How not to write about libraries – some guidelines for reporters

We get it. Times are tough. The public sphere is shrinking in the US and elsewhere. Libraries are around and open, doing stuff. Their funding cycle is cyclical and short and up to the whims of various people, sometimes mysterious. The public library system belongs to everyone. There is a lot to talk about; a lot of things happen there. Many people have strong opinions about how public spaces are used and public money is spent and about the library in specific. You have a 24 hour news cycle, with pages or screens to fill. That’s terrific. We’re often happy for the attention.

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At the same time, there are a few tropes that do none of us any favors. You look like people who haven’t done your research or who go for the easy cliche and we look like people who can’t take a well-meaning joke (which we’ve heard for the thousandth time). Let’s get to a place where we’re all feeling good about the whole endeavor. Here are some suggestions. Hope this list, patterned off of How Not To Write Comics Criticism, is helpful. It’s called

How Not To Write About Libraries

1. Your library joke is tired, even if it’s new to you

It is almost impossible for you to make a library play on words that has not been done a million times before, even something that sounds contemporary like riffing off of “adult graphic novels”. You’re probably annoyed that you got the job writing about the library funding crisis but don’t take it out on us. Notify the headline writer also, please. We know you’re doing your best but we should never see “turns the page” or “starts a new chapter” when a new building is built or a librarian gets a new job, retires, or dies, or any sort of bun/shush/dewey/cat pun again ever. That “Overdue book returned years late” story? Heard it. Thank you.

2. Quit it with the wardrobe policing

You try working nights and weekends in a landmark building with a heating and cooling system that dates back to Carnegie times. Dressing in wool and layers is practical and smart, as is keeping your hair out of your face when you might have to crawl under a desk to fuss with a computer. Sixty-four percent of Americans wear eyeglasses, that number jumps to 90% after age 49. We’re not absurdly myopic from all that reading, we’re normal. Saying “OMG they can be sexy too!” is not actually a good response to this; as professions go we’ve always been pretty anti-censorship and sex positive.

3. We’re not all women, not even close

In 2008 the gender split among new grads was 80% female, 20% male. Last year it was more like 78% to 22% and the female/male gap is shrinking. We come from many ethnic backgrounds and we speak many languages. We date and marry people of many genders. A good number of us are just out of library school and share the characteristics of other people in our cohort: tattoos, body jewelry, a penchant for cocktails. Many of us are not just out of library school and enjoy the same things. Nothing unusual. Diversity of all kinds is important in any sort of public service position when you work for the entire public; please try to respect and represent the diversity of our population as it exists in the actual world not as it existed in the movies thirty or even fifty years ago.

4. Many different people work in a library building

This frequently comes up when there is a crime or another scandal at a library and someone gets interviewed who is invariably called “a librarian” and is later revealed to be a page, a volunteer, or maybe just an interested and chatty patron. Librarians (usually) work in libraries, but not everyone who works in a library is a librarian. There are many schools of thought on the importance of these distinctions and while we don’t expect you understand the subtle nuances of the differences between a reference librarian and a cataloger, or a circulation clerk and a shelver, it’s simply important to know that there are many different jobs within the library and not all of them are “librarian” and if you are not sure what the job title is of the person you spoke with, you should ask them. Many professional librarians, though not all, have Master’s degrees from accredited institutions. People call this level of graduate education “library school” and graduates have degrees ranging from MLib. (mine) to MSIS to MLS to MLIS.

5. There are some amazing things hidden in special collections

…and your chances of getting to see them diminish if you continually represent library archives as dusty, musty, smelly, unkempt, or populated entirely with hobbits and wizard-beings, strange and unknowable creatures unschooled in human customs. Introduce yourself and spend some time there and you’re likely to see some amazing things and learn some nifty things about your location, your neighbors or your academic institution.

6. No one with any credibility thinks “It’s all on the internet” and there are reasons why it isn’t

This is an untrue straw man argument, so you don’t have to keep bringing it up. There is a strong case to be made that the push for increasing digitization will be a net good for a society that is increasingly looking to satisfy their information needs online. However we are far from that point now, the digital divide is real and formidable. The vendor-based silos of information which are inaccessible without a payment or a password vex us as much as, if not more than, they vex you. We are trying to help people access the information they want and need. We’re sorry that the shift to digital content is causing trouble for some businesses’ bottom line, but we’ve always been publishers’ best customers and that will change only if they force it to. We would prefer that digital rights management were less onerous too. We would be happy to talk with you at length about why it’s easier to buy something from for personal use than it is to borrow it from the library on your Kindle. Blame copyright and capitalism, not the library.

7. The money thing is complicated, take some time to understand it

Libraries are funded differently from state to state and sometimes from county to county. Reporting on a funding “crisis” when it’s just a possible budget adjustment does us all a disservice with the “sky is falling” approach. Giving people real information about what is happening with and to the budget, and why, would be a great service. More information less doomsaying please. And, as always, if you need the numbers we’ll be happy to give them to you. They’re public. Public libraries have regular meetings of the library board that are open to the public and worth attending if this sort of thing piques your interest.

8. Not all libraries are public libraries

I work in a public library and so I fall into this trap myself. The public library system in the US is a sort of amazing decentralized mutual aid sort of creation, but it’s not the only library system in the US. School libraries and academic (college and university) libraries and law libraries and medical/hospital libraries and other special libraries all have their own systems and procedures and governing bylaws and mission statements and professional associations. Make sure that you are not reporting on one and ascribing it the values and traditions of another entirely different type of library.

9. The entire public is welcome in the public library

…including types of people you may dislike or find distasteful. And possibly including people who find you distasteful. With few exceptions people who are spending entire days or weeks in the library or who are looking at things on their computer screen that people might feel they should be viewing in private are doing so because they lack better or more genuine options. This is a larger societal problem and we are trying to help, making the best of a difficult situation within the structure of our mission statement and policies and procedures. The situation is complicated and deserves a better treatment than the usual “Porn in the library!” headline-grabbers.

10. Libraries are full of joyful noise

Not always, but often enough to say goodbye to the tut-tutting and the shushing and the QUIET PLEASE canards. While we try to have spaces that can accommodate quiet reading as well as rambunctious storytimes and group projects, libraries’ approaches to this are as varied as our buildings. Libraries are more popular than ever by most measures of library popularity and are still tremendously well-loved cultural institutions that are available to and for every single person. The reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated, especially on the internet.

However it is true that most of us like cats and mostly do not hate Wikipedia.

Here are some more pointers to places to get good, factual information about libraries in the US.

ALA’s Library Bill of Rights
ALA Library LibGuides
ALA’s research and statistics section including the Library ROI bibliography
IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) reports
ALA’s State of American Libraries report
Library Journal’s Placement and Salaries Survey

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All images come from the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog and have no known restrictions on publication. Article specifically inspired by this tweet. Thanks to Andy Woodworth for reading the draft. Made a few small edits in response to recent feedback.

58 thoughts on “How not to write about libraries – some guidelines for reporters

  1. Oh thank you, amen, and hugs&kisses for the “dusty” comment. I have been riding this hobby horse on the archives list for some time. Commenting to the reporters on the news sites gives personal joy but has changed little in perceptions.

  2. Very nicely done. (Within portions of the library literature and gray literature/social media, I’ve had an issue the opposite of your #8: Namely, not all libraries are academic libraries, but many academic librarians habitually write as though they were.) And, as you know, I have published careful breakdowns of the “public libraries closing all over the place” theme. Not true, not even close.

  3. Here’s the problem with #6: 75% of the anti-tax, technophilic commenters on news websites are in fact convinced that it is all on the internet, and can be obtained by anyone. So, conquering that straw-man is maybe not as pointless as you make it sound.

  4. Agree with you jen, but I think it’s one of those situations where commenters may say that [internet commenters may say all sorts of horrible things] but reporters speaking reasonably about why they’re wrong is a better idea than approaching the topic as if it’s a legitimate open question.

    Thanks for the nice feedback folks.

  5. Great post. There have been many times when I wanted to shake a reporter even as I tried to keep them interested and involved in reporting about my library. I was surprised by how much genuine interest the people from C-SPAN American History took in our special collections.

  6. Love it. Can you send this to Hollywood as well?!?

  7. Unfortunately, the AP is a sucker for any long overdue book story. And I encounter the “turn the page” and “new chapter” phrasing at least a couple of times a week. From now on, I’ll respond with a link to this informative, thoughtful post. Lots of great suggestions here.

  8. Hmmm, how about not blaming copyright and capitalism… or the library? How about just accepting that writers and publishers are not Wall Street speculators, that we all give far more than we take, and that we all deserve fair compensation for our work – writers, publishers, librarians, all of us?

    It’s unfair to equate the request for compensation with an attack on access.

  9. that photograph is incredible!

    (also, very helpful to think about how we can better pitch stories to newspapers!)

  10. Very true and even if you are technically open to the public but are a special library it doesn’t mean you have the latest best seller nor can the public check out materials. I am in a medical library that allows the public to come and use the stuff. BUT (the big but) they can’t check it out of the library and we only have medical stuff that isn’t at Joe Public’s reading level. It is at the level of our core users (doctors and nurses). We can help (and love to) help patients and the public find good medical information online at the patient level, but the public can’t come in and check out a book on diabetes.

  11. Absolutely fantastic, Ms. West. I’m a former medical librarian and have been a professor in a library school for 10 years. What the profession gets in the trenches, library school faculty get too — I still meet people on campus who are convinced I shelve books for a living.

  12. Love this. And illustrating #10–a couple of weeks ago my institution’s alumni magazine wanted to do a feature on me, and set up this big photo shoot. All went fine, until the photographer asked if maybe he could get a couple pix of me shushing. I told him I’d get yelled at by my colleagues, and besides I’d never shushed anyone–in fact, the students regularly glare at *me* because I’m making too much noise. (Plus, I tried briefly to do it, and laughed too hard, mostly b/c it felt completely unnatural.)

  13. This is just about perfect, honestly. Something like this (or a copy of this) should be included in every library association media kit for ease of access … Especially for the fledgling writer/journalist who gets thrown a library story for the first time.

  14. Would like to add to the “tired library jokes” section: please do not mention the Dewey Decimal System, unless it’s actually pertinent to the content of your piece. Thanks for this awesome writeup, Jessamyn!

  15. > It’s unfair to equate the request for compensation with an attack on access.

    Not disagreeing, just saying that there are complicated rules in place in this system and we’re all trying to get something equitable out of it and this might be easier to do if we could speak openly about what the real machinations are that are working behind the scenes and not just pretend that it’s a totally fair and open market. Some people are getting paid significantly more than other people in this process.

    I’d like to see writers get paid fairly and the library model in some other countries actually does compensate them for when their books are lent in libraries (which I think is great, though a record keeping nightmare) and right now libraries are sort of stuck in a publisher-driven model which doesn’t have the library patrons’ OR the writers’ best interests in mind.

  16. Not all noise is considered ‘joyful’ by other patrons who are, after all, probably there because they want to choose or read a book. I belong to a private library, the Boston Athenaeum, in which cell phones are strictly verboten and no-one even whispers. It’s a contrast to my suburban public library where being ‘welcoming’ means that anything, including loud and boring cell phone conversation, is allowed.

    No, I don’t complain as it’s the town I live in, but I wish public library people could take a leaf out of the book of the private library.

  17. As always Jessamyn, brilliant writing. Thank you for saying many of the things that I find myself saying to stakeholders, local politicians, and members of the public. It’s not just reporters that believe/say/perpetuate these things. I swear I will use this as my talking points list the next time I have to go into one of those meetings ;)

  18. (With all due respect.)
    How Not To Write

    1. Use “off of” to mean “from”.

  19. Love! (Well, except for the stereotype about cats…)

  20. Please don’t tell us how to write about libraries. It’s like telling people how to write about art — just as annoying as the stereotypes you cite. All the best, Janice

  21. I guess I’d say that, in line with what Dylan wrote in his article…

    Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of room for interesting-but-still-arguable observations from outsiders, and even room for points best described as obviously-not-true-if-you-know-your-stuff-but-shows-genuine-effort. I don’t want to discourage original thought. But the sorts of mistakes I’m after in this post are not near-misses born from attempts to take on something new. They’re just unprofessional blunders.

    Luckily, these mistakes are easily avoided with a little attention.

    No one is against reasoned thoughtful criticism even if it reflects difficult truths that are hard to face. At the same time, the presumption is that people do not want to write cliche-written easily-refutable error-ridden articles that insult the people they are supposedly supporting. And that’s what I wanted to help people avoid doing. You’re totally free to ignore all of my advice.

  22. As an academic librarian, I loved your article. It was right on the money. @Janice Payne, when I read reactions such as yours to a piece, it indicates that the subject expressed has really hit a nerve. I’m a writer too, and find your remark is very revealing about its author.

  23. Love it – especially the last bit! I run a high school library that is almost always playing music (loud techno in the morning, LA St Martin’s symphony Pop Goes Classic during study times and talking is *required* – else how would students learn? :)!

  24. Well, you definitely sound like someone who can’t take a joke. This piece will resonate with librarians, but I find it alienating and patronizing.

  25. Meagan. The joke was boring the first time. When you’ve read it hundreds of times – not an exaggeration after twenty years in the library sector – it’s easy to see why many people eventually take it as fact.

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” – Joseph Goebbels.

    If certain newspapers and media outlets published, y’know, news, instead of factually inaccurate information and boring and unimaginative cliches and stereotypes over and over, then it wouldn’t need to be said…

  26. Hi Meagan,

    I think the piece is excellent – I’m sorry you feel it is alienating and patronising but surely if it means the news you see and hear and the articles you read are more accurate, better informed and give you a realistic take on the places, people and issues being reported this can only be a good thing?
    As Jessamyn says, you are free to ignore the advice if you believe there is nothing wrong with (presumably) your reporting style on this topic, although I feel this would be a little like reading an article on science by Stephen Hawking but concluding your high school science teacher knew better.
    Each to their own.

  27. As an archivist (so…not quite a librarian? :p) the only “dusty” collections I’ve had to deal with were ones in the middle of the acquisition process – in other words, they were dusty because the donors hadn’t taken care of them, not because an archives or a library is allowed to get dusty.

    And Meagan – I know, how dare librarians ask (in reasonable and polite language) that reporters actually do their jobs correctly and report the facts? Preposterous!

  28. This is so great–really happy this is here to point to now! One thing I’d add is something to address the many media reports of books banned, that make it sound like the librarian did the pulling. Some insight into common policy and procedure around responding to collection complaints would be nice for reporters to have.

  29. Remarkable issues here. I’m very happy to look your article. Thank you a lot and I’m taking a look forward to contact you. Will you kindly drop me a mail?

  30. Just yesterday I had a conversation with a very nice man who said that a) now that he had his Kindle he had no need of visiting libraries and b) it’s now all on the Internet anyway.

    I feel I should have had something better than the weak rejoinder “that’s not actually true.”

    Tell me – if you had only three sentences to show that not everything is on the Internet and the library has an important role, what would you say?

  31. I was reading the Sept. 28 letter today by ALA President Sullivan that addresses the refusal of three large publishers to sell e-Books to libraries.

    I have to say, in respect to your observation that “Many different people work in a library building,” it troubled me that Sullivan referred exclusively to librarians in comments like “We librarians cannot stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide.”

    Where does Sullivan’s statement leave everyone else who works (or, in my case, volunteers) at a library? Do we not have a stake in this matter or feel a call to action in reducing the digital divide? Just a thought.

    While it is right that we chastise journalists who fail to portray our work accurately, it is just as important that we, ourselves, get it right.

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