Two Columbia Libraries

For my field observation, I went to two of Columbia University’s eighteen libraries, Butler and Lehman. Butler is Columbia’s history and humanities library while Lehman is a digital center for all forms of spatial data.
First I went to Butler, which has six floors and contains about 3 million volumes. It serves mostly the Columbia community but is also open to New York University students and faculty and to select New York Public Library card-holders through a program called Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI). MaRLI allows any graduate student NYPL card-holder doing in-depth research to apply for a special card that not only allows them to take home books from the NYPL’s research libraries but from Columbia and NYU’s libraries as well. NYPL card-holders can obtain MaRLI status “by demonstrating that they have exhausted the resources available through NYPL for their projects and need sustained access to the resources of the three institutions.” There is also a Metro program that allows New York metropolitan public library card-holders who cannot find a particular book anywhere else to check it out from Columbia. Columbia University has the fourth largest purchasing expenditures 2011-2012 of any research library in the country.
I interviewed the Butler reference librarian and watched him help a patron. I found out that he had his M.L.I.S. from UC Berkeley and that he was able to get a job as a librarian at Butler because he already had a Ph.D. in English. The librarian told me that sometimes Columbia hired librarians who didn’t have M.L.I.S. degrees, which was an unusual practice for libraries.
The patron I observed him helping was a student at the New York Theological Seminary who needed to know for her thesis paper how much money the government spent on prisoners at Riker’s Island. The librarian looked on the website of the Justice Department for statistics but was unsure where to find what the patron was looking for; he then called another Columbia librarian, who referred him to a third Columbia librarian who was a specialist in government statistics. He gave the government statistics librarian the patron’s e-mail so that she could send her the information later as she was unable to see her right away. Over the phone the government statistics librarian said that the relevant information could be found under the New York City Department of Corrections.
Patrons can write to one of Columbia’s subject specialists with questions the reference librarian is unable to answer. The specialist librarian can either answer their question by e-mail or arrange a meeting for an individual consultation, a service open to both graduates and undergraduates. Butler also includes a digital humanities center that helps patrons with scanning and other software issues. At Avery, Columbia’s art library, there is no reference desk, only a circulation desk which will contact the on-duty librarian with a patron’s question.
After speaking with the reference librarian at Butler I went to the Lehman library, which supports spatial data research for all of Columbia. Lehman employs different specialist librarians to find and manipulate data sources. The librarians must know the GIS software applications that work with express spatial data. Among the librarians at Lehman are the data librarian, who helps with statistical combinations, the government information librarian, the journalism librarian, the business data librarian and the social sciences specialist. The model at Lehman is to bring together specialized consultants in a high-quality laboratory environment. The librarian I spoke to has an M.A. in information science from the University of Texas, Austin and another M.A. in geography from Hunter College; he was also pursuing a Ph.D. Most of the consultants at Lehman have M.L.I.S. degrees, but sometimes the library will hire people with different advanced degrees. Job openings at Lehman are very tailored. There is currently an opening for a data services and emerging technologies librarian, the closest thing Lehman has to an entry-level job. The library would consider hiring a recent graduate from an M.A. program, someone with either an M.L.I.S. or a Ph.D. in one of the social sciences. For that particular position the library would prefer someone at the beginning of her career who has worked in a library environment for a couple of years. The position requires someone who will provide broad-based research support and create programming and support for a wide range of tools. She must be familiar with quantitative research tools and have an aptitude for learning and staying current with a very wide range of emerging technologies. The job opening was posted in the spring and still has not been filled because the library is looking for just the right person; the library is going to repost the job.
The biggest users of Lehman are Columbia graduate students, followed by Columbia faculty and undergraduates. The library also works on a limited basis with students from other institutions. Lehman’s primary purpose is to support quantitative social science research and provide methodological designs for this research. The library does a lot of work with Columbia Teachers’ College helping the students there to find information on different school systems, catchment areas and community studies.
Lehman contains resources on real estate and buildings which can be used to research different neighborhoods. One such application is a “heat map,” or crime map, of Upper Manhattan. Another researcher requested business and census data for Canal Street near Chinatown. On a very different note, one patron needed data for an analysis of renewable energy potential in the Central African Republic.
Both the Butler and Lehman resources provide vast resources for researchers lucky enough to have access to them. Lehman in particular works hard to keep up with the latest technologies in order to facilitate high-quality research. As history and humanities are my main academic interests, I would love to one day work at Butler.

The Librarian as “Feminine”

The library profession today is, and has been for over a century, heavily female. When Melvil Dewey inaugurated the new School of Library Economy at Columbia College in 1887, only three out of his twenty students were male. From then on, women formed the majority of students in formal librarian training programs. During the Progressive Era at the turn of the century, as the library system developed and expanded, middle-class women were encouraged to become librarians to bring literacy, education and civic virtue to the masses. This was at a time when many Americans still believed that women were unsuited for professions such as law or medicine and few women trained for them. Being librarians allowed women to “transcend confining stereotypes of womanhood without rejecting traditional gender roles or family responsibilities” (Maack, 1998, p. 55). Rather than challenging traditional gender roles, most librarians “believed that the professional woman should affirm rather than reject her gender identity” (Maack, 1998, p. 56).
By 1920, the year women got the vote, over eighty-eight percent of librarians listed on the census were women (Maack, 1998, p. 52). Why were women so readily accepted as librarians, to the point of quickly becoming the majority of the profession, when there was great resistance to women entering other professions such as law and medicine? I think that the main reason, apart from the fact that it was difficult to recruit male library students, was that women are traditionally seen to be nurturers and caregivers who put others before themselves. Becoming librarians allowed women to fulfill this gender role, unlike, for example, becoming a lawyer or an engineer or a scientist. And unlike those professions, where “feminine” behavior is often an obstacle, being traditionally “feminine,” i.e., considerate and nurturing, can help make one a better librarian, as one of the main roles of many librarians is helping patrons find what they need.
It was not necessarily a bad thing for the library profession to be majority female and associated with feminine gender roles. Not only were many of the new women librarians full of crusading spirit, but the lack of male domination in the profession allowed both female and male librarians to “[create] a new professional paradigm that was fundamentally different from the authoritarian model of the ‘liberal professions’ like law and medicine” (Maack, 1998, p. 59). Librarian Mary Eileen Ahern was the founding editor of the monthly journal Public Libraries, which was inaugurated in 1896 to serve the needs of small libraries. Ahern’s journal emphasized a patron-centered approach “infused with a strong sense of service to the individual reader” (Maack, 1998, p. 54). For example, one article by a woman cataloguer in 1901 said that “‘a catalog to be most useful, must be made for the people who are to use it, and not for some theoretically ideal people contemplated by codes of rules’” (Maack, 1998, p. 54). An 1899 article by Minneapolis librarian Gratia Countryman “[urged] that libraries keep rules and red tape to a minimum…[and] stressed that ‘the books belong to the people’ and the librarian, who is their intermediary, must learn ‘to be of the people, not apart or above them’” (Maack, 1998, p. 54). In her extensive study of female librarians in the American West, Joanne Passet concluded that despite being moderates on the issue of women’s suffrage, ‘“they did blend feminist ideas with rational values and an ethic of caring…Operating within the constraints of time, place and gender, they transcended female stereotypes as they pursued their vision of library service”’ (Maack, 1998, p. 55), as did women librarians in other parts of the United States (Maack, 1998, p. 55). So while woman librarians largely chose to affirm rather than reject traditional women’s roles, they were still imbued with the feminist belief that women should not only be well-educated but also participate in public life. As the role of librarian was largely conceived as a “helping,” and therefore appropriately feminine role, the two were not seen as contradictory.
The library profession’s association with femininity may play a negative role in some ways, however, by discouraging from the library profession both men and women who don’t identify with traditional female roles. I am a woman who does not identify with traditional female roles, and yet I am planning to go into librarianship, one of the most heavily female professions. While I am glad to help patrons, playing the “feminine” role of always putting others’ needs before one’s own, this can lead to burnout. While being a good librarian often means being “feminine,” i.e., caring and nurturing, having too many patrons to “care” for can lead to alienation and disillusionment. A librarian, especially if she is a woman, must learn how to attend to the needs of patrons in a sympathetic manner without feeling like a doormat.
Does the association of the library profession with women and with “feminine” roles deter men from becoming librarians? The relatively low status and pay of the library profession is partly due to the fact that it is majority female and perpetuates the situation by discouraging men from entering the profession. It’s possible that if more men went into the library profession the pay and status would improve; on the other hand, more men might be willing to enter the profession only if the pay and status were improved beforehand. Not only are most librarians women, but most are middle-class white women. Since libraries serve as repositories of knowledge, a more diverse population of librarians would help create richer and more diverse collections at libraries. Attracting more men, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, people of color and other minorities to the library profession would also result in librarians who brought other experiences and viewpoints to the profession. They would not only bring an understanding of those backgrounds to their own work, they would help enlighten middle-class white librarians on the unique challenges faced by low-income people and people of color, who would thus have librarians who were more responsive to their needs.
The majority of librarians are still middle-class white women and have been for over a century. While many of these women have excelled in the library profession by upholding the traditional female roles of helper and nurturer, the association of these roles with librarianship has had some undesirable effects as well. One is the woman librarian as doormat, which can often lead to burnout.

Another is that men are discouraged from entering the profession. The library profession would be better off if it included more people of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds as these people would bring a richer variety of experiences to the profession and be better at responding to the needs of patrons from those backgrounds.

Niles Maack, M. (1998). “Gender, Culture, and the Transformation of American Librarianship, 1890-1920.” Libraries & Culture 33(1), 51-61

Serving Patrons with Different Views

Sara Sheer LIS-651-03
How should librarians serve patrons with varying beliefs and views, especially when they are different from the librarian’s own? According to Cosette (2009) the philosophy, as opposed to the science, of librarianship necessitates value judgments (p. 8), and the authors featured in Questioning Library Neutrality agree. Cosette (2009) also says that librarianship means “assuring a maximum of information access for the human community” (p. 33). I agree with this sentiment, but it begs the questions as to how one should go about doing so. Cosette’s (2009) belief that it is the role of the library to inform and help the public so as to make it “a knowledgeable and rational electorate” (p. 42) does not deal with the issue that a belief, especially a political one, that one person finds rational another will find irrational. Indeed, some thinkers like philosopher Michael Oakeshott believe that “rationalism” in the form of social engineering and radical reform is bound to fail.
Cosette (2009) holds that libraries “should be democratic in their methods and processes” (p. 56) and that “Librarians working in democratic libraries are professionally neutral in facing political, moral, and religious problems that divide readers” (p. 56). If a patron asks for information on one of these problems, the librarian should refer him to sources from multiple and conflicting viewpoints, for, as Cosette (2009) says, “what is important is not to impose a certain idea, but to provide [an] additional opening to the world that allows for informed choices…” (p. 56-57) by “[providing] free access to all to a collection that contains controversial texts and ideas” (p. 57). By doing so “libraries give each individual the means of critiquing power,” (p. 60-61), which in turn allows people to work toward human progress (Cosette, 2009, p. 61).
The contributors in Questioning Library Neutrality not only disagree that librarians should be neutral but maintain that what is generally referred to as “neutrality” in the context of libraries is in fact nothing of the sort, but rather an active affirmation of the status quo and hegemonic discourse. In their opinion, accepting ideals of neutrality and objectivity can make librarians into uncritical servants of the knowledge elites (Lewis, 2008, p. 25). Rejecting the ideals of neutrality and objectivity raises the question of what a librarian should do instead. Steven Joyce’s answer is that while librarians shouldn’t throw out material with mainstream or traditional viewpoints, they should add alternative and progressive viewpoints alongside them (Lewis, 2008, p. 52). I think that this is the right approach, as it exposes patrons to a broad spectrum of views on various topics without shutting out either the “mainstream” or the “radical.”
Not all of the contributors to Questioning Library Neutrality agree with Joyce on this, however. Sandy Iverson points out that while South Africa was under an apartheid regime, many libraries still obtained their information on South Africa from the South African consulate and neglected to include pamphlet files critical of apartheid. Iverson’s conclusion is that “Librarians must be challenged to treat racist materials as racist materials,” (Lewis, 2008, p. 27) without defining what “racist” actually means. This seems problematic to me. I agree that while South Africa was under apartheid libraries should not have used “information” from the South African consulate (nor, in my opinion, should they have used materials from the consulates of Communist dictatorships like Cuba, China, Vietnam, the USSR, etc.). But the explicitly racist apartheid regime has been gone for two decades now, and what is or is not “racist” is often a contentious subject. For example, anti-Zionists often claim that Zionism is a form of racism against Palestinians, while many Zionists believe that anti-Zionism is a form of racism against Jews. My personal opinion is that both Zionism and anti-Zionism are both sometimes racist and sometimes not. Joseph Good goes even further than Iverson by saying, “Neutral responses to the vital issues of gay marriage, African-American reparations, and affirmative action continually jeopardize the library’s relevance in contemporary society” (Lewis, 2008, p. 144). I think this is flat-out wrong. Good apparently assumes that anyone who opposes affirmative action is at best in denial of the persistence of racism in American society and at worst actively in favor of racism. This leaves no room for people such as myself who believe that racism is a huge and persistent problem in this country but do not think that affirmative action is the right way to remedy that. As for gay marriage, I am strongly in favor of it myself, but it must be kept in mind that practically no one was in favor of gay marriage until a quarter of a century ago and many people are still opposed to it, not all of them for bigoted reasons. The Bible condemns homosexuality, as does Islam, and until quite recently most Westerners agreed. Does that mean that libraries shouldn’t have copies of the Old Testament or the Koran? Again, I am strongly in favor or gay rights myself, but I agree with Cosette (2009) that librarians should be “professionally neutral in facing political, moral and religious problems that divide readers” (p. 56) and should “not [force] users to sympathize with any aims that might be imposed by an institution” (p. 59). Suppose a librarian is opposed to gay marriage, for whatever reasons. Should she have the right to stock only materials that support her position?
While I believe that libraries should stock materials from opposing viewpoints on controversial issues such as gay marriage or affirmative action, I do think that certain viewpoints should be considered beyond the pale. I don’t think libraries should stock books advocating creationism or Holocaust denial because, like Alison M. Lewis (2008), I believe that “creationism and Holocaust denial have been discredited by the vast majority of the scientists and historians, respectively,” (p. 2) and therefore “don’t hold equal weight in the marketplace of ideas, and they are not deserving of an equal share of limited library resources” (p. 2) I do believe, however, that libraries should have copies of Mein Kampf available as it can provide valuable insight into Hitler’s beliefs and way of thinking, which are crucial for understanding the Holocaust. I also would not stock books that denied man-caused climate change because this view goes against the overwhelming scientific consensus.
In conclusion, I think that libraries should stock materials representing a broad spectrum of viewpoints (though excluding disproven beliefs like creationism and Holocaust denial), including viewpoints often viewed in America as “radical” and thus beyond-the-pale, such as socialism and anarchism. However, I think that librarians should be careful not to impose their views on either the collection or the patrons. If a patron comes to a librarian asking for information on a controversial topic, the librarian should provide her with material representing a broad variety of viewpoints, even some the librarian may consider incorrect.

Cosette, A. (2009). Humanism and libraries. (R. Litwin, Trans.). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press. (Original work published 1976).
Good, J. (2008). The hottest place in hell; The crisis of neutrality in contemporary librarianship. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 141-145). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Iverson, S. (2008). Librarianship and resistance. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 25-31). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Joyce, S. (2008). A few gates redux: An examination of the social responsibilities debate in the early 1970s and 1990s. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 33-65). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Lewis, A. (2008). Introduction. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 1-4). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.