Are librarians non-playable characters?

In IFLA’s advocacy work, two recurring phenomena point to a key challenge that we need to overcome.

The first is the surprise people at various conferences and events when they hear that you are representing libraries. The second is the feeling among libraries themselves that they are powerless to make change happen, and must rather do the best they can with the resources and conditions they have.

The root cause of these is, however, the same – a sense that librarians do not have any agency – i.e. the ability to make change happen.

In effect, there is a risk that librarians and libraries are all too often seen (including by themselves) as ‘non-playable characters’ – entities that are pre-programmed to do what they do.

The concept comes from gaming, referring to entities that likely aren’t bad, but rather just cannot be taken on as a personality, and are often simply just victims or playthings for the main characters.

A plaything, not a player?

To go into more depth, the perception of libraries as simply being ‘part of the landscape’ likely to some extent comes from the fact that our institutions have been around for thousands of years. Libraries are in effect not surprising, and plenty of people will already have an idea of what a library is (however outdated this might be).

Given this, the idea of libraries needing to speak up may seem odd to some. Doubtless, the stereotype of librarians as quiet and reserved also likely does not help.

A further factor may be the fact that libraries are often seen as ‘belonging’ to either host institutions or local governments, and so that they are represented by these. This can be a benign assumption, but of course can also be more dangerous if promoted by governments or other stakeholders who do not share libraries’ values.

In parallel, librarians themselves can be at risk of feeling like they are not able to speak up or shape decisions. This can be a result of being in public service (or other) contracts that restrict possibilities to question or criticise.

It is also perfectly human to want to focus on providing services that help people, with advocacy seemingly providing little immediate advantage to users. It of course also necessitates to some extent stepping outside of your comfort zone, and looking to engage with decision-makers and others. On some questions, advocacy will involve facing opposition – a skill that can be learned, but which will be easier for some than for others.

The overall result, as already indicted at in the introduction, is a sense of powerlessness, of not really having a place at the table when decisions are being made. Instead, there is an expectation that libraries should rather just accept what is decided.

However, this should not and does not have to be the case. It’s not good for libraries and their users, as it means that decisions are being made without consideration of what they need. It’s also not good for the library and information workforce – a sense of powerlessness can have consequences for wider wellbeing.

 Ready player 1?

 So what can we do about this, in order to ensure that librarians are seen – and see themselves – as having a sense of agency in the decisions that affect them and their work?

A key step of course is engagement in associations. Whereas many librarians are employed by governments or host institutions, associations are part of civil society, with greater possibilities to say things that individual members cannot. They can also bypass some of the structures that might prevent individual library and information workers from talking to those above them in the hierarchy.

In effect, this is an important role of associations, complementing their role in supporting a vibrant professional community, and one that is unlikely to be done by anyone else in the same way.

Beyond the work of associations, there are of course also opportunities for ‘internal’ lobbying, for example by identifying champions, ensuring that there is clear evidence of what libraries contribute (or the costs of inaction). This sort of advocacy is not public, but is a great way of building a sense that libraries are key players in achieving wider government or organisational goals. We just need to be smart and innovative in how we do this.

Another step is simply to be present in different spaces. With the contributions libraries make to progress on a wide range of development goals, we arguably do have legitimate experience and inputs in lots of different conferences and fora. Other stakeholders should get used to seeing us there, and hearing our voices!

We also need to work on the way we tell the story of ourselves, and remember that we have values and a mission that are unlikely to be achieved if we are not able to work effectively.

Finally, and practically, we can also build a sense of agency by breaking down advocacy into smaller types of activity. This also helps find ways to make the most of everyone’s strengths in advocacy. We do this in our advocacy capacities grids for public and internal advocacy.

Stepping up

As highlighted in the title, libraries and librarians are too often seen as non-playable characters. We shouldn’t accept this, for the sake of our institutions, our missions, and our own wellbeing.

Rather, we need to be ready to challenge, both when we see fatalism and passivity in our own attitudes, but also when we see others discount libraries and what they bring to the table.

Libraries do make a difference to the communities they serve. To do this, they need also to make a difference to the decisions that shape the environment in which they work.

4 thoughts on “Are librarians non-playable characters?

  1. Ray Martin

    It’s not only librarians who feel like they are non-players in higher education and their expertise is not valued. This is one of the reasons, surely, for the high levels of mental distress across departments in the ‘toxic’ university.
    We have to believe we can make a difference – against all the odds. Ken Robinson was a hero in this respect.

  2. Julián Marquina

    Thank you very much for this article. It touches on a fundamental issue on which it is necessary to act or try to change the perception of library staff. To begin with, library staff must be the first defenders of the library and strive to ensure that it is taken into account in budgets, in society, in communication, etc. I know a large part of the sector that follows this line. On the other hand, it is essential to increase the public relations exercised by library staff in their environment. That is, giving him time to socialize and leave the library. I don’t just mean attending library events, but part of your work day is dedicated to meeting with the mayor, neighborhood associations, etc. Finally, library staff must truly believe that they are a fundamental piece in the visibility and use of the library. It’s easy to say, and motivation is key in all of this, but you have to understand that you will accumulate more failures than successes.

  3. Sarat Amuni

    I am absolutely in love with this write-up. This was my reason for asking one of my interviewer during my appointment regularization exercise last 4 years the question: Why are librarians not carried along in decision making?.. Could you guess what the answer was? The interviewer (a professor) said disrespectfully: “Librarians are already overrated”. And that was it. Still in shock as to how a lifelong profession be seen as ”OVERATED”


  4. Nicola Palmer

    The sentiments and position in this article are on point. Librarians do have a lot to offer in any space that they may be in and their contributions are worthwhile , when we find the courage and basis to speak. The issue of advocacy is gaining traction in many parts of the world, and it is particularly crucial for small nation states such as mine in the Caribbean. Thankfully the library associations in my part of the world are quite robust and they do use the visibility of the association to “say things that individual members cannot”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *