Reading about your profession in a work of fiction is an interesting experience. You’re on the alert about its portrayal and possibly sensitive about its accuracy. When you are a library school student and/or working in the library field, you can be hyper aware of your livelihood’s perception.
The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy presented just such a scenario. I suggested this novel as a selection for my book club with friends this summer, as it was readily available on one of my library system’s digital platforms and seemed a good fit for a group that enjoys light fiction. I personally was interested in exploring this tension of “What will this portrayal of librarians be like?” and knew that I was most likely to finish it if I were reading it as part of book club.
This novel centers around librarian Hanna who runs a small library in a cozy fictional Ireland village. While her relationships with family and friends are a large piece of the story, the book turns on her relationship with her career, the library, and the library’s relationship with the community. There were some aspects of Hanna’s character as librarian that were cringeworthy, dated, yet not unheard of in the library community. Her philosophy for her small town library is focused on books and their circulation, yet she eschews book clubs or any effort (at first) at community involvement. She is, in many ways, the dated stereotype of a shushing and unfortunately close-minded librarian. There are even library regulars who visit the library only when she isn’t there because of her negative demeanor!
Hanna’s cringeworthy behavior hit an upsettingly low point while out on her bookmobile visiting those with little to no other access to the library. She shames and demeans a young mom because of damage to a children’s book that mom was returning. While I understand that a small library could have a difficult time replacing damaged materials on a low budget, shaming members of your admittedly small patron base is not the way to foster good relationships.
Fortunately, the plot of the novel turns on Hanna’s need to start evaluating some of these negative ways of relating to her library patrons because of every librarian’s worst nightmare: the threat of closure. While it is a challenge for her, Hanna begins to open up to the possibility of expanding her idea of her library’s role in her village. Instead of just a book depository to be guarded and protected, her community pushes her to see the library as a space for them to meet, explore, and learn.
While the characterization of Hanna as librarian in the beginning of this book was difficult to accept, that philosophy of librarianship is not uncommon. Yet, despite that unpleasant beginning, Hanna began to change her outlook. As 21st century library school students, we are studying and preparing for work in a library world that asks us to be prepared for constant change. Our obstacles may not be the same as the fictional Hanna’s, but we can learn from her willingness to open up to new approaches.
What portrayals of librarianship have you read or seen lately? How does it make you think about your current or future library work?
Sarah Davis is a Bilingual Youth Librarian at a public library in Oklahoma and an MLIS student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
This post is part of an occasional series discussing how non-library-school-specific books and materials are relevant to library school students. To read others in this series, check out the tag Reviews.