National Library Week Throwback Interview: ALA Library’s Karen Muller

We kick off National Library Week with a throwback interview I did last year for Uncanny Pop with a representative of the American Library Association Library.  The ALA library is a small special library housing a collection focusing exclusively on the history of and issues with libraries and librarianship.  The library’s primary mission is to “help the staff of the American Library Association serve ALA members, and thereafter, the needs of the members of ALA, other libraries, and members of the public seeking information on librarianship.”

I had the opportunity to interview the ALA Library’s Director of Library and Knowledge Management Specialist, Karen Muller.

Read the interview below:

TA: What inspired you to become a librarian?

KM: Basically, I became a librarian because of a love of learning and scholarship, but with interests too wide to focus enough to be a scholar myself.  By being a librarian, I can help others pursue their scholarly interests.

TA: What’s something you learned early on in your career that made you a better librarian?

KM: As secretary to the Keeper of Rare Books at the Boston Public Library, I learned about the process of scholarly research in libraries, as well as the core preservation function libraries have to take measures to insure that resources will be available for future generations.

TA: Why is it important to promote literacy?

KM: Although knowledge may be transmitted in many ways, much of our store of knowledge is recorded as text.  Being able to decipher that text-read-unlocks the content.  Reading also opens windows through the more creative acts of enjoying poetry or literature.

TA: How can libraries continue to promote library use?

KM: In addition to using the tried-and-true forms of outreach–book columns in local newspapers, summer reading programs, activities around national celebrations like National Library Week–currently underway — April 12-18, 2015, and general publicity–I think we’ll see increases in programming that appeal to segments of the community, such as game nights for teens, craft clubs, use of the community room for book groups and similar activities, but also specific promotion of the new services libraries have, such as terminals for free internet access and programs that help teach job skills or provide tips on completing online forms.

TA:  What advice can you give someone who is interested in becoming a librarian?

KM: We at the ALA Library answer variants of this question all the time.  Becoming a librarian requires earning a master’s degree in library and information science from one of the 59 programs accredited by the American Library Association.  The undergraduate degree can be in any academic subject.  Once armed with the degree, the career path can go in many directions, depending on skills, interests, scholarly interests, and involvement in continuing education activities.  People work in public libraries-the 9,600 or so libraries we see on Main Street in cities and towns across the U.S.; people work in school libraries-some 110,000 in elementary, junior high, and high schools everywhere; people work in academic libraries, from rural “ag and tech” programs to suburban liberal arts colleges to large, sprawling land grant university campuses; and people work in special libraries, or those that serve a defined clientele or institution, ranging from law office libraries, to ecology center libraries, to museum libraries, to hospitals.  The American Library Association Library is a special library, serving primarily our headquarters staff, and, through them, our members, along with librarians who contact us directly; we are not open to the general public.

TA: What impact has social media had on libraries?

KM: If anything, I think the ready streams of  news about what libraries are doing has heightened the profile of libraries. Those libraries with effective social media outreach are also among our most vibrant.

TA: How can libraries use technology more efficiently?

KM: Libraries use technology in many ways, some visible to the public, but others working behind the scenes to support information delivery.  ALA has worked throughout its existence to identify new technologies and apply them effectively to library practice. Librarians need to stay current with these technologies and their underlying standards to be able to exploit them for information delivery. Work is underway for connecting locally available print materials with online resources that extend them so as to provide researchers with the best information available. This can only be done when libraries use systems that work together with the end user in mind. A simple example is one I read in the newspaper: a dad was assigned the task of finding and returning an overdue library book.  Having no clue what to look for, he went to the online catalog on the library’s web page–and found the image of the book cover, the book he’d been reading to his son the night before. Simple need, seemingly easy answer, but the trail of technology and cooperative agreements that go far beyond the local library is long.

TA: What is a favorite book about libraries of yours?

KM: I read two kinds of books about libraries. I have a column in ALA ‘s magazine, American Libraries, where I review five-seven professional books each issue.  A recent favorite out of these is “Everyday Information: the Evolution of Information Seeking in America,” by William Aspray and Barbara M Hayes (MIT Press, (c)2011).  The authors look at several types of information we need in our daily lives, such as travel information, and how we research it.  I also read a genre of mysteries called cozies, and some of these take place in libraries, or have a librarian protagonist.

TA: What are some challenges affecting libraries today and what can be done about them?

KM: Libraries are faced with budget cuts as government ally-supported services of all kinds are squeezed. Librarians and their beneficiaries–which should be everyone–need to advocate for not just maintained support, but increased support. Study after study has shown that a dollars spent on library services return four, five, or more dollars back to the community in educational performance, job growth, real estate value and other important community measures.  An educated populace is an involved populace, and libraries are a key source of education after the school years are done.

TA: Who is a librarian that inspires you?

KM: The librarian–and there are far too many of them–who struggles daily to bring library services to his or her community despite the lack of funds and staff needed to supply the surrounding community with the services needed.  The librarian who can get the kids into the library and engaged in a summer reading program using only hand-done posters and his or her own strength of will. Imagine how the community would thrive with only a little more funding. Imagine a lot. These are the dedicated librarians we should celebrate.

TA: What does the future hold for libraries?

KM: I think the future of libraries will be much like the past: a constantly evolving institution that maintains the culture of the past, even as it enables its users to acquire the knowledge they need to invent, write, invest, build, create.  In my first days at the Boston Public Library, I, along with other new hires, had an orientation. One of the stories we were told was of a 19th century Italian immigrant who studied in the reading room every night, living frugally.  He later gave a portion of the fortune he had amassed through investments he made with what he learned to the library. I don’t remember his name, but I remember two things: you never know who the humble looking library user really is, so service should be equitable, and you never know what great things will be done with the information you help supply. And that help is not just frontline help, but all the behind-the-scenes activities that bring information to the user.

TA: What projects is the ALA Library currently working on?

KM: The ALA Library is wrapping up a migration from one catalog platform to another.  Over the past year we have worked through the process to use the WorldCat Discovery product from OCLC to power our library catalog, and with that, access to the digital content available to our users.

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