The Librarian and the Lifeguard – Social Access to Resources

I’ve started swimming at the local pool because I’m out of shape and swimming is about the best exercise that doesn’t leave me gasping for breath because of my asthma. I’ve done it all of two days now, so I’m not bragging, just had an observation. There are a few lifeguards at our pool. When I was a kid at the pool the lifeguards were hunky older kids. Now that I’m an adult, I’m somewhat amused to find that the lifeguards are children. The pool has a long set of complex rules to follow, most of which I understand and some of which I don’t.

I found myself on one end of the pool yesterday contemplating a swim to the other side when I remembered one of the rules: “no swimming in the diving area.” I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I was in the diving area, I was certainly in the roped off section of the pool where the diving board is, but that’s half the pool. I’m not sure how you get out of the diving area without swimming, so maybe they meant “no lap swimming.” I’m not sure if that’s one of those rules that’s only for kids, in the same way all the kids have to get out of the pool once an hour so the lifeguards can have a break, but the adults don’t have to. I considered asking one of the lifeguards, but she was up on a big tall chair and I felt like it might be sort of a stupid question. I stayed on the side of the pool for a while before I decided to forge ahead, figuring someone would stop me if I were wrong. Can you see where I am going with this?

I had one of those “Aha!” moments where I realized that my feelings of confusion probably mirrored how people feel in the library all the time. All I wanted to do was enjoy the community resource, but I was having a hard time understanding the norms, and was trying to avoid attracting attention from the powers-that-be. There are a lot of rules, some of which are very important and some of which are less important. Some of the rules are severely enforced, some of them are occasionally enforced, some of them are never enforced. They are usually enforced by the librarian, who gets his/her authority from places unknown [to most people who have a loose idea that they work for the town/city]. Rule enforcement can be a gentle reminder or a harsh reprimand. The librarian can often be inaccessible in various ways [refdesk as barrier, computer monitor as barrier, lack of smile as barrier] and patrons often have the feeling that the librarian has “real work” to do that does not involve helping them.

I think we’ve made great strides, as a professsion, removing people’s physical and technical access barriers from library services. I think more and more people, when asked about their childhood libraries, are going to have positive stories of story times, community programs, and great YA book, instead of stern admonishments and shushing. I also think that the more comfortable we feel within our institutions and with our communities, we may start to forget what our library looks like to someone seeing it for the very first time. That person may be from a different city, state, or culture, and may have a different understanding, or a total lack of understanding, of our library norms. Access also means social access.