In 1876, in the first issue of The American Library Journal (now Library Journal), founding editor Melvil Dewey drew a portrait of the "modern" librarian:
"He must see that his library contains, as far as possible, the best books on the best subjects, regarding carefully the wants of his special community. Then, having the best books, he must create among his people, his pupils, a desire to read those books...He must teach them how...they may themselves select their reading wisely. Such a librarian... may soon largely shape the reading, and through it the thought, of his whole community...It is in the interest of the modern library, and of those desiring to make its influence wider and greater, that this journal has been established. Its founders have an intense faith in the future of our libraries and believe that if the best methods can be applied by the best librarians, the public may soon be brought recognize our claim that the free library ranks with the free school...The time was when a library was very like a museum, and a librarian was a mouser in musty books, and visitors looked with curious eyes at ancient tomes and manuscripts. The time is when a library is a school, and the librarian is in the highest sense a teacher, and the visitor is a reader among the books as a workman among his tools. Will any man deny to the high calling of such a librarianship the title of profession?"1
One hundred and twenty-five years later, we reflect on Dewey's vision of the future with mixed feelings. The free public library is indeed a ubiquitous American institution, but -- like the public schools -- it is often criticized for failing to live up to expectations, but denied the resources needed to do so. In some places, the library is seen as more allied with recreation than education, and librarians seldom aspire to be the shapers of their communities' thoughts. Yet, the "library faith" persists, people do use and support libraries, and most librarians do strive to promote the goal of an educated and informed citizenry.
The right of librarianship to call itself a profession has been debated over the decades, but today seems moot, as definitions of "profession" continue to evolve.2 The future role of librarians, however, remains a very live issue, as the electronic "virtual library" becomes a familiar traveler on the information superhighway.
When Dewey spoke of "the mouser among dusty books," he had in mind the long history of librarianship as guardianship. The original role of librarians was defined by the fact that manuscripts and books were scarce and valuable items that above all had to be protected. Inventory control rather than access to content was paramount, and "user service" meant knowing which shelf contained the desired book. It was not until Dewey's era that there was widespread acceptance of a more aggressive role for the librarian. The concepts of access to the information contained in books, journals, and other media, and of assistance to users through services such as reference and reader's advisory, are largely nineteenth century American innovations. In the twentieth century, the role of the librarian has been expanded to encompass advocacy of intellectual freedom and universal access to information. Dewey's librarian as teacher has evolved into librarian as inculcator of information literacy.
As the traditional library changes in response to new technologies, and as more people turn to electronic and other information sources not physically connected to libraries, some question the need for librarians. Others affirm that the roles of librarians will not change in fundamental ways and that the functions they perform become more crucial as information access becomes more complex and dependent on technology. You can easily guess where we at SC&I stand on this issue!
1Melvil Dewey, "The Profession," The American Library Journal 1 (September 30, 1876):5-6.
2Andrew Abbott, The System of Professions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).