There’s an ethical dilemma that goes something like this:

‘A building is on fire, and you can either save the last copy of an amazing book that could change the whole future of the world and save millions of lives, or a smelly nasty old person who’s never done anyone any good. Which do you choose?’

If you’re a librarian or archivist, you’ve probably heard it. It’s the kind of thing slightly “tired” people at parties like to nudge you and say ‘that’s an easy one for you, eh? You bookworm!’

And they’re right. It is easy. It’s tied right to the very heart of everything we do and are as a profession. We save the person.

Because without people, books are dead anyway. Printed books are dead trees. Ebooks are switch sequences that will never be flipped. Audio books are ghosts shouting at an empty world. Books need people, much more than people need books.

It’s easy to get so caught up in the processes, problems and successes of what we do that we forget why. We forget the ultimate goal: the improvement of society.

We make things better for people.

This is what the keynote speakers at CILIP’s 2015 conference reminded us of. They issued a call to arms. Remember you are heroes. Remember you are champions. Remember that you do this for people. This is (roughly) what I remember most:

R David Lankes: being a librarian isn’t nice. It’s not supposed to be. To be a librarian is to be someone who believes they can change the world for the better through knowledge. Examples of libraries in Ferguson and Baltimore: their heroic actions had nothing to do with books, and everything to do with people.

Cory Doctorow: information doesn’t want to be free, but people do. I don’t do what I do because I care about information, but because I care about people.

Shami Chakrabarti: the greatest human right is that which comes out of empathy: that of equal treatment, where we acknowledge everyone’s humanity and right to dignity. And we need people to make this happen, because without someone to stand up and represent you, your rights are nothing more than a dead page in a closed book.

Erwin James: prisoners are not a demographic. They are people, in prison, and deserve the same dignity and compassion as everyone else. You can’t begin to value anyone else until you’ve learned to value yourself, and that often takes someone to tell you that you have value.

And more: Jan Parry on the Hillsborough Independent Panel, where the documents and evidence were enormously, vitally important – because of what they could tell us of those who lost their lives, and the difference that information could make to the lives of those left behind.

Did I take much away from the conference that will materially affect what I do at work every day? Maybe not. What I took was far more important than that: a renewed belief in and commitment to the fundamental principles of my profession: equal access to information for all, for the betterment of society.

If we keep that in mind, I don’t think we can go too far wrong. It won’t always be easy. It’s not supposed to be. A person is heavier than a book, and harder to carry. The weight might hurt us. But it is the right thing to do, and so we do it, step after step after step. And yes, we have to concentrate on the steps, or we might fall. But if we forget our goal, we are surely lost.

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