Librarian: Accept Yourself

I would like to propose that the current era in librarianship, which is normally characterized as a “period of rapid change,” is perhaps better described as a period of denial. It is a period in which librarians are scurrying to disassociate themselves from their own profession as it tends to be thought of, with a sense of desperate shame.

What am I talking about? I’ll exaggerate a bit to make my point. I’m talking about librarians who say,

We’re not about books! We’re about computers! Don’t associate us with books! We don’t want to be saddled with that! When people hear the word “library,” we want them to think words like “Future,” “Hi Tech,” “Information Age,” and “Shiny Gadget!” Fellow librarians, don’t even use the word Book! It’s a no-no! Bad word! Hurts! Pretend you don’t even know what one is!

They say,

We’re not about intellect and studying or anything dull! We’re about video games and dance dance revolution! We’re about being hip! We have a new image and we must thoroughly suppress the old image because nobody likes it! Nobody likes a Plain Jane! Nobody likes a bookworm! We want them to like us and that means that we have to shed the old image of dull boring studiousness! We must portray a new glitzy, fun, with-it image! “Intellect and Studying,” to the extent that we admit any association with it at all, should become for us like granny-glasses as a fashion accessory for a party girl – a cute referent only, not something that should ever be taken to really describe us!

They say,

Times have changed! Government programs are out, and private industry is in! We must privatize, and if we can’t privatize, we have to imitate the corporate guys, because they’re winners! We want to be winners too, not losers eating government cheese! Libraries are a business and we need to start acting like it! Bring in the corporate sponsors and kick out the bums who can’t pay! It’s a lean mean world and if we want to survive in it we’ve got to go toe to toe with the MBA’s. If you want the library to be for losers, then get outa town! We must suppress all this depression-era loser crap about the Public Good. Socialism is a thing of the past!

And, they are beginning to say,

I don’t want to hear the expression, “Bibliographic Control” ever again! People think we’re control freaks! They think we’ve all got OCD! We need to show them that we don’t need to control anything in our libraries at all! And we’ll prove it! Down with controlled vocabularies! Up with folksonomies! Down with scholarly authority! Up with cooperative, user-generated content! We’re so 2.0, we want to let the users control everything! Sure, it will become a little unclear what we’re here for after a while, but no role at all is better than being thought of as a control freak! “Control!” The word has such a shameful sound! Don’t say it! That is not us!!

Plainly, there’s some repression going on. Librarians are repressing elements of the core of librarianship as a result of a self-image problem. The “image problem” is not about “changing how they see us” so much as it’s about accepting ourselves as librarians. We shouldn’t be afraid of being about books. We shouldn’t be afraid of being about intellect. We shouldn’t be afraid of being publicly funded and for the public good. And, we shouldn’t be afraid of being about bringing information under control. Now, if the whole of society were about those things, there might be a problem. But those things have their place, and that place is the library. And that is the way it should be. It concerns me that in this era of “rapid change” librarians seem to have so little confidence in themselves as librarians, that we seem to want to be something else, seem embarrassed or ashamed to be what we are. We don’t need to change our image. We need to re-affirm our image. We might find that we’re more appreciated than we realize.

22 comments on “Librarian: Accept Yourself

  1. Wow. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places or maybe because I’m still in school; but for whatever the reason I haven’t heard ANY of those things… I haven’t even heard anything close to that (because I realize you said you’re exaggerating). Care to share some real life examples? For the sake of teaching those of us coming up in the ranks.

  2. I’m definitely exaggerating, but it’s hard to point to just a few examples, because I actually think that I’m talking about the majority of the library literature at the present moment.

    A heckler tried to post a message just now that said, “I’m a librarian, keeper of books,” as a way of saying that I’m taking a pre-modern view of librarianship. The modern era of librarianship, which began around 1876, put an end to the notion of the librarian as a keeper of books, and it does seem that we may be entering a new era; however, it seems to me more like the end of librarianship as defined by the ideals of the modern period than something that I could say really has strong ideals to it.

    Rather than point to examples of the kind of thing I’m making fun of, I’d rather point to some previous postings that make my point in a fuller way:

    Annotated list of things not to forget (in the 2.0 craze)

    A note on library “traditionalism”

    Three articles for thinking about tech

    Questioning the techie mission

  3. I am also in library school at the moment and I’ve heard all of these things. And, for what it’s worth, I agree with your assessment entirely.

  4. For the present state of affairs – we need to blame ourselves. An engineer or a doctor is sold by the time he completes his/ her course – whereas Librarians are not – there is no requirement, as I have understood. Librarian and books are becoming a word of past. People talk good about this only during a Seminar pertaining to Library or Information Service. We need to market ourself – the Library schools need to equip to deliver better products; the teachers need to talk to industries and make them aware of the importance of the profession; the students need to take up the subject seriously ….

  5. Excellent post. I also agree with the sentiment and critique. I would only add that these fads are nothing new. If you look at the library lit, there has always been this impulse to model ourselves after businesses or to embrace the latest, shallow management theory. Because of the information technology revolution, Web 2.0 is here to stay. But the real question is how do we shape it to serve the social good of libraries? Information literacy, I think, is a good example of grappling with Web 2.0 issues in a serious and critical way.

  6. I was not impressed by that. I thought the comparison to Wittgenstein was just silly, and other than that what he had to say was rather banal and obvious.

  7. What is often ignored or glossed over is the psychological impact rapid technological change has on our patrons and on us. We are constantly bombarded with the idea of keeping up, it seems, for the sake of keeping up. We push new technologies at all costs and have no idea if most of them are even useful for our patrons. In the meantime, underfunded library staff feel like second-class citizens when they become involved in professional organizations and sometimes are snubbed by those on the cutting edge. In a seemingly self-serving manner, we blog about our innovation with the hubris of “look what I can do”. Meanwhile, our communication skills are eroding and our transactions are becoming increasingly devoid of the human element. Plus, the overarching technostress doesn’t make us the most pleasant people to be around and human contact becomes secondary to advancement agendas.

  8. Alina,

    I think what you say is valid, but I also think there’s hope. While I think you’re describing many people accurately in part, I think it’s only true of us part of the time, and that many librarians are doing a good job of preserving our human qualities.


  9. It seems that comments like this are often reactions to librarians and others resistant to change. I’ll agree that they’re going to far with it but I could imagine the frustration felt from a peer group that were unwilling to hear new ideas or accept the reality that change is occurring.

  10. Trying to make it about “resistance to change” is just a way of obscuring things in the interest of the group in power. It’s resistance to power, not resistance to change. I want change too, just perhaps not your change. Trying to make it about “resistance to change” is also a handy way of dismissing and disregarding specific criticisms, a way of avoiding debate. I answer that you are “resisting debate.”

  11. Any thing to really change it has to be worse to this level. Lets hope the NextGen Librarians do not live with such feelings.

  12. I’ve heard all these conceptual ideas being brought up, and heavily encouraged, and sometimes blindly jumped into. . . . and I’m not even a librarian, I just work at the Circ. desk. Anyways, I understand your point, the library is a pillar of the community, and needs to be a place not driven by corporate fads and practices. The only problem I see is, user needs are rapidly changing (the tech era) and if the library can’t meet their needs they become obsolete. I think the key is identifying what your users needs actually are, not what you think they are, or what you want them to be, and finding the best way to provide those services. I think balance, common sense, and quality in this light will lead to a great library for it’s community. Sometimes not changing is changing.

  13. Brian, that way of looking at it is overly simple and makes a lot of assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. The needs of some users are changing and the needs of other uses are not, and the needs of still other users are changing in different ways. The idea that “changing user needs are leading us to 2.0” doesn’t really have much evidence to support it. What’s sold as changing user needs are really changes coming down from the top that have more to do with political economy. Think about it. How much evidence to you have that the picture being painted for you is the truth?

    I think it’s very important to realize, also, that society doesn’t so much evolve on its own as it is changed by the actions of people who have the power to make policy decisions. I think that as librarians we should think about our role at that level, not merely restricted to a limited role within the library walls, where we are simply acted on by changes from the outside. We should comment on changes and their causes, and we should be critical. It is a matter of being citizens rather than subjects.

    We shouldn’t take for granted that what we are told is true. And where we decide it is true, we shouldn’t assume that it couldn’t be otherwise if different decisions were made.

  14. LOVED this, Rory! You’re dead on with your assessment.

    Many librarians seem intent on throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as my grandmother would say. While there are some things we can – and possibly should – change, there are others that we should not. (I love books. There. I’ve said it.)

    I’ve often posited that this profession seems to be the only one that is continually wringing its hands over its image. You really don’t see accountants gathering to discuss whether people think they’re cool enough, or whether people take them seriously, or to discuss how they can battle the accountant stereotype. Librarians, on the other hand, whinge inordinately about all of this….and I would venture to say some of this 2.0 stuff is an attempt to battle that self-image. (See! I’m cool! I do DDR!)

  15. Seriously, I’ll try one last time.

    It’s misleading and self-serving for you to publish statements that I’m a heckler. I thought your post was insightful and funny, and tried to leave a humorous response. Sorry if you don’t make you laugh, but no one is heckling you. Reading takes effort, so why bother?

    It doesn’t matter what we think libraries do, or what libraries are for if we can’t get some other people to agree with us. The most prevalent idea about libraries I come into contact with every day is base and abstract – libraries are collections of books, and librarians are keepers of books. As you say, this is not the only idea people have.

    People cling to this idea, and react to it. Outside of libraries, a common reaction is to either blindly embrace or reject it. Citizens vote on bonds and levies without ever visiting the buildings.

    Inside of libraries, a common reaction is to blindly embrace something else. I choose to be a keeper of books, eyes wide open, as a starting place. It’s not the only choice, but it’s not some witty critique on the history of librarianship either.

  16. Sorry… Clearly I misunderstood you. I take it for granted that libraries are about service, unlike archives or private libraries before the public library movement, so I thought you were being sarcastic. Thanks for clarifying.

  17. I think it’s only true of us part of the time, and that many librarians are doing a good job of preserving our human qualities.

    Not too long ago, I was on the job market and noticed workplace cultures are on a continuum from too laid back to extreme bleeding edge. I eventually found my spot with many colleagues who have a more judicious approach to emerging technologies, but it wasn’t without enduring very condescending interviews about why my former places of employment haven’t kept up (my background is primarily in regional four-year and community colleges). It is all starting to feel like “keeping up with the Joneses” and I don’t like how this is creeping into librarianship.

    The idea that “changing user needs are leading us to 2.0? doesn’t really have much evidence to support it.

    Right on!

  18. I know you were exaggerating to make a point, but I do think it’s possible to embrace new technologies without giving up on the fundamental principles of librarianship. We can be about intellect and studying and control and also experiment with the internet.

    A simple example from the academic library where I work: In response to a perceived change in our users’ needs, we started offering reference services over IM. We didn’t close the reference desk, and we didn’t stop answering questions over the phone, we just added a new way to contact a librarian. We use the same reference interview techniques on chat that we use in face-to-face interactions or on the phone. Adding chat reference wasn’t about not being old-fashioned librarians; it was about being old-fashioned librarians in as many different places as possible.

    What’s more, we did a survey to see if we were right about the changing user needs, and we found out that some undergraduate and graduate students really love being able to IM a librarian. Others prefer to call, or come to the desk, or send an email. We still offer all those options.

    I agree with you that some tech-crazed librarians are renouncing everything old and good about librarianship, and that it’s shameful and counterproductive. But for some of us, embracing 2.0 really is about trying to offer the best possible services to our users.

  19. I agree with that, Molly. I’d have to describe myself in that way if I look at the way I actually do my job. However, I think I’m not addressing librarians like you and me who embrace technology without losing perspective. I am addressing what I see as missionary trend in library discourse that’s based in part on discomfort with librarianship itself.

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