INTERVIEW WITH RORY LITWIN, CREATOR OF LIBRARY JUICE
Marylaine: How did you choose librarianship as a career?
Rory: I chose librarianship sort of by a heuristic process of elimination. I considered other careers, but none of them was such a good fit. When it occurred to me to become a librarian, all of the switches clicked into place. It has all the things I really wanted when I was in my twenties and unsatisfied with the paths that I tried. I can serve the public, work with ideas, pursue my curiosity about a million different subjects, support democracy, make a really decent living (in an absolute sense), and not work for capitalists. I have since figured out that there are other things about the nature of libraries that initially excited me that I wasn't conscious of at the time of making the choice. Libraries are at once communitarian and libertarian. They are economically
communitarian because the community (local, academic, or whathaveyou) pays
for them, pooling its resources for the common good. They are
socially/intellectually libertarian because of the deeply held value of
intellectual freedom. It's a very positive mix, something I'm glad to
be a part of. On top of that, I see libraries as models for sustainable
systems, because they are based on a borrow-don't-buy ethic. The principle
of sharing resources allows for decreased consumption, which is good for the
soul, the environment, and future generations.
Marylaine: Were you already a social activist before you got into librarianship?
Is what you're doing with the Progressive Librarians Guild (http://www.libr.org/PLG/) and Social
Responsibilities Roundtable (http://libr.org/SRRT/) an extension of what you were already doing?
I participated in some protests when I was younger, but these left me feeling
disillusioned, because we accomplished little but a personal sense of "taking
a stand." I became cynical about rallies, feeling that they were mostly a
form of group therapy. I have more positive feelings about them today, and
sometimes wish I had the freedom from responsibility that's necessary to pack
up and go to a big demonstration somewhere and risk getting arrested.
Being involved in PLG and SRRT is a way of having a home among like-minded
librarians. I wasn't in an affinity group immediately before I became a
librarian, and wasn't a part of a progressive church group or any similar
community. Getting involved in these groups was an extension of my
social/political orientation, but it was a really new thing in my life too.
It's the first time I've felt a part of a community since leaving home for
college. Joining PLG and SRRT and getting to know the people there was, for
me, part of becoming a librarian.
Because I conceive of libraries as inherently progressive and leftist,
becoming a librarian was a natural extension of my social/political
orientation also. But that doesn't mean I see it as an automatic ticket to
heaven by any means, or think that just that by being a librarian I'm saving
the world. It's simply a way to participate in society that feels morally
good to me.
Marylaine: The web has offered an opportunity for a whole lot of young librarians to talk to each other and spread their philosophies, including of course, your own Library Juice. What are your favorite librarians' sites and
listserves and weblogs?
Rory:Well, first of all, to me it's not just young librarians. I'm fairly young, but a lot of the librarian friends that I met on the internet are older, in
their 50's. I think there's a lot of good intergenerational communication as
a result of the internet. At least that's been true in my experience.
Consider the newbreedlibrarian site. On the "people" page, two of the people
there, John Buschman and yourself, are baby-boomers. That site says it is
for and about the new breed of librarians, yet two of their exemplars are
older. But it's true that it's mostly younger people who are putting up
weblogs and such. (And John Buschman is only on that page because I
volunteered to do the site for Progressive Librarian, which is basically a
print journal, back in 1997.) I think it's unfortunate that on the net,
young librarians have such a disproportionate voice, because young librarians
know the least and are the least wise.
So which sites are my favorites? Well, the sites I run (http://libr.org/) are my favorites, of
course (and they contain mostly other people's opinions). I read Jessamyn
West's librarian.net (http://librarian.net/) regularly, but I don't really spend a lot of time there. Likewise Blake Carver's LISNews.com (http://www.lisnews.com/. Both include too many news items from mainstream, non-professional news sources for my taste, but they are good to visit when I want some pleasure reading, and I regularly find nuggets on both sites that I use in Library Juice later on. Both sites include quite a range of material. I think the NewBreedLibrarian site (http://www.newbreedlibrarian.org/) is really great; Juanita and Colleen have done a really good job and it's
nice to see it there. There is a lot of good stuff on the web for
librarians, more and more stuff. Walt Crawford's Cites and Insights (http://cical.home.att.net/) deserves
mention, as do the mainstream standards like the ALA site and Library
Journal. I use the ALA web site quite often. Mary Minow's Library Law page
is good (http://www.librarylaw.com/); I use that as a reference site.
Marylaine: You've been very active in ALA. What campaigns and activities that it's currently involved with impress you? What goals would you like to see it embrace for the future?
Rory: I'm impressed by the activities of the Washington Office. They do a terrific job. I would be happy to pay higher dues, knowing that the money was going to the Washington Office. I would like to see ALA offer more
to librarians. Right now ALA is mostly oriented around serving libraries and
helping library administrators do their jobs. It would be nice if ALA could
do more for librarians -- putting on the pressure for pay equity and
supporting librarians who are treated unfairly in their organizations (like Sanford Berman at Hennepin County). The Special Library
Association is marketing itself as an advocate for special librarians right
now, and I think we could take a look at how they're doing that and how it's working for them.
There are goals I would like to see ALA embrace, but don't expect them
to because of their current dependence on corporate money. Until that
changes, they will be serving two masters, and their service to
librarianship will be compromised. They're doing a lot of good
work, and it would be a mistake to discount it; I just don't like seeing how
corporations are setting the agenda, and governance is quietly being
moved out of members' hands. It's a serious problem, but most people are so
accustomed to being treated as consumers, they find it natural to see ALA as
a company and themselves as its customers. ALA is still a membership
organization, but it's gradually beginning to resemble something else,
partly because so many members don't expect to participate.
Marylaine: Who are your heroes in the profession?
Rory: My two heroes who are living and whom I know personally are Mark Rosenzweig and Sanford Berman. In the limited reading I've done in Librarianship, the person who has impressed me and inspired me the most is the late Jesse Shera. In library school I was also very inspired by Michael Harris and Stan Hannah's book Into the Future. I've met a lot of librarians in PLG and in SRRT who impress me a great deal and I feel privileged to work with them, and honored that they are interested in what I have to say.
Marylaine: What question that I didn't think to ask would you like to take this
opportunity to answer?
Rory:Sort of related to why did I become a librarian but different, is What do you
enjoy about librarianship? I really get the most satisfaction from reference
work, especially when I am able to surprise a patron with speed and
thoroughness and quality of information. That gratitude is great. I hope I
never get jaded to it.
I like connecting people to the information they need in all aspects of my
professional life; that's something that everyone reading this can relate to,
I'm sure. As Sandy Berman said, "I can't have information that I know would
be of interest to someone and not share it." (With his snail-mail packages
of information sent to dozens of people he is a pre-internet example of the
kind of information sharing we are talking about within the profession; that
was one inspiration for Library Juice.)
Marylaine: Thanks for your time and thought, and, of course, for the contributions you
make to the profession.
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So that's what books really are. They're agents of change. Their tactile, corporeal presence lays its hold on us. They let be us children again -- beings of infinite potential once more.
John Lienhard, at the University of Houston. Engines of our Ingenuity #492: Books. http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi492.htm
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Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
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