Column Description: Libraries and librarians are adapting, always in motion, particularly as the 21st century has extended the mammoth reach of technology and digital communication. Then, this year, we said thank you for the ability to stay home and still be able to communicate with our colleagues. As many librarians wondered how new responsibilities would play out when ‘normality’ returned, it was a daily challenge to prioritize decisions. Technology helped, but the goal remained how to meet user needs and anticipate patron requests. This fall, as libraries slowly reopen, we move into a hybrid world. Administrators and librarians have worked overtime and collaborated fiercely to match estimated demand with physical distancing and health-related constraints. 

What are some of their stories and how do we understand future changes?  Libraries have always held the key for knowledge queries. Whether for the scholar, the schoolchild, life-long learner, jobseeker, or browser, libraries and librarians have adapted to keep their doors open and their users and patrons satisfied. How do individual librarians go about their roles and what suggestions do they have moving forward? What has helped?

This column will consider several library environments (public, private, corporate, academic, online, and special) and using a combination of interviews, historic perspectives, anecdotes, and a sprinkling of stats, examine the commonalities and differences. A fun exploration of how libraries remain relevant and beloved.

Hunter-Gatherer is a term used widely when referring to our ancestors’ habits and traits, especially as these may still reside within us. Foraging is another name for this type of activity.

In general, hunter-gatherer elicits an image of someone walking in a forest or green valley, perhaps near a river or stream, and bending over occasionally to listen or examine carefully a flower, new growth, or a movement or sound. Hunter-gatherers are compared to food production/agricultural societies, where the latter tilled the land, raised animals, and generally stayed put. Our hunter-gatherer friends traveled to the sources of their food and only remained in one place when an abundance of resources existed or safety required quiet retreat as danger receded.

Anthropologists and other experts agree overall that foragers preceded agriculturalists, which generally led to industrialization and finally, as we have now, digital innovation or the information society. We’ve simplified these shifts, which spanned thousands of years, to show a progression of sorts. But don’t we as information professionals carry the traits from all these types of society? Even including the feudal, hierarchical society which grew from land ownership, and sandwiched itself between the agriculture and industry episodes of human culture.

Up until the pandemic lockdown, the modern corporation with its levels of management and hierarchy prevailed even in the non-profit arena. CEOs and executive directors held court on decision-making and often were out of touch with the public/customer-facing workers. As the ubiquitous 9-5 workday loosened, an initial period of consternation occurred, causing some job loss in the library and museum fields because of drained resources and less public need. Having re-evaluated since that first panic, a certain trust between managers and service providers has evolved, and will hopefully continue. People who love and enjoy their jobs have an innate ability to perform well. Understanding the value of flexibility was a key learning for all of us.

So, first, there were foragers and farmers, then field workers and craftspeople. Next, the industrial revolution highlighted the ability to produce objects quickly, cheaply, and for-profit; mechanizing saved money and promoted quick sales turnaround.

Then we invented computers, the Internet, and worldwide communication vehicles for every idea and story humans wanted to tell. The information deluge has allowed reference and all librarians and information professionals to expand their expertise, wear many coats, and practice in a dizzying array of fields. 

Researchers still forage for pertinent information. Database creators and administrators continue to produce packaged information for consumption and analysis. Large digital companies still oversee the production and dissemination of informational goods, often strictly for profit. Small, but growing bands of people come together to protect open-source materials. And librarians and information professionals still hunt and gather pertinent statistics to reinforce the value of their analyzed information.

Rajene Hardeman, MSLIS, is a committed community and library advocate with experience serving community groups throughout metropolitan NYC and the Hudson Valley. A graduate of Pratt Institute School of Information, Rajene currently works as an independent archivist while continuing to develop programs and raise awareness regarding the need for a balance between digital and non-digital activities. She is a trained mediator for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Rajene has partnered with the Mozilla Foundation and Tactical Technology Collective to bring workshops and supportive dialogue around the issues of online privacy and security, and, as a current trustee for the Mid-Hudson Library System, Rajene enthusiastically supports engagement and sustainability for all libraries and their patrons. She is a Metropolitan Museum of Art Library volunteer.  Rajene serves on the board of Wikimedia New York City and as a member of the Wikimedia and Libraries User Group steering committee. In a non-pandemic world, she coaches in-person Wikipedia edit-a-thons.