Our niche and how to get back into it

More and more, I find that the library profession’s efforts to stay relevant in the age of information technology are in fact eroding our relevance. As a result of these efforts, it is becoming less and less clear what we offer that is different from what everybody else offers in the information economy. The reason is that our response to change around us has mostly been to repress those aspects of librarianship that are not directly reflected in new technological tools that other people claim as their domain more securely than we do. We keep saying that as librarians we are web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts, and on and on, when each of those things is already a profession filled with people who make a stronger claim to it than we do. What we can claim is librarianship, yet most people – not only outside but within the profession – have forgotten what that consists of other than “books.”

In ALA, accreditation standards for masters degree programs in library science still refer to areas of competency that can be taken to define the profession. Yet in nearly all other ways, ALA is attempting to sell libraries and librarians on the basis of skills that everybody knows other people offer more distinctly, and so, it seems, are most library bloggers and magazine commentators.

Despite the relative consistency in accreditation standards over time, it is presently a challenge to point to practicing librarians in order to demonstrate to people what it is that librarians do that others can’t do so well, simply because, and I hate to say it, most of us are not so exemplary. There has been intense pressure on librarians for decades to focus on technology at the expense of something that is now difficult even to remember, that being a set of intellectual components to what we do that concern our knowledge of what is IN our libraries (physical and digital) and a well-practiced insight regarding the connections to be made between that information and our users.

Consider the great and not-so-great librarians you have known. In my experience, the great ones are great (I am thinking about reference librarians here, just to be clear, because that is who I have worked with) because of a combination of an enthusiastic desire to help, good communication skills, insight, general knowledge (not to be underestimated in its importance), and a compound of skills at connecting the dots between the particularities of users, their needs, the clues, the relevant bits of knowledge in memory, the access points, the information structure, and the hermeneutics and heuristics of helping. A library school curriculum providing a mix of traditional librarianship and intellectually challenging multidisciplinary studies (instead of the busywork that is challenging mainly for the physical stamina it requires) can support these defining skills. (Even if there is no strong case to be made for the existence of a tested knowledge base that we can called “library science,” it is still necessary to support the work of librarians on the basis of relevant theory and research, and to teach it in master’s degree programs. Because of librarianship’s theoretical foundations, multidisciplinary though they may be, we are able to make a claim to professional status, and we are able to claim a degree of autonomy in institutions that allows us to do work that matters.)

Now, we all have good days and bad days, but how many of us know as much as we really should to be good at the “librarian” part of our jobs? I have a good idea of how I use my knowledge of our resources, and I know that I wish I knew more. I don’t wish I knew more about our search tools – those are designed to be easy to use for librarians and the public alike, and I don’t regard our ability to use them as anything special. Where I feel that greater knowledge would help me to be a better librarian is across the board – within my assigned subject areas, yes, but in all subjects, and particularly about things like scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies, and all of those fields that are connected to what we do. I think that improving my general knowledge and working to improve my insight into people are the most effective ways I can work to become a better librarian.

The place I return to for an idea of librarianship that is singular yet multidisciplinary, and humanistic yet technological, is Jesse Shera’s work in the field, specifically his text from the early 70s, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship. Shera had his greatest impact as an early developer of library automation systems in the 50s and 60s, but following that he worked to define librarianship per se in its new technological context. His view of librarianship was in part based on the idea that automation should give librarians time to focus our attention on the problems of communities and their information needs, and how to connect to them, freeing us from technical busywork. He lived long enough, however, to see the profession become machine-oriented and dedicated to refining these tools of efficiency. As he wrote in the decade before his death, “Librarians would do well to remember Moses or Pieta and think somewhat less frequently of Shannon and Weaver,” and “Librarians persist in sublimating librarianship to the lure of the machine.” (From “Librarianship and Information Science,” in The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages, ed. by Fritz Machlup and Una Mansfield. Published by Wiley, 1983.)

There is no Jesse Shera for our time, but I can echo Juris Dilevko’s call to “re-intellectualize the profession” (The Politics of Professionalism: A Retro-Progressive Proposal for Librarianship) and recommend Richard J. Cox’s thorough diagnosis of contemporary library education (The Demise of the Library School: Personal Reflections on Professional Education in the Modern Corporate University). I recognize that librarianship should be different from what it used to be, but I think it ought to be more than what it has recently become.

9 comments on “Our niche and how to get back into it

  1. Rory, a thousand yesses. Thank you for this insightful, honest post. I agree with you on all points. I, too, am concerned about our profession’s lack of intellectual rigor across disciplines. I see this as a downfall in librarians, themselves, being lifelong learners. We tout that that is what we promote for our patrons, but I often wonder, how many of us, really embrace that concept for ourselves as library users? We are not above and beyond the library – we are users of the library too. I sometimes notice colleagues forgetting that.

  2. Rory,

    Long time reader, first time responder. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I completely agree increased intellectual rigor can only help our profession. I’m not sure I understand, however, what you’re saying the profession is. I think you are right to say we shouldn’t focus on what others do better. But then you talk of being good at “reading behavior, learning theory, media studies.” These are their own fields as well, and we should be careful not to avoid claiming to be information architects only to accidentally claim we’re learning theorist.

  3. Scott,

    I think there is a distinction to be drawn here between theory and practice, that is, what we do as librarians and the theory we use to inform what we do. In the realm of theory, I think there never was a solid, tested knowledge base to call “library science.” There were techniques that could be taught and learned, as they were in Dewey’s library school at Columbia, and then in the 1930s when the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago started the first LIS grad program, the discipline became more academic. But from that point forward the discipline, as an academic discipline, has been multidisciplinary, in the sense that it has been about applying methods from the social sciences and other fields to the practice of librarianship. The academic discipline has always been multidisciplinary, and has informed the practice of a profession that has had its own basis going back farther and living independently in its institutions. Practitioners who reject “theory” have traditions of practice and technique and knowledge passed down from mentor to mentee. That is an issue for me, but not as much of an issue as librarians who reject the traditional knowledge of their own profession (which, I think, does have some codified existence in LIS literature, in a mono-disciplinary way) in favor of KM or web design “as” “what librarians do.”

  4. the strange librarian is making a similar point here:

    the future of the library

    The point I make in a comment, and this is approaching the issue from a public library angle:

    “administrators are seeing libraries as nothing more than a warehouse for books that can be dealt out by volunteers. I think there is an element of librarians having brought this upon themselves through traditionally being bookworms and Dewey heads, and not seeing themselves as having a critical role for their community (society, etc.)”

    Gareth Osler

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