The year is 1947. World War II ended two years ago. India has just gained independence from Britain. The United States Congress was televised for the first time earlier in the year. You are a young person trying to decide what you want to do with your life. You feel overwhelmed by all the options when you happen see this helpful film.
I think this is a pretty fascinating little slice of history. There’s a lot you could say about it as a time capsule of its times for the library profession. The librarians are almost universally white women with the exception of the administrator who is a white man. The filmmakers included the blind but they excluded any other form of diversity. We modern viewers can cringe at the comment from the hospital librarian about not being able to pronounce the medical terminology. Equally, we marvel at the phonograph as the peak of audio technology of the time.
Almost seventy years later and we find ourselves in a radically different world. Let’s contrast it with a more modern depiction of librarianship, uploaded to YouTube in 2011:
Well, there’s a lot more diversity, which is a pleasant change. There’s subtitles for the hearing impaired. The technology is radically different (but looks a bit dated for 2011 so it is entirely possible this was filmed earlier.) There are lines of continuity, however. The librarians are still universally women. The tasks being described are identical save for the inclusion of aspects of databases and technology. The fulfilment of providing good service remains the closing selling point of the video.
A bit earlier in the school year I wrote a paper contrasting two documents about how to be an effective librarian. One was written in 1958 and the other was written in 2003. In that paper, I argued about that there are major continuities of values between what is described in the earlier document with the one from 2003. Since then, I’ve written a number of other papers for other classes and I’ve watched both of the above videos.
It cannot be denied that much about the profession has remained the same. The broad strokes of a librarians tasks are similar if not identical. The passion, patience, and interpersonal skills that served librarians of the 20th century still serve us well today. And yet I wonder at actually seeing the visual contrast. A value that I’ve come to think of as integral to the modern librarian is advocacy. Librarians are the people who work in the public sphere and refuse to back down from meaningful societal issues. Defence of diversity in the library is essential to my conception of a good librarian. It makes the 1947 video a bit tough to see.
I know trying to bring these values of advocacy to the 1940s would be a massive anachronism. I think it just emphasizes to me that the profession has changed and that those changes have been firmly for the better. I disagree with my papers argument that enough is the same to not prompt a re-evaluation of librarianship. By all means, let us continue revising and changing. Let’s incorporate even more advocacy into what we do. And let’s show at least one male librarian who isn’t the boss, please?