Annotated list of things not to forget (in the 2.0 craze)…
I’ve been brainstorming about some essential facets of librarianship – skills, roles, services, problems – that while they have not lost any relevance have lately been ignored, passed over, forgotten, swept under the rug, or declared obsolete and old-fashioned by the vocal minority of librarians whose main concern now seems to be to create a new librarianship that is not saddled with the old baggage. I will say, editorially, that I think much of the energy behind Library 2.0 springs from insecurity about the usefulness of what we do as librarians and insecurity about the seriousness of the knowledge base that it involves (a problem that may derive in part from a decline in standards in library education).
The specific catalyst for the following list was a survey that Chrystie Hill and Meredith Farkas sent to fellow Library Journal Mover & Shaker award winners the other day (I was one of the original Movers and Shakers from 2002). Their survey was all about innovation, and presumed that everyone who has received the Mover and Shaker award, which to my understanding is for leadership, received it because of being an innovator. I consider myself mildly an innovator at work; I see it as part of my job. That’s not what Library Journal recognized me for, but at this point people can make the assumption that an award for leadership is naturally an award for innovation without running into much that prompts them to rethink. These days, when reading the library literature or a conference program it’s hard to find much that is not about the Library 2.0 idea. It seems to me that many librarians have forgotten that there is something worthwhile in what we do already, and that “Library 2.0” is an update rather than something completely new. Lots of people would not want to hear this, but I think many librarians should have more respect for librarianship as a profession and don’t know as much about what they are doing as they should. If there were a little bit more about librarianship per-se in our professional discourse it would be harder to dismiss our own profession in favor of a mode of information (access, organization, use, and conceptualization) that others have invented.
So here is my annotated list of things not to forget:
- The importance of considering what we have to offer that web designers, programmers, and machines cannot offer.
Much Library 2.0 thinking seems to be about ways of replacing our services and expertise with methods of intermediation developed by web programmers and computer scientists. In a manner somewhat suggestive of the Stockholm Syndrome, we have adopted an outside point of view that lacks an understanding of what librarians have to offer that is unique. Responding to change should not be about how to replace ourselves using methods that others already understand better than we do, but about discovering how we fit into a reshaped environment based on what we have to offer that is special, what we have to offer that web designers (for example) do not.
- That our profession has a knowledge-base that is not replaceable by user-centered tools, as useful as those often may be.
How many recent library school graduates are able to outline the dimensions of the domain of Library Science and sketch out its knowledge-base? How many of us know what constitutes Library Science? Cataloging, arguably the foundation of librarianship, was not even a required course when I was in library school. Not many librarians, especially newer librarians, have studied it at an advanced level. It is attractive, when we lack the actual expertise that would justify us in calling ourselves experts, to defer to users’ immediate tastes and casual, recreational tagging in place of doing the challenging work of collection development based on an analysis of readers’ needs and cataloging based on robust standards as part of a system that functions to serve a wide range of uses. A user-centered philosophy can function as a convenient excuse for doing less librarianship and doing it with less expertise.
- That we have an educational role that involves helping users to make judgments and understand their search results.
It is a cop-out to leave it up to users to interpret search results and evaluate content when our expertise puts us in a position to help them do it much better than they would otherwise. Yet in the name of user-centeredness we are re-envisioning ourselves out of this role, with the result being that users get worse and less-relevant information more conveniently. Perhaps the reason that so many librarians are sqeamish about fulfilling the educational part of our role is simply a lack of confidence in the fact that we have something to teach, that libraries and librarians function in an educational role in a number of ways. The gradually diminishing role for libraries and librarians in society has a complex nexus of causes, but our diminishing confidence in our own expertise as librarians (as opposed to as web designers) is a part of it.
- We do a better job the more knowledge we have of content and subject matter.
Knowledge of content is one of the keys to good reference work and good collection development and bibliography. Consider your best moments of sleuthing out an answer for someone in a reference context. Your brilliant deductions involved creativity and an understanding of the principles of reference, but they also involved knowledge. We need knowledge of content and subject matter not so that we can rattle off answers to questions without checking sources, but to enable us to make those connections that lead us to the right source, those leaps in thought that open up new avenues to finding the answer. Similarly, it requires knowledge of subjects to do good collection development, in order to evaluate materials properly and understand what is needed in the collection as a whole. This type of knowledge, whether we are talking about knowledge of reference sources or of disciplines or general knowledge, is a part of librarianship that requires time and effort to build and to keep sharp. The time librarians spend getting the most out of Facebook (to use just one example of a Web 2.0 tool that we use heavily but is more entertaining than actually useful) is time that would be better spent deepening the general knowledge that undergirds our work.
- The value of libraries’ fiercely non-commercial nature.
In an age when ads are pervasive and invasive, libraries, along with religious buildings and some other places, are among the few public places where you don’t find them. This is important for more reasons just than the peace of mind that their absence provides. Along with ads comes commercial bias, which distorts information and compromises objectivity systemically, and therefore represents a problem in terms of intellectual freedom. The rejection of commercial influence is an aspect of libraries that has remained strong through an era when other institutions seem to have forgotten its importance. Yet many librarians, if asked, would have trouble explaining why, and often advocate the incorporation of Web 2.0 services offered by private companies whose nature is entirely commercial. These services are not free from commercial bias, not subject to the accountability of more public entities (such as libraries themselves), and not under our control.
- The political economy of information.
Through the decades during which consolidation of ownership has been the rule in the media and publishing industries, library discourse has given attention to the distorting role of shareholder demands for higher profits in what is published, marketed, and ultimately made available to library users. It is important for librarians who make collection development decisions to understand market effects on the information cycle and to know how to compensate for them. This line of research and discussion has almost entirely been buried in the craze over Library 2.0, the push for minimalist cataloging, and the like. It is facile to say that “the internet has made everybody a producer; therefore this problem is a thing of the past.” In fact, the power of big media is bigger than ever, on the internet and off. Librarians need to know how to compensate for it.
- The digital divide, the literacy divide, and other divides.
Provision of access is only given halfway if effective efforts are not made to deal with issues of literacy and other barriers to access for people whose life situations differ drastically from those of the professional class who run libraries. When librarians conceive of library services in terms of a user base made of people mostly like themselves, they are missing whole communities of potential library users whose information needs are no less important. Library 2.0 discussions tend to assume a library user base with an even narrower set of literacy skills and an even narrower range of lifestyles, focused, as it is, on younger internet enthusiasts.
- How “factual information” that we provide in a neutral manner can have ideological content embedded into to it.
The digital shift seems to have worsened the average librarian’s unreflective positivist assumptions about factual information, as the internet has become a quick source of facts-on-demand whose facts show an increasing variety in terms of point-of-view. Librarians preach the importance of evaluating the reliability of factual information found on the internet, but as the internet becomes ever more convenient a source for these facts we tend to forget the important 20th century lessons about ideology and language. Point-of-view can be as important a factor as accuracy in evaluating (and providing advice about) factual information. This interesting issue had seen the beginnings of a discussion in places like Library Quarterly and Progressive Librarian, but this discussion is a good example of an aspect of library discourse that has been unfortunately drowned out by the Library 2.0 craze.
- That we should think about our profession in terms of our function and potential function in society. (What is our role in making the world a better place?)
Library 2.0 proponents have a lot to say about what we should do differently, but far less to say about why we should do it. At times, when someone’s vision of a not-too-far-in-the-future library service begins to sound like an iTunes store for the e-book reader, committed librarians begin to wonder, “What would be the point?” Somewhere in the discussion about Library 2.0, cognizance of the relevance and potential relevance of libraries, their function as a part of society and surviving example of the public sphere, has gotten lost. When the aim is lost sight of, talk about planning is meaningless. How, specifically, will a proposed Library 2.0 service serve the greater good? Or is it attractive simply because it is fun for you?
- That the way a thing is sold does not necessarily speak to the real reason it is being sold.
This is an abstract way of hinting at the uncomfortable fact that some “improvements” and “innovations” really exist only to save money on staffing, by deprofessionalizing our work. As an employed librarian, you may feel pressure to tow the line of management and help pull in this direction, because you know where your own next meal is coming from. But if you think about it, the security you win by going that route is rather temporary. The status of the profession as a whole and the ability of its practitioners to control their own collective destiny is much more important, and worth a little risk.
- That many things that we and our users need are not fun or easy.
There is a reason that many people disdain a discussion that treats toys like Flickr and Facebook as serious professional tools, and that is that such discussions tend to want to treat the fun factor as the beckoning call of the future itself. “If it is not light and fun and quick, it is alienating to our users,” this logic says. It is, however, an irreducible fact that real problems require good research, and good research cannot be made light and fun and quick without a very significant sacrifice in quality. The Library 2.0 message often tells us otherwise, showing the seduction of that discourse by anti-intellectualism and simple laziness. (To justify this by asserting that this is simply the state of mind of most of our users may in fact be unfair to the majority.)
This is just a partial list. Lots of things are being forgotten in library discourse these days. I look forward to Library 2.0 being old hat enough that room can be made to reincorporate discussion of these important aspects of our profession.