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Leaders of the Stacks

The stereotype of librarians as spinsters with 'Quiet!' on their lips and the Dewey Decimal System in their hearts is out. Better pay, new information systems and the Internet have changed everything.

November 28, 1999|JESSICA GARRISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kren Malone is young, hip and out to change the world.

From her desk at the public library.

"I saw ignorance at its worst," the 24-year-old Los Angeles city librarian said about growing up in the poorer neighborhoods of Compton. "Being in public librarianship allows me to do something about that."

Like generations of librarians before her, Malone is firmly entrenched as part of the literacy establishment, standing shoulder to shoulder with parents and classroom teachers in the ongoing campaign to teach reading and the love of literature.

But unlike her predecessors, she comes to the challenge with high-tech tools, an evolving mission and a dynamic attitude that finally puts to rest the stereotype of librarians as cranky old ladies with glasses, orthopedic shoes and a neurotic fixation on silence.

Today's librarians don't rush to shush. They're more inclined to listen and are better educated, better paid, cyber-savvy and in high demand. And they are extending their reach into the corporate realm, experts say.

And those differences mirror the evolution of libraries themselves. Once musty citadels of dog-eared tomes, they have become part child-care center, part classroom, part Internet provider and part Ellis Island.

"The role of libraries is changing," said Susan Kent, city librarian for the massive Los Angeles Public Library system.

Added Penny Markey, coordinator of youth services for the Los Angeles County Library: "There's been huge technological change, but there's also been the huge cultural change."

Starting with the librarians.

Broader Interest in the Field

The field is still dominated by women--nearly two-thirds of all librarians--but there are more minorities like Malone, who is African American, choosing information science as a career, say library school administrators.

Meanwhile, American universities are graduating more librarians than ever, according to Lorelle Swader, director of the American Library Assn.'s office of human resource development. Last year, 4,500 graduates were awarded master's degrees in library or information sciences; in 1988, the number was 3,500.

More than 90% of graduates are snapped up into the stacks within six months.

While entry-level salaries in the public sector hover around $30,000, they start at $40,000 and quickly spiral into six figures for those going into burgeoning private-sector libraries. Among those hiring for their own corporate libraries, or to catalog high-tech images: Disney, Sony and law firms.

Nobody embodies the changes in the profession better than Christine Borgman, professor and presidential chair of library and information studies at UCLA.

Borgman says she "grew up in the back stacks" of the Detroit Public Library, where her mother worked for years. Once Borgman entered college, she headed away from words and into math and computers--only to become fascinated by how technology was changing the way society deals with information.

She ended up getting a PhD in communications and became a professor of library science. She is definitely not her mother's librarian.

"My mother could rattle off 14-digit Dewey Decimal numbers," said Borgman. "But she doesn't quite understand what I do. It's a different world."

She said the institutional changes started in the 1960s, when libraries began automating card catalogs and creating computer networks to link separate systems. In California, the culture changed with the surge of immigrant patrons in the 1980s and the ebb of public funding in the early 1990s.

Libraries were forced to begin marketing themselves to the community and politicians who control the government purse-strings, said Markey.

As a result, libraries have stepped up to bridge "the digital divide," making computer terminals and Internet hookups available to people without personal computers.

To this end, the Los Angeles Public Library has more than 1,000 computer workstations at its 67 branches, as well as hundreds of digital databases.

Then there's stopgap child care. Thousands of unsupervised children ages 16 and under show up at county library branches for several hours during the afternoons. A county library survey showed an increase in such "latchkey" patrons from 1,456 in 1985 to 5,081 this year.

But among libraries' biggest and most popular services are literacy programs aimed at the estimated one in five American adults who are functionally illiterate.

Spreading the Word

Although librarians do not pretend to be teachers or to run schools, they try to reduce those numbers by showing the way to adult-education classes, volunteer tutors and book groups.

One such beneficiary was John Zickefoose, 41, a former truck driver who five years ago decided to conquer his illiteracy by turning to a volunteer tutor at the Corona Public Library in Riverside County.

Within six months, he could read a children's book. Now, he is the Corona Library's family literacy coordinator.

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