WE THE PEOPLE
Do You Want a More Functional Congress? Elect Librarians.
by Phil Shapiro
I work at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area. Twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of shaking the hand of the late Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), one of the few members of Congress who previously worked as a public librarian. To no surprise, Owens was a person of quiet decency. Thoughtful, kind, reflective, with almost no bombast. Imagine that—a member of Congress with almost no bombast.
We need more librarians in Congress. Why? Because librarians excel at separating fact from fiction. By definition, they have wide interests in many domains. I work at a public library whose director has deep knowledge in countless fields. She previously worked as a college librarian. Do you know how much you need to know to be a college librarian, answering questions from professors and college students alike? You need to know a lot. You’re basically a walking encyclopedia, with an unquenchable desire for wisdom. You’re that undiluted football fan, cheering with all their might—but you’re cheering for knowledge.
And people depend on you. They rely on you to shepherd them to knowledge. Would it be useful to have walking encyclopedias in the halls of Congress? You tell me. National public policy is complex. Do you want those kinds of decisions to be made by lawyers or librarians? Consider what lawyers are trained to do. They’re trained to litigate and contest. What are librarians trained to do? They’re trained to separate information from misinformation. They’re trained to accumulate and synthesize knowledge. They’re trained to explain and elucidate.
And so, when it comes down to making tough policy decisions, do you want someone well-versed in the complexities of the modern world, or do you want an intellectual gladiator whose sole aim is to verbally dismember their opponent?
A PH.D. AND AN M.F.A.
We need more librarians in Congress. And we need more nurses and bus drivers and farmers and artists. We need more Ph.D.-holding physicists, such as Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.). And we need more devoted classroom teachers, such as Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). In my eyes, Takano proved his devotion for service by teaching English in California public schools from 1988 to 2012. Teaching is very difficult work. When you go back year after year to lift the minds of a new crop of students, that’s a testament to a stellar personal character. On top of that, Takano is one of the founders of the Congressional Maker Caucus, whose meetings I’ve attended in the Rayburn House Office Building. Bringing more making into our schools has the dual purpose of creating more humane schools while increasing American competitiveness on the global stage. And here is another window into Takano’s mind: He has a master of fine arts (M.F.A.) in creative writing. What does that mean for a member of Congress? It means he has a very high-level understanding of how to assemble words in a way that is meaningful and historically durable. If we had a few more members of Congress with an M.F.A., would the institution be stronger or weaker?
A LIFETIME OF SERVICE
I started this piece thinking about Major Owens, a distinguished public librarian in Brooklyn who had a second career as a member of Congress. Until today, my knowledge of Owens was surface-level. I decided to probe further and found a fascinating YouTube interview with his three sons (in “Representing Brooklyn: The Life and Work of Major Owens”; see the sidebar for the link). His son Millard explains that when he was a child, the hallways at his family’s house were covered with service awards and expressions of gratitude from organizations throughout Brooklyn. In other words, the concept of public service—devotion to others—was part of Owens’ DNA. His chosen purpose in life was to uplift others, and he did that every day of his life before running for Congress. As evidenced by Owens, librarians are deeply rooted in their communities, and their engagement with local concerns can help bridge the gap between federal policies and the real needs of the people.
Another positive character trait of librarians is their adaptability. In a rapidly changing world, librarians are continuously adapting to new technologies and information resources. This adaptability and commitment to lifelong learning are essential traits for addressing evolving challenges in Congress. Our nation needs strong and flexible minds to handle challenges that no one has yet imagined. The librarian profession is one of the few that are up to that task.
Keep in mind that a hallmark of excellent librarianship is attention to detail. The devil often resides in the details of legislation. Whether it’s cataloging books or drafting laws, precision is a trait librarians bring to the forefront. This would ensure that laws are crafted with care and are less prone to unintended consequences. When it comes to nuance, is there any other profession with a greater sensitivity to it? Librarians eat nuance for breakfast.
Would you like national policy based on evidence? Librarians excel at researching to find supporting scientific evidence. They will indicate all of the sources of their evidence, as transparency is a core librarianship value. The only profession with greater transparency than librarians is pane glass installers.
Librarians are outstanding at wondering. Wondering is the path to wisdom. How do I know this to be true? Because libraries are wonder-filled. If we pack the seats of Congress with people who have a devotion to wondering, is it any wonder we’ll have a stronger Congress?
There is a path to a more constructive national legislature. It starts with individual voters having conversations about this topic with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Do you want a more thoughtful Congress? Vote for thoughtful people.
The U.S. is “A Republic, if you can keep it,” said Ben Franklin. Continuing the sentiment and speaking as a library worker, if you want to “keep” it, you will need to call in to renew it—i.e., keep voting. Vote for candidates who are known for their insights, not their insults.