Whither, librarianship?

April 14, 2011 § 8 Comments

A recent talk by Jeffrey Trzeciak, the Chief Librarian at Canada’s McMaster University has garnered many responses from librarians. It has brought up issues about the profession, library and information schools,* and the future of librarianship.

When I watched the video of Trzeciak’s talk, for the most part I agreed with him. Libraries need to reinvent themselves to become more relevant in today’s world. For some, this means small changes. For some, large ones. And Trzeciak points out several times that what works for one library will not necessarily work for another. Where I start to get a little worried is when Trzeciak says that he will out of hand not hire librarians for particular roles in the library, preferring instead individuals with IT degrees or PhD’s. While Trzeciak says that this move will free up librarians to work more closely with the campus community, he does not elaborate about how this is being done, or why exactly it necessitates replacing librarians in the library. I would be interested in hearing these particulars.

However, the librarian identity crisis – where are we going? What are we doing? How will we remain relevant in the future? – remains. It exists beyond the context of Trzeciak’s talk, or his changes to the McMaster libraries. This question is what has stuck with me since first reading the librarian responses to Trzeciak early this week.

So. What sets us apart, makes us essential? How can we describe our role in academia, education, or the public sphere to those who have no idea what the title “librarian” entails? To those who think that anyone who works in a library is a librarian? Who wonder why we would need a master’s degree to check out books? Let me attempt to answer this question in general terms.

I think through things in metaphors. I need to relate a new subject or thought to something I feel I already understand to be able to begin to comprehend it. I think many people are the same, and that metaphor is a useful tool for explaining librarianship to those outside the profession. Here’s the metaphor I’ve come up with for librarians, who we are and what we do that’s special:

Much like doctors specialize in a particular area of medicine, academics (and here I am including librarians – public, academic and special) specialize in areas of knowledge. Those with PhD’s are the specialists: neurosurgeons, podiatrists, ear/nose/throat doctors. They know their speciality and they know it well. IT professionals occupy a different specialty. They are the radiologists, the anesthesiologists. They deal with the vital processes that need to be maintained or achieved in order for others to get their jobs done. Librarians are the general practitioners. We are the front lines. We diagnose the problem (the information need), and if need be, pass on the query to or collaborate with the specialist.**

Saying that someone without a library degree can do a librarian’s job isn’t offensive, just like saying a neurosurgeon or a nurse can diagnose strep throat as well as a general practitioner could is not offensive. Most librarians understand that we don’t have special abilities via our degree that others can’t get without it. But by saying librarians are unnecessary – by reducing or eliminating their number, or deciding that people with PhD’s or IT degrees will be hired instead of librarians – what is implied is that librarians are not capable of the jobs they have been trained to do, or worse, those jobs are unnecessary. It’s like telling your general practitioner that you don’t trust her to properly diagnose the cause of your sore throat, and choosing instead to go the neurosurgeon or radiologist, or even ignore the problem entirely.

All this talk about doctors may make you think that I place a lot of value in the particular letters that follow someone’s name. Not so. I agree with Lane Wilkinson of Sense and Reference‘s assessment of the profession: librarianship is more about the mindset than the credential. What sets librarians apart is our desire to be where we are, to be generalists. I’ve always thought that one becomes a librarian because of a love of knowledge, as well as the desire to organize it, describe it, and make it available.*** Librarians are not the sum of three or four letters on our business cards. We are teachers, we are researchers, we are writers, we are content specialists, we are coders, we are organizers.

Reflection and conversation about a profession are important, but as long as the conversation remains in the librarian echo chamber, it won’t do us much good. What is most vital to the future of libraries? Advocacy. Advocacy for ourselves, and the skills we bring no matter where we are employed. Advocacy for the existence of libraries, and for librarians to remain within them and within the larger community. Advocacy for change when it is needed, and tradition when it is not.

We must speak up, speak out, and speak now.

*I am currently ruminating about a future post about blaming the school for perceived deficiencies in the graduate.

**I realize that my metaphor is not perfect. In fact, where I am least happy with it is in the fact that not all librarians need the same skill set. A children’s librarian definitely does not need the exact same skill set as a metadata librarian, nor an information literacy instructor the same skills as a library director. To comprehend the differences in librarianship, I use a different metaphor: that of teachers. All kinds of teachers are necessary, and work to achieve the same goal. Though their backgrounds, level of education and areas of expertise may be vastly different, the kindergarten teacher, the middle school science teacher, the high school history teacher, and the college philosophy professor all have the same goal: education and construction of knowledge. In much the same way, all librarians have the same goal: information organization, access and use. You may think I simplify too much. So be it.

***At least, that’s why I became one.

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