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Phil Eskew - "Issues in Public Librarianship"

2006-10-13
Phil Eskew

What are the hot topics and current trends at public libraries? Current SLIS students are learning about a variety of topics in L550: Issues in Public Librarianship. The course is taught by SLIS alumnus and adjunct faculty member Phil Eskew (MLS '03), who also works at the Monroe County Public Library.

The course syllabus includes a Resource Page with helpful links on public library issues including: public library history, statistics, youth services, privacy/legal concerns, grant resources, professional associations, and more.

Phil Eskew recently responded to an email interview about public librarianship.

What are the current hot topics in public librarianship?

I think the dominate issue in public librarianship has been – and will continue to be – one of funding. Times are tough, and this is true right across the board. Public libraries are competing for fewer resources with other cash-hungry governmental bodies. This means that public librarians have to equally creative and aggressive in pursuing public monies and fundraising initiatives.
Another hot topic – in my mind – is the continuing need for public libraries to define their roles in their communities. Public libraries in the United States have traditionally been cornerstones of democracy. They provide the populace with access to information and ongoing educational opportunities. As such, citizens are, hopefully, able to make informed decisions. But public libraries also provide the populace with access to popular materials. Librarians have long debated a proper balance between these two services, and this debate continues. Of course, this is tied to funding. Popular materials bring people into the library, and such numbers are bandied about when soliciting funds. But should circulation numbers be the be-all end-all when evaluating library success, or should we factor in our role as an institution that helps foster democratic discussion and community-building via programs and a balanced collection in order to establish counter-balancing qualitative measures of success?
These are tough questions, and the answer must factor in the tough fiscal times ahead. In L550, I introduce students to these issues (and more) and hopefully send them off better prepared to grapple with these quandaries and to come up with creative solutions to many of the challenges of public library management.

What SLIS course(s) have you found to be the most valuable in your professional life as a public librarian?

I graduated from SLIS in August of 2003 (has it only been three years?). Looking back, it's hard to say that one class or another best prepared me. Reference definitely had an impact, and I'm grateful for the opportunities I had to attend classes led by consummate professionals like Lou Malcomb and Carolyn Walters. However, one thing I tell all of my students is that each student that goes through the program ends up with a degree. To set yourself apart, take advantage of the opportunity to work in the IU library system. As a student I helped with ALF preparation, processed a large portion of the David Bradley Film Collection, worked as a reference assistant in the Undergraduate Library during the establishment of the Information Commons, and worked as an archivist for the Kinsey Institute. At times, I was taking a full load and working 38 hours a week. True, my social life was far from stellar, but those experiences helped me decide what I wanted to do with my degree. They gave me focus, and, most importantly, it was additional experience I was able to place on my resume beyond my MLS – experience that opened doors.

What advice would you give to current SLIS students who are interested in working at a public library?

If you're interested in public librarianship, I'd offer the following advice: take courses that will prepare you for interacting and assisting patrons young and old from disparate economic and educational backgrounds with questions representative of all manner of interests and needs; realize you're not getting into a Monday to Friday, nine to five profession that pays six figures; and that, if you find the right community, you're unlikely to ever regret pursuing a career in the field.

In addition to L550, Eskew teaches L524 Information Sources and Services and L622 Library Materials for Adults – Readers Advisory. For L622, SLIS students create readers' advisory booklists. Eskew also organizes a SLIS Reading Group for those interested in reader's advisory services (open to all SLIS students), and he is the faculty sponsor of the Progressive Librarians Guild – Student Chapter.

Posted October 13, 2006