In “The Return of Harmony,” the demon Discord threatens to destroy Equestria. Twilight Sparkle’s friends are picked off one by one, until she alone is left to find a means to defeat him. She immediately runs to her library and searches her collection for the answer. She finds inside one volume the mystical Elements of Harmony, which she uses to banish Discord.
It's a great metaphor for the value of libraries and librarians in an information age. The hero of the tale is Twilight Sparkle, the librarian of Ponyville and the protagonist of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. She is undoubtedly intelligent, considerate and brave. But is she, from a professional’s point of view, an effective librarian? What follows is an assessment of her in that capacity.
Twilight’s libraries are profoundly disorganized. This is apparent in the first few minutes of the first episode. Twilight’s responsibility is to manage a library in Canterlot, Equestria’s capital city. But books are piled in stacks with no adherence to any cataloging scheme.
Her organizational work in Ponyville is initially no better. Twilight’s stacks are in shambles—so much so that she can’t find information that she desperately needs. Spike, her library assistant, knows exactly who to blame: Twilight herself.
Eventually, Twilight’s inadequate organizational skills and knowledge of cataloging induce a major crisis when she is unable to locate a critical spell in an archive in Canterlot. What can she do? Twilight cries in anguish, “I don’t know!”
It’s surprising, actually. Twilight doesn’t manage library materials effectively, but she’s exceptionally well-organized with her time. She plans out her daily activities a month in advance and uses a multiply-redundant checklist.
But let me not be too harsh on Twilight. There are definite signs of improvement. In the second episode, there’s evidence of a simplistic cataloging scheme: alphabetization. This is, however, more likely the scheme that was already in place when she arrived in Ponyville (Pinkie Pie, a regular patron, knows the stacks better than Twilight, then a newcomer). In season 2, she closes the library in order to engage in a massive recataloging project. Her scheme includes categories such as “Pony History” and “Classics.” It’s unclear whether this is her own classification scheme or one standard throughout libraries in Equestria. But it is, at least, a good start on making information resources accessible to patrons.
Conducting a reference interview is the act of translating a patron’s request into terms that are congruent with the library’s resources. It may surprise non-librarians to learn this, but yes: reference interviewing is a skill. And it is one that Twilight should develop.
A good reference interview begins with the librarian conducting him/herself in a manner that is welcoming. Helping the patron is the first priority of a librarian working the reference desk. The patron is not a distraction or an annoyance. In the first reference interview in the series, Twilight interacts with her patron, Rainbow Dash. “Can I help you?” is a good beginning. But her tone and body language suggests that she would rather not.
We see this unwelcoming tone again when Rarity comes to the library, ostensibly asking for a book on historical fashion. Twilight gives her a book, saying “Start with this one,” and then walks away. There are no clarifying questions. Is Rarity looking for a book about historical fashion or an information source, regardless of medium? As a working reference librarian, I can attest that when a patron says “I want a book on…” that patron usually (but not always!) means “I want information about…” and is not concerned about the medium. Twilight ignores this issue and levitates a book over to Rarity.
Does it have the information that Rarity wants? A good librarian would ask questions to find out. Again, rarely does a library patron state his/her need immediately. The statement “I want a book about historical fashion” could actually mean “I want to recreate a cape that was fashionable in Canterlot two centuries ago, so I need instructions on how to do so”—or possibly something else entirely different. If Twilight had not treated her patron as a distraction from her other work, she might have found out.
When a patron approaches my reference desk, I take my hands off my computer keyboard and mouse and look him/her in the eye. Why? Because the patron is not a distraction from my work. Helping the patron is my work. Twilight, no matter how busy she might be with cataloging, should remember this principle.
That said, I suspect that the encounter occurred on a bad day. Twilight has some good reference interviewing sense. One pitfall that rookie librarians fall into is to give professional advice instead of information—especially medical and legal advice. In “Cutie Pox,” Applejack and Applebloom visit the library and ask for medical advice. Twilight, aware that doing so could expose the library and herself to liability, deftly avoids doing so and refers her patrons to Zecora, a qualified medical professional.
As a library director, Twilight begins badly but shows definite improvement over the course of the show. In the beginning, she is verbally rough with Spike. But she later grows into her authority and praises him as her “number one assistant.”
Her leadership would be put to the test when she hired Owlowiscious as a library assistant. He and Spike develop an intense rivalry that comes to a head when Spike tries to frame Owlowiscious for murder. Twilight is ultimately successful in resolving the conflict among her subordinates, which is an essential skill for library managers.
Spike, for his part, seems talented. He knows the stacks intimately—even better than Twilight. But I suspect that Twilight has not invested much time in training him. He once violates the confidentiality of a reference interview—a major blunder that a trained staffer would not make.
Collection Development and Management
Twilight demonstrates continuous growth in the field of collection development and management. For example, she knows what to look for in reference book design and content.
Twilight also is willing to maintain objectivity when selecting materials for her collection. If you’ve ever had a collection development librarian who is too passionately liberal or conservative, you know why this is important. Twilight describes a book on the occult as “a bunch of hooey,” but she is nonetheless willing to keep the popular title in the collection (though she must learn to make use of it).
Twilight has the ability to become a fine collection development librarian, but she really must terminate a bizarre practice: mixing her personal collection with the library’s collection. This can only lead to confusion and conflict, especially when books become overdue, missing or damaged.
I’ve been hard on Twilight, but I wish to highlight one area in which she shines: engaging the host community. Twilight and her library are ready to help the residents of Ponyville. Twilight opens the library in the middle of the night to answer a desperate reference question. She rents out the library for community groups who need meeting space. She even starts a bookmobile program.
The episode “Read It and Weep” shows Twilight at her best in community engagement. She hooks another pony, Rainbow Dash, on reading. It’s a fine example of outreach and readers’ advisory by a skilled and dedicated librarian.
Rainbow Dash is hospitalized. Twilight visits her and shows her Daring-Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone—a popular adventure novel borrowed from the hospital library. Rainbow Dash is skeptical about the entertainment value of fiction. But Twilight effectively advocates for literacy and the value of library resources. “Reading,” she says, “is for everypony.” She makes her pitch with a novel that not only she enjoys, but she has good reason to believe Rainbow Dash will, too: the main character, Daring-Do, is a lot like Rainbow Dash.
Due to her consistent outreach efforts, Twilight has acquired the most important attribute of a successful librarian: the trust of her community. Applejack’s impression is typical. When she faces a major crisis, she has no idea what to do. “Well, I know somepony who might.” She immediately goes to the library to find that “somepony”–Twilight Sparkle, the librarian of Ponyville.
Conclusion and Recommendations
I’ve described in detail some major deficiencies by Twilight Sparkle as a librarian. But my goal is not to tear her down. She is embraced by the community around the Ponyville Library and is thus not a failure as a professional librarian.
All of the problems that I have pointed out can be fixed, most likely by further training. The series does not state where Twilight Sparkle attended library school. It is possible that, like the experiences of many other librarians, Twilight’s master of library and information science (MLIS) program did not prepare her for practical librarianship.
She can improve by attending workshops and conferences—many of which are completely online. She can read publications to keep up with the latest trends in the library world. She can read blogs and participate in listservs to get feedback from other professionals.
It’s not easy being a solo librarian. You’ve got to depend on yourself to do everything. But I’m confident that Twilight Sparkle is up to the task.
UPDATE 8/21/12: I edited a couple sentences for clarity.