and the outpatient counselor at the mental institution started nudging him toward the ancient and honorable profession of librarianship. “Maybe in a junior or senior high school, because you already have a teaching credential” were the exact words of the counselor. On top of that, everyone who knew Jim kept dropping in to the library and urging us to help “the poor guy” gain admittance to graduate library school. “It would be good for him,” they said, and obviously he couldn’t return to teaching because “the classroom would be too much of a strain.”

All of this brought home to us the fact that there is an idea rampant among counselors, educators, and laymen that the library profession is some sort of great, warm, book-lined womb into which people who have been knocked about in life can retreat to spin out their days idly leafing the classics and saying “shhhhhhh”.

In the public mind, librarianship seems to have become a kind of American Foreign Legion, the officially recommended “way out" for doctoral candidates who can’t screw their courage to the sticking place to take their prelims, for battered teachers who want to escape the classroom, for people in business who buckle under the stress of competition, and for all those college graduates who have never quite figured out what to do with themselves.

One indication of the currency of this belief is that the New York Life Insurance Company in its career booklet “Should You Be a Librarian?’” finds it necessary to point out that “librarians are normal human beings” — a bit of information they don’t feel compelled to pass on in their booklets about any other profession.

Not only is library service considered a haven for people with emotional and personality difficulties, but just let some aspect of a person’s respiratory, digestive, or motor system start acting up to the extent that it affects his work, and see how quickly his family doctor or a concerned friend will spring forward with “You’ll have to go into something less demanding, get a job where you can take it easy — Say I know. You could be a librarian!”

Even more alarming to us in librarianship, though, is the other side of this base-metal coin. The same well-meaning citizens who steer the disturbed and sickly into our ranks also steer the talented and the vigorous young people whom we so desperately need away from library service. Should an athletic, good-looking, debate-team captain and National Merit Scholarship winner make it known that he very sincerely wants to become a librarian, he could expect somewhat the same reaction as the one when a young man announces on the Mike Nichols-Elaine May recording that he has a burning desire to become a registered nurse.

An outstanding girl might get a more indulgent response, for after all, “librarianship is a woman’s profession.” But, still, if she is attractive, everyone will have a “this, too, shall pass” attitude, knowing she will change her mind quickly when Mr. Right comes along.

No, the young people whom our educational institutions propel toward a library career are too often the shy underachievers who test high in verbal skills and low in math-science, the kind who “read a lot,” which frequently means that they sit alone staring at an open book because they have no friends.

Aware that such recruits will have difficulty facing the tremendous challenges of the next decades, library schools are starting to screen their applicants more carefully, refusing to play the role of the midnight mission of the professional schools. As Dr. Martha Boaz, dean of the School of Library Science at the University of Southern California, says, “We’re looking for candidates with plenty of physical, mental, and moral muscle. The job of the librarian is becoming increasingly complex and difficult — and library school faculties are determined that the meek shall not, by default, inherit the berth.”

THOSE of us who are already in the field, facing the dual explosions of population and knowledge, agree with Dr. Boaz. Librarianship today is very demanding, and we feel it should be so advertised.

Physically, librarians have to be in top shape to face long, exhausting, and, contrary to the myth, nonsedentary days, with evening and weekend assignments often thrown in. Besides that, we need special reserves of energy for chasing the fleet-footed exhibitionist from the stacks and for acting as bouncer when the reading room degenerates into a “teen-age nightclub.”

When Deborah King, the former head of the UCLA library circulation department, was asked to name the most important quality in a candidate for a library job, her immediate reply was “Good feet!” Now, while this misses a few of the qualities we feel are indispensable for most professional library positions, it comes closer to what we really need than what the public thinks.

Intellectually, no profession demands a greater breadth of knowledge from its members. The entire world’s fund of information — now doubling in size every year — is our realm, and we must be able to call forth the most obscure fact rapidly and accurately, often with disaster simmering in the background. Recently, for example, in a Gulf coast town a volatile chemical broke loose from its container and flared up, threatening to destroy the dock area. The fire department put in an emergency call to the public library in order to find out the properties of the escaping liquid. With the information supplied by the library the fire was quickly brought under control.

In a large urban area, such as Los Angeles, the library reference desks give out more than ten million answers a year, answers that not only help keep docks from burning, but bridges from collapsing, businesses from failing, and human beings from disintegrating.

A good librarian, however, does not confine himself to the prevention of disaster. Just as often he may find himself playing the role of midwife to a miracle. As Catherine Drinker Bowen said, “A scholarly librarian stands at times in the relation of editor. By tactful approach the librarian will discover the scheme of one’s book, how widely one plans to explore. . . . What he says can encourage expansion, a deeper treatment.”

But if we librarians had to choose the most vital fiber in our professional makeup, it would be the “moral muscle,” that tissue toughened by making difficult decisions and sticking by them. One such decision was made on that November, 1963, weekend by Jerome Cushman, head of the New Orleans Public Library, He had to decide quickly whether or not to release to the press the titles of the library books read by Lee Harvey Oswald. Cushman explains his action in these words: “I am a strong advocate of the civil right of privacy, and I consider a patron’s reading habits as inviolable as the secrets of the confessional, but I decided that this information should be released to help block the hysterical rumors and inflammatory accusations already starting to fly in all directions.”

Of course, not all librarians’ decisions achieve the national prominence of Mr. Cushman’s, but every day librarians are taking stands that vitally affect the life of our democracy. Some are as deceptively simple as that of the librarian in a Southern state who, in defiance of a posted, illdefined local ordinance and without consulting his library board, waged a quiet and bloodless war of attrition against the “colored” and “white” signs over the drinking fountains, patiently taking them down and putting them up again until finally he could leave them down for good.

Then there is always the day-to-day battle of the book collection. Every pressure group in the community believes it has an inalienable right to use the library as its own personal propaganda distribution center and a concomitant right to censor out any materials presenting an opposing viewpoint. The librarian’s code of ethics requires that he maintain a book collection representing all points of view. Consequently, he may find himself laying his job on the line in defense of reading matter which is loathsome to him personally. Not long ago a California junior college librarian, a staunch liberal himself, was called before the faculty library committee to justify the library’s purchase of the John Birch Society Blue Book.

A librarian who tries to supply his community with more than shelves filled with vellum-covered pablum can expect to be simultaneously spattered with such opposing epithets as religious bigot and atheist, fascist and “dirty Commie,” bluenosed censor and leering pornographer. When these tags are also pinned on the members of his family, it takes muscle not only of the moral but also of the visceral variety to persevere.

Today, opportunities in the library field are limitless. There is an estimated shortage of 100,000 professional librarians. A talented person can shoot to the top possibly more rapidly here than in any other profession. But that word “talented" should be emphasized. The person who cannot succeed in some other field cannot expect to honor the library profession with his presence and immediately rise to the position of Librarian of Congress. No, if he has the personal qualities that would make him a low-grade teacher or social worker or lawyer, the chances are he will be a low-grade librarian as well, and we have no need for low-grade librarians.

All of this may sound as if we librarians wanted to slam the door in the face of anyone with the slightest physical or emotional difficulty, as if we wanted no one who is not a brilliant, hardworking, perfectly adjusted, clean, brave, and reverent Jack Armstrong. This is not true. In the first place, it would be impossible to find such flawless specimens, and in the second, all that perfection would make us a deadly dull group. All we really want is to have people enter into librarianship as they enter into any other profession, not because of their personal handicaps, but in spite of them. We want people to become librarians for positive reasons — because they have a consuming interest in ideas and knowledge and because they have strong public-service feelings, rather than because they happen to have asthma or a cosmetic difficulty or a hormonal imbalance or a touch of schizophrenia.

If. as President Kennedy believed, “the library is the key to progress and the advancement of knowledge,” then the librarians of the future are destined to carry an immense responsibility. So please don’t give us your tired, your poor. Give us your vigorous, your rich in spirit and intellect, and the library profession will return their gifts to you a thousandfold.