People have been up in arms about the news that the Philadelphia Free Library system is running 20 of its 49 libraries without professional librarians. I think it’s awful too, but on several levels. Yes, it’s awful that the library system thinks these libraries can be run without a single MLS staffing them. I agree that the ALA and/or state library associations should create and enforce some standards for library service provision. But what is really sad in this situation is the fact that budget cuts have forced the Philadelphia Free Library system to make such a terrible decision. What was their choice? Cut programs? Cut their collection development budget? Would that have been enough? Cut hours? It sounds like they’ve already done some of that. Should they have closed some libraries? I hope I am never in a position where I have to make decisions like that.

So in my opinion, as awful as it is to say, I think it’s better to keep the libraries than to keep the professional librarians. However, I think the ALA should be much more proactive in creating standards for service provision, including the minimum qualifications for those working in certain positions. Dorothea made a similar suggestion a few weeks ago:

An interesting twist for ALA might be attacking the problem from the other end: defining “library” as “place that employs librarians.” You staff your reference desk with untrained volunteer interns? Sorry, no ALA library accreditation for you. I know, I know; the ALA doesn’t accredit libraries. Well, it could. And such “workplace control” would be a fascinating (and, I think, not entirely unrealistic) way to stem the tide of deprofessionalization.

I don’t know if it really would make a great deal of difference, but I think it’s worth doing. It at least would make librarians feel like the ALA was listening to their concerns and it would give job seekers a better idea about the state of the libraries we’re applying to. The ALA is in the difficult position of advocating for both libraries and librarians. An issue like this one in Philadelphia puts the ALA between a rock and a hard place. It can’t do anything without hurting some of its constituency, so it probably won’t do anything. It’s just a depressing situation all around.