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By Any Other Name

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We have written before about the picturesque charm of collective nouns. That is the term given to a group of something, as, for instance, a pride of lions. Brian Wildsmith has illustrated many of these colorful expressions in "Birds" and "Wild Animals", just a few of his splashily bright picture books. In them, you will encounter a colony of penguins, a company of parrots, a congregation of plover, an exaltation of larks, a stare of owls, an unkindness of ravens, a sloth of bears, a nursery of raccoons, an ambush of tigers, a shrewdness of apes, a lepe of leopards. Each descriptive word distills the special quality of its subject to its most essential.

How delightful, then, to contemplate words to describe a group of librarians, as one online requester prompted recently, just in time for National Library Week. A plethora of nominations poured forth, from the stereotypical "hush of librarians" to the contemporary "2.0".

Some offerings were predictable, in describing what librarians are commonly thought to represent. There was a chapter of librarians, a volume, a shelf, a stack (as in a section of shelves), a range (as in a group of stacks--an expanse of shelves), an index, a catalog (perhaps fondly recalled as a "card catalog" even though it has been electronic—without any cards--for many years), a genre, a compendium, and a collection.

Other terms describe what librarians do. "An access of librarians" seems especially appropriate, since a fundamental concept in the mission of libraries is to make information accessible, whether in terms of format (print, audio, video, electronic), in terms of content (indexes, keyword searches, databases, displays, programming), physical access (location, visibility, handicapped access, outreach), or intellectual access (awareness of services, literacy).

Some terms for librarians would obscure access for the uninitiated. Librarians are notorious for their use of acronyms and jargon. "OPAC" (online public access catalog) and "MARC" (machine readable cataloging) might be fun for insiders but wouldn’t get an meaningful message across to anyone else. Other terms are generally understood by a broader audience, as in browse, arrangement, circulation, renewal, and link.

Librarians are also defined by their persistent quest for answers to questions and for accurately citing their sources, so these words were offered: query, reference, source. A google of librarians is a collection of expert online searchers.

Still other words describe how we do what we do. One might still find "a silence of librarians" in research institutions, but probably not in today’s public libraries, where there is a buzz of activity most days. Given the ever-changing pattern of the daily work environment from flow to onslaught, words like  endurance, tenacity, patience, pride, and fortitude all work well.

Back in the day, there might have been a kernel of truth in the stereotype of the introverted librarian who liked to work alone. But the fact is that librarians are very much oriented toward working together to share information and solve problems. Words like conference and collaboration describe to a T the way we work. In fact, TCPL was one of six founding members of the Southwest Information Network Group, Inc. (SWING), a cooperative of 120 libraries of all types offering purchasing agreements, training, and scholarships to members. TCPL is a member of another cooperative, Holston Associated Libraries, Inc. (HAL), which provides the shared catalog (OPAC) which is the basis of all our work. Librarians work in league with others to bring resources to their users.

While cooperation is a guiding principle of our work, librarians can be a force to be reckoned with when our fundamental operating principles are attacked. Freedom of information is one of those, as Michael Moore found out when his publisher decided to pulp 50,000 copies of his "Stupid White Men", fearing it was out of tune with the prevailing political climate. A librarian learned about this and led a charge to shame the publisher into releasing the book; it became a runaway best seller. Later, Moore said librarians are "the most important public servant in a democracy". He said "I really didn't realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. They are subversive. You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn't mess with them".

In light of this, the proposal of "riot", "frenzy", "bevy of boisterous librarians" all are in character. Think back to Monty Python’s Gorilla Librarian sketch: "You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that’s been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians".

Gertrude Stein penned the famous line, "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose". On the other hand, Shakespeare’s Romeo said "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Whatever words one uses to describe librarians, the results of their work should remain the same—to ensure access to the information people need to live their lives successfully. This is what we celebrate during National Library Week.

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