|The British Army's Prince Consort's Library|
My time as Assistant Librarian at the Army College is coming to an end and so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on a little-known niche of librarianship: military librarianship. There isn't much information available about military librarianship and, due to security issues, precious little communication between military librarians (unfortunately there is no 'Secret Covenant of Army Librarians'). Here is some of what I've learned and what I've thought during my year and a half working as a librarian for the British Army.
Army libraries use a unique military classification system which is functionally distinct from Dewey or Library of Congress. Our copy of the scheme is from 1985. I have never come across it anywhere else and I can find virtually no reference to it online other than in Tidworth Library's Army Stock catalogue. Basically it divides all military books into Military Biography (MB), Military Equipment (ME), Military Forces (MF), Military Warfare (MW) (which is basically military history), and Regimental History (RH). These categories are then divided using Dewey-like numbers and auxiliaries relating to geography and history. So, for example, books on the Iraq War are MW.365.67-67; books about the War in Afghanistan are MW.365.81; books about nuclear weapons are ME.47 subdivided into ME.471 for bombs, ME.472 for missiles, and ME.473 for nuclear artillery. Military Biography just uses the first three letters of the biography subject's surname eg. Saddam Hussein is under MB.HUS. The scheme also allows you to divide books on World War I and World War II from the Military Warfare division using a separate classification schedule: for example, books on the D-Day landings are WW2: 251.61.
Working with restrictions
Librarianship is all about making information available. Military security requires that information not be made available. This basic conflict is a challenge for any military librarian who can be restricted by the Army, Navy, or Air Force’s security protocols.
I’ve written before about how narrow access to the Web affects the soldiers’ ability to retrieve verifiably true information. This applies equally to library staff. During my time at the college, the restricted Web access on the college’s computers has made it difficult to do so many things: to get Creative Commons material for displays, newsletters, posters; to find ideas for literacy development, library promotion, and inductions; to ask for advice from colleagues on social networks; and, most importantly, to find up-to-date information on military campaigns such as Operation Moshtarak and Operation Panther’s Claw. As well as the difficulty of accessing Web materials, the use of USB sticks is restricted which makes what should be simple – the transferring of files – extremely difficult.
These restrictions are challenging – particularly for someone like me who focused his career on electronic resources, the Web, and ebooks. Learning to do without these resources has been frustrating but good for my development: it makes military librarians more resourceful, more willing to use different technologies, and less reliant on the Google-Wikipedia crutch.
I can’t speak for the other Armed Forces but the British Army has a very distinct (and in some ways unusual) culture with its own norms, values, and etiquette. In the civilian world, it may be unacceptable to take your dog into the office with you everyday but in the Army, it’s perfectly fine. Every library is heavily influenced by its users and so the culture of the Army massively impacts Army librarians’ day-to-day work. Military librarians need to be more active in their assistance. More than anywhere else I’ve worked, I look for users struggling instead of waiting for them to come to me. This often leads to the problem, how do you help someone who doesn’t tell you what they’re looking for?
Reading and learning
The single biggest challenge of providing the military with reading material is that the military by and large don’t want reading material. There will always be people who don’t want to read but the incidence of non-readers among soldiers is higher than in the general population.
|Some soldiers need no encouragement to read.|
In general, a soldier only reads The Sun, Soldier magazine, or books that they have to read – because they are ordered to by a superior officer or because they’re doing some kind of further/higher education course. A lot of the soldiers only use the library during their free time to access Facebook. Military librarians need to encourage the few soldiers who read for pleasure. During my time at the College, partly inspired by Patrick Hennessey’s book The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, I’ve tried to encourage reading by representing it as a refuge, as a therapy, and as a way to pass the time during the periods of waiting and inaction that punctuate a soldier’s life.
It’s rare but in some soldiers there is a genuine desire to learn and, whatever else I may think about the British Army, it’s admirable how much emphasis they put on education and learning – especially at the Army Foundation College. One afternoon in the library, I overheard a discussion between a Captain and a Junior Soldier: they intelligently discussed the Taliban, the false conflict between Islam and Christianity, and the human cost of war. I hope that when that Junior Soldier gets to Afghanistan, he will remember that discussion he had in the library and hopefully make the right decisions.
A soldier once told me that soldiers fight for peace, not for war. The military librarian’s job is to support soldiers’ learning in order to make sure that when they have to fight, they do it intelligently and humanly. I hope that I’ve done that in my time at the college and I hope that other military librarians continue to do the same.