Special Orders Don't Upset Us
Feb 01, 2018
A large television screen is mounted behind the front desk of our Indio location displaying information about the services we offer, upcoming events, and a cartoon short featuring a superhero law librarian named Bob. Sitting at the desk one afternoon, I wonder about this idea of librarians as superheroes and it turns out there actually is a long tradition of librarians not only cataloging and filing the world’s information but actively working to preserve it and ensure its distribution to the public.
Although libraries themselves date back to the ancient world, California’s public library system was founded the year it became a state, in 1850. Public county law libraries came into existence in California not long after, in 1891, when the legislature enacted statutes mandating their creation with the mission of providing “free access to legal materials to all who are interested.”
Breaking down barriers in obtaining information is a goal all libraries hold dear. The American Library Association, which represents libraries throughout the country, first adopted a Library Bill of Rights back in 1939 rejecting censorship and affirming universal access to information. This document evolved over time, recognizing the changing concerns of the American public. In 1961 for example, it was amended to affirm civil rights by spelling out the right to use all resources in a library regardless of ‘race, religion, national origins or political views.” That goal has manifested itself by carrying materials in multiple languages and offering free classes in computers and literacy. More recently, libraries have sought to become a hub of the community by offering children’s programs and guest speakers and hosting resource events aimed at vulnerable members of the community such as the homeless, elderly, and veterans.
Public law libraries have likewise worked to expand their usefulness by offering legal materials geared toward both attorneys and the public. Law libraries are a one stop shop for access to online legal databases, updated resources written for both legal professionals and lay people, and even classes and workshops and occasionally free attorney consultations.
Librarians’ commitment to the goals of their profession can even occasionally turn them into somewhat controversial figures. In 2002 for instance, a group of four librarians filed suit when served with a gag order and patron information request by the federal government under the Homeland Security Act. They argued for their patrons’ right to privacy. As a result of this, The Library Bill of Rights was again modified to reaffirm the right to confidentiality and privacy of library users.
Many librarians have also expanded their scope in supporting their communities by forming self-governing organizations to promote social change and protect their patrons. One example is the Progressive Librarians Guild which was formed in 1990 to ‘address issues relating to librarianship and human rights.’ They are active in organizing petitions and recognizing the work of individuals. The more colorfully named Radical Reference Librarians, got their start in the days before smart phones; working among protesters during the 2004 election, distributing information pamphlets on protesters’ rights and answering questions. Any information that was not readily on hand was obtained through a quick phone call where another reference librarian was on standby at a desk. Library workers in a few cities have even gone so far as to learn to administer Narcan to library visitors experiencing an overdose.
While the day to day life may seem quiet and boring, beneath the surface at any public, academic, or law library, a super-hero librarian may just be waiting to save the day for you.