An Interview With Ginny Norris Blackson, Linfield College Libraries and Educational Media Services
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into librarianship?
I have always been a library user. My mother loves to tell the story of when I was in first grade; after my first trip to the library I came home and took her masking tape and gave every book in the house a call number. My first library job was between my freshman year and my sophomore year of college and I worked for the Lexington (Kentucky) Public Library, and that was just pretty much it for me. I worked at the University of Kentucky Education Library and Law Library and the law firm of Stites and Harbison as an undergrad. And then I went and had this totally different career as an advocate and shelter manager for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska. And then our public library closed, and I went to the city council meeting – I was seven months pregnant and crying uncontrollably about living in a town with no library, and so they made me the public librarian. I’ve worked in libraries ever since.
What is an achievement in your career of which you are especially proud?
I think that the thing I’m most proud of is that when I was a high school librarian in Sitka, Alaska, a group of us did a program called the Alaska Spirit of Reading, and for seven years we brought authors to rural Alaska. We always of course had them visit Sitka, because we were managing it, and then we would choose different areas. One year we chose a Philippino-Canadian author, so he came to Sitka, but then we also sent him to Kodiak, which the population is about a quarter Philippino-American, and Anchorage, which has a large Philippino-American population. And we had them visit schools and public libraries, we’d distribute copies of their book around the state, and then each year we did a statewide call-in show where students from all over the state could call in and ask questions of the author. I think that’s probably my greatest achievement as a librarian and the most fun I’ve had as a librarian.
What is the biggest challenge facing your library in the upcoming year?
I think that it is the same challenge facing all libraries, but specifically academic libraries: and that is that prices go up, enrollment goes down, and so really balancing our students’ need for information. There is a lot of information out there – most of it is of very poor quality – and so we have students coming out of high school having been allowed to use Wikipedia their whole career and then come to college. I think one of the big challenges for post-secondary librarians is the loss of certified librarians in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools that we’re seeing all over the country, so that we are the first professional librarian that many of these students have ever encountered. And that’s very different than when I was in school and every librarian that I had growing up was a certified teacher-librarian. And the loss of the certified teacher-librarian is making us have to do a lot of remediation.
What has been the best thing that has happened to you since you started your position?
I think really just the interaction with the students. You know, I found that in my last job, the higher I moved up the career ladder, the less time that I got to spend with students. And I think the best thing about this job is that I don’t have to make the choice between being a library administrator and being a boots-on-the-ground librarian, and I really like that. I’m not excited about balancing Excel spreadsheets, but I’m very excited about taking a journey with a student in learning
What does advocacy for academic libraries look like from your perspective as a library director?
I think that advocacy for academic libraries means advocacy for all libraries. It’s interconnected. Our students don’t just use our library; good public and school library experiences make for good college library users. I think that as colleges face these budget issues, librarians seem like the natural place to cut. But in the academy, libraries are the only real neutral space. We are not tied to the humanities, or tied to the social sciences, or tied to the physical sciences – we are a neutral place with a little bit of knowledge about all areas and the ability to help everyone. We serve the entire campus: we serve faculty and their research needs, we serve staff and their research needs, and we serve students in both their research and their growth and lifelong learning. We produce scholarship in a wide range of information and human service areas, but we’re not discipline specific, and we’re not tied to a specific college. We are here for everyone at the college. And as libraries are getting merged with IT, or getting merged with academic departments, we’re starting to lose that a lot.
What’s happening in or around our profession that you’re really excited about?
I am really excited about this upcoming generation of Millennial librarians, for a lot of reasons. Their absolute commitment to social justice, and that’s not their hobby – that’s something that they’ve been raised to believe in. There’s sort of this intergenerational thing in our profession and in other professions that says, “Well they just don’t know how hard it is, they don’t know how hard we fought.” Well, that’s okay. The fact that they take basic human rights as a given is a good thing. Also, I started out in librarianship pre-Internet, so I will always argue that no profession that still exists has made as many changes as librarians have in the last 50 years. That we fully embraced the Internet, that we fully embraced going digital, that we fully embraced all kinds of formats, and this generation of librarians coming out of library school are true digital natives in a way that I’m just not. So their understanding of issues of privacy and equitable access are just far beyond. For me, it’s a real challenge to sit down and think about the new digital divide, because I spent half my life without the Internet, so it really is the Millennial librarians that really excite me. They seem to be fearless in what they’re willing to experiment with. They haven’t been raised with the concept that they’re going to work at one institution their whole lives. And I just see these new kick ass librarians coming up that just impress me so, so much every time I work with them.