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.

The perpetual topic, or, #edchat for the ages

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I […] believe that the technology so commonplace to our homes belongs in our classrooms as well.”¹

“Even at this late stage of their development, classroom computers are still often seen only as boxes to run fixed applications, rather than as vehicles with which we  can extend and expand our thinking.”²

“The great majority of today’s educators have little interest in classroom computing. An unfortunate consequence of this disinterest is that these teachers, many of whom are tremendously effective, are assuming that the quality of their instruction can’t benefit from exposure to new technology. We need to examine the role of technology as a tool that can help us teach the whole child.”³

“As I look at the challenges facing education today, it seems to me that we need more hackers – not just computer hackers, of course, but hackers in all areas of knowledge.”4

In going through all the unprocessed materials in the Curriculum Library, I’ve found a few interesting items. One provide the above quotes. Outside of a few dated expressions – “classroom computing” rather than “mobile technologies” or “social networking,” for example – I think it would be easy to find someone writing, blogging or tweeting these exact sentiments today. In fact, someone may have expressed these exact sentiments today on #edchat, where the discussion is on how to incorporate social media into the classrooms, and get more teachers and administrators to buy in to its use.

This is not surprising – until you realize that the book (Education, Technology, and Paradigms of Change for the 21st Century, by David Thornburg) was published in 1989. Over 20 years later, and we are still having the same arguments. The more I read, the more I weed (the collection, that is!), the more I realize that this is true pretty much everywhere:

This reminds me of a question I was asked while participating in a panel about technology in librarianship at the Unpacking the Library conference in Iowa City. The question was whether we were worried about the future – won’t social media, texting, etc. desensitize our children, and make it hard for them to interact face-to-face?

My short answer? No. I am not scared. I am not worried.

Why? Because every generation thinks that some new technology is going to “harm” the children, is going to change the way society functions. Radio? Movies? Television? Video games? Even books? All causes of concern at some point. None (at least so far), has incapacitated an entire generation.

Change is good. Sure, there will be missteps along the way. There may even be instances that one can point to and say “SEE! I told you that thinking has gotten more shallow!” But we are doing ourselves and everyone else that will come after us an unbelievable disservice to ignore change because of such anecdotal evidence. We need to do better by our students. To paraphrase a student post about her knowledge of the internet, we must adapt to change, because it affects us, whether we realize it or not.

And it definitely affects students. As educators (and yes, librarians are educators, too), we must be able to teach and model use, answer questions, and promote reflection about technology and change.

1. Pg. 8
2. Pg. 13
3. Pg. 16-17
4. Pg. 89


April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Shared by Jennifer Dorman

An “online/offline mystery game” for middle schoolers, spanning 8 weeks, and teaching the scientific method and “problem solving through science.”

Visit the About page to learn more. About | Vanished

No museum needed, but scroll down on the About page for a list of participating museums, including the Putnam Museum in Davenport!


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