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BackTalk: We Need Big Tent Librarianship

Dec 15, 2010

In politics, there is a term known as the “big tent.” It is used to represent a diversity of groups that are united under one political party. Though these groups often differ in their stances on certain issues, they have enough in common to be drawn together under the same soaring roof. What they lack in ideological compatibility they make up for in the strength of their combined numbers and the opportunity to act on the broader themes of the coalition.

With this definition in mind, I would like to propose that we all engage in what I call “big tent librarianship.” The guiding dogma to this concept is that all librarians are intrinsically connected in their personal motivations for entering the profession, whether it is a desire to provide a service to a community or population, to act on the belief that information should be easily and readily accessible to those who seek it, or to ensure that literacy is an integral aspect of modern society. These are the elementary constants that bind the profession together.

Yet, in my discussions with my peers and from reading discussions and articles both in print and online, I find notable and unfortunate divisions within Libraryland. There is the flawed idea of the “other” that surfaces when an idea, concept, issue, or advocacy effort is deemed to belong to one type of library or another.

An illusion of separation
How many of you have heard a statement like “That sounds like a [insert a type of library not your own] library problem” or a question such as “Shouldn’t this is be handled by [insert the organization of another library type]?” While there are instances in which such utterances would be accurate, similar phrasing is often used in a derogatory sense. The impetus for big tent librarianship is to combat the illusion of separation that currently exists within the field. As librarians, we are connected by core beliefs across the different library types; it behooves us to speak, act, and advocate on behalf of all libraries regardless of their designation or situation.

It is absolute folly to act as a bystander or to pretend that the closing of another type of library does not impact one’s own library. Past American Library Association president James Rettig wrote of this shared fate, referring to it as a “library ecosystem” in which different types of libraries provide inherent support for one another. As in nature, the impairment or loss of one part of the cycle directly affects the other parts. I am convinced that libraries of all types have a shared fate; that the closing of one is done to the detriment of all the others that remain.

Uniting our vision
Under this big tent philosophy, I believe it is time for librarians to reach out and get to know the issues that face other types of libraries. It is time to bring down the misconception of professional separation and remember the core beliefs that are shared across the occupation. The mindset I propose strives for nothing less than unity of vision and sense of greater purpose within the profession. While we all attend to our own niche in the overall library picture, as peers we should work together toward the bigger picture for the continued vibrancy of all of the various roles of libraries of all types.

The first step is to seek out those in other libraries and learn more about their issues and goals. Take the time and energy to survey their professional materials, to read the current online articles and blog posts, and to engage in a dialog with them.

Admittedly, big tent librarianship is somewhat of a misnomer: it must include paraprofessionals, lay staff, library trustees and friends, faculty, academic administration, corporate administration, principals, teachers, superintendents, and library advocates of all stripes and types. These are people who see the same intrinsic value of libraries within their communities. They are welcome allies and (more importantly) people who can articulate and advocate on behalf of libraries in ways that we cannot. Some are our outside boosters and they are absolutely necessary for the future ahead.

In my dreams of big tent librarianship, I envision a field where librarians of all types are exchanging ideas on common themes and issues facing their libraries. I see an active interest in seeking out sessions at conferences and workshops that glimpse the lives of other professional specialties. I imagine a profession where organizations, divisions, roundtables, and committees still exist but the obstacles and impediments to communication between their members does not.

While big tent librarianship won’t solve all of the issues that exist for us, it is vital for the future health and spirit of librarianship. Now is the time to take action. Future generations depend on the steps we take to rally together, recognize the bonds we share, and act on behalf of any and all libraries.

Author Information
Andy Woodworth, a librarian in New Jersey, roams the Internet in search of fresh library topics and good librarian blogs. See what he has hunted down at his award winning librarian blog, Agnostic, Maybe ( We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to

Reader Comments (1)

Brilliant idea. If learning more about each other is the first step, what comes next? When comes the step where we act collectively for the sake of endangered libraries and librarians and the people who depend on them?

Posted by Michael Henry Starks on December 7, 2010 07:52:37PM

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