January 21, 2016
Where are all the Librarians of Color?
The Experiences of People of Color in Academia
Editors: Rebecca Hankins and Miguel Juárez
Published: January 2016
Printed on acid-free paper
Now available from Amazon.com
This edited volume addresses the shared experiences of academic librarians of color, i.e. Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans. These experiences are very similar and offer a narrative that explains the lack of librarians of color in academia, especially those librarians that have experienced the daunting academic tenure process.
This monograph offers a comprehensive look at the experiences of people of color after the recruitment is over, the diversity box is checked, and the statistics are reported. What are the retention, job satisfaction, and tenure experiences of librarians of color? The authors look at the history of librarians of color in academia, review of the literature, obstacles, roles, leadership, and the tenure process for those that endure. What are the recruitment and retention methods employed to create a diverse workforce, successes and failures? Finally what are some mentoring strategies that work to make the library environment less exploitative and toxic for librarians of color?
Rebecca Hankins is an Associate Professor and a certified archivist/librarian. She has been at Texas A&M University since 2003. Her previous employment included 12 years as senior archivist at The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, the premier research repository on Africana historical documentation. Her expertise includes building collections and scholarly resources for the study of the African Diaspora, Race & Ethnic Studies, and Arabic Language and Culture.
Miguel Juárez is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso with over 14 years of academic library experience. He has worked at the State University at Buffalo Libraries, the University of Arizona Libraries, as an Assistant Professor of Library Science at Texas A&M University Libraries, as Head Librarian/Associate Librarian at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA and most recently as an Associate Archivist/Librarian at the University of North Texas. Miguel has been a member of the ALA Diversity Committee and served as inaugural chair of the ALA Diversity Grant. His expertise includes building Latin@ studies collections and Chican@ archival collections.
December 17, 2015
The American Association of Law Libraries is in the midst of a “rebranding” project, and its executive board has just proposed renaming the association the “Association for Legal Information.” As we saw with the attempted SLA renaming some years ago, this proposal is garnering some opposition. Fred Shapiro sent the following statement to the Law Librarians’ discussion list earlier today, and it gets to the heart of the issues…
WHY I DISAGREE WITH THE PROPOSED AALL RENAMING
Fred Shapiro, Associate Librarian for Collections and Access, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, Proud member of AALL since 1982
As someone who is recognized as the leading student of words among law librarians, I would like to summarize some of my objections to the proposed AALL name change.
Librarianship is a great profession with very important values that are being lost in the contemporary world. These values include service to patrons; the organization of information; the curation of information; and the preservation of information. Changing the name of the profession, or of its organizations, inevitably will further the decline of those librarians’ values.
One of my colleagues, although much younger and less steeped in the traditions of the past than I am, emailed me that “The organization should be shifting its efforts toward educating users what ‘librarian’ and ‘library’ mean today. … We should be proud of what it means to be a librarian and focusing, instead, on reminding the legal community of the value of the services we provide.” The same money that went to a consulting firm to come up with ‘Association for Legal Information’ could have been spent toward such educational initiatives.
The names “library” and “librarian,” although considered old-fashioned by many, also have strong positive connotations. There is no doubt, for example, that librarians have a much more positive image than, say, lawyers or bankers or politicians or journalists, and on many attributes librarians get a lot of respect and confidence.
The name “Association for Legal Information” is extremely vague and many hearing it will have no idea what it means. We would be replacing a well-established name with many positive connotations with a vague name of uncertain connotations.
The name “Association for Legal Information” does not at all suggest what the practitioners involved should be called — “legal informationists”? “legal information specialists”? “legal information professionals”? Note that all of those possibilities are too wordy.
If one of the members of the new association goes to their managing partner and tells them “I’m not one of those old-fashioned librarians, I am a legal information professional!”, the managing partner may say, “Don’t I already have an IT department? Why do I need you?” The word “information” is already taken by other professions.
The abbreviation “ALI” is already taken by a well-known legal organization.
One of the reasons I love librarianship is that it is a variegated profession that encompasses many functions and aspects. In addition to the important managerial and technological roles, librarians play social roles, intellectual roles, cultural roles, psychological roles, etc. I believe that AALL is focusing almost exclusively on the managerial and technological roles (take a look at any recent issue of AALL Spectrum) and neglecting the rich tapestry of other roles that librarians play. The name change will further this unfortunate narrowness.
I understand that law firm librarians have felt that AALL was directed more at academic librarians than at them. This may have been true in the past, but nowadays AALL programming and the AALL Spectrum newsletter seem to be aimed more at firm librarians than at academics. The name change may be motivated largely by concern that firm librarians will leave AALL. This is a valid concern, but why should academic librarians, who I assume comprise much of the association, have to live with a new name that most of them probably will dislike? Perhaps the greater concern should be that academics will leave AALL. Some prominent academic law librarians have already gone so far as to suggest that, if the current organization takes the name Association for Legal Information, then academics and other like-minded members could keep the AALL name and create a smaller, more nimble, less expensive organization, for those who share an interest in maintaining the librarian identification.
I believe that the library as a place is likely to undergo great transformations in the future – certainly, in the law firm setting, this is already happening. But the core values of librarianship should endure. A name change from “American Association of Law Libraries” to “American Association of Law Librarians” would be fine with me. The profession has always really not been about places or technologies, but rather about people.
October 28, 2015
The Psychology of Librarianship
Editors: Lynn Gullickson Spencer, Leanne VandeCreek, and H. Stephen Wright
Published: November 2015
Printed on acid-free paper
Available for pre-order now on Amazon…
The Psychology of Librarianship is a collection of scholarly essays on the role of psychology in libraries and library work. It is the first book-length, in-depth study of the psychological implications and underpinnings of the library profession. Although there have been occasional articles about the psychological dimensions of library work, there has never been a book that attempts a broader and more comprehensive examination of this topic.
Psychology is a factor in virtually every aspect of librarianship. Beyond the expected psychological issues inherent in any organization, there are psychological dimensions that are unique to library work. The Psychology of Librarianship addresses both of these: how traditional organizational psychology applies to librarianship, and how library work involves unique psychological situations. The thirteen essays examine topics such as the role of social psychology in information literacy, the problems of stereotypes within the library profession, addictions and the library, and technology anxiety. The Psychology of Librarianship focuses attention on this heretofore neglected aspect of libraries, and provides signposts for future research.
Lynn Gullickson Spencer is a music cataloger at North Park College and a cataloger at Wilmette Public Library; she is also a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at LifeCare Counseling & Wellness in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She was formerly Head of Technical Services at Wheaton College; she holds an M.L.S. from Indiana University, an M.M. in Music History and Literature from Northwestern University, and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Wheaton College.
Leanne VandeCreek has been the Psychology Reference Librarian at Northern Illinois University since 2000. Prior to receiving her M.S.L.I.S., she earned an M.S.W. and was a practicing Clinical Social Worker for 6 years.
H. Stephen Wright is an Emeritus Professor at Northern Illinois University (retired 2012), formerly Catalog Librarian at NIU. He previously held the positions of Associate Dean for Public Services, Head of Branch Libraries, and Music Librarian. His previous publications include A Research Guide to Film and Television Music in the United States, with Jeannie Gayle Pool (Scarecrow, 2011) and Film Music at the Piano (Scarecrow, 2003).
May 2, 2015
The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach
Author: Stephen Bales
Published: May 2015
Printed on acid-free paper
Publisher: Library Juice Press
Available on Amazon
Oftentimes, academic librarians are not fully conscious of the role that their libraries play in late-capitalist society or how they, as information professionals, help to perpetuate this role. Adopting a dialectical materialist perspective, Stephen Bales investigates the modern academic library as an institution and academic librarianship as a profession. The author examines the academic library’s position as a culturally and historically situated producer and curator of knowledge and its instrumental role in driving social reproduction and the status quo. The book then considers the effect of academic librarians in bolstering dominant ideologies and argues instead for a transformative, engaged librarianship that recognizes and implements the academic library as a locus for positive social change. To these ends, the book serves as a tool for deepening the theoretical consciousness of practicing academic librarians and as a point of entry for praxis.
Stephen Bales is a Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at Texas A&M University Libraries.
December 20, 2014
There is a new open statement circulating, written by UCLA Information Studies faculty, led by Safiya Noble. Written in response to the events in Ferguson and the crisis that it has opened up, it expresses the political orientation of members of the LIS field. It is titled, “Statement from Information Studies Academics and Professionals on Documentary Evidence and Social Justice,” and it is the first item on the new #critinfo blog. Here’s the blog’s self-description:
This blog was inspired by working on a statement that “Black Lives Matter” to the LIS community by a majority of the faculty at the UCLA Department of Information Studies. Because there is a lack of clarity about whether UCLA resources can be used to promote such a statement, we are posting our statement here, and asking our colleagues to link to us and promote more signatures and affirmation about the importance of social justice to the LIS community.
We invite other statements to be sent to this site, which is currently maintained by Safiya Noble in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. For more information: contact criticalinfostudies (at) gmail *dot* com
December 8, 2014
More “right-sizing” bullshit.
Barnard faculty frustrated by plans to remove 40,000 books from library
Barnard’s faculty and staff claim they were shut out of the decision-making process for the new library, which faculty say also led to the resignation of the Dean of Barnard Library and Information Services Lisa Norberg.
Administrators outlined the plan for the new Teaching and Learning Center, which includes removing 40,000 books from Barnard’s on-site collections and moving research librarians to cubicles rather than offices, at a Dec. 2 faculty meeting, according to faculty and library staff present at the meeting.
November 21, 2014
This is pretty exciting. In the Library with the Lead Pipe, the library practice journal that started as a blog, is announcing their creation of a non-profit for developing library projects and librarians’ professional development. It is called Library Pipeline. They write:
In Brief: We’re creating a nonprofit, Library Pipeline, that will operate independently from In the Library with the Lead Pipe, but will have similar and complementary aims: increasing and diversifying professional development; improving strategies and collaboration; fostering more innovation and start-ups, and encouraging LIS-related publishing and publications. In the Library with the Lead Pipe is a platform for ideas; Library Pipeline is a platform for projects.
August 9, 2013
There is a Facebook group that will serve as the start of a network for librarians with philosophy backgrounds. It is called Philosopher Librarians. Join if this description works for you:
Welcome, librarians who have degrees in philosophy, whether they be undergraduate degrees, masters degrees, or phds. We’re here because of what we have in common, and perhaps also to plan an event. Interested in the philosophy of libraries? The philosophy of information? Collection development for philosophy departments? Quirky things that only philosopher-librarians say? We’re a different breed; here is the place where we can speak our language. The group is also open to people who just know they belong here.
I am hoping that we will build enough of a network to have a luncheon at ALA, perhaps with a speaker and the announcement of an award winner.
May 23, 2013
Jesse Shera, Librarianship, and Information Science
Jesse Hauk Shera did perhaps more than any other figure in defining library and information science in the mid 20th century. He pioneered the application of information technology in libraries and in the field of documentation, as head of the American Documentation Institute (now ASIST), as a professor at the Graduate Library School in Chicago, and as head of the library school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Western Reserve, Shera founded the Center for Documentation and Communication Research. But despite his efforts in introducing information technology to the field of libraries, Shera was a humanist and a historian who emphasized the human side of librarianship and the sociological nature of the profession, especially in his advancing years. His theory of social epistempology provided a philosophy for librarianship as a professional calling and as a research-oriented discipline, where deep subject knowledge and an understanding of the needs of readers are more important than technological tools.
H. Curtis Wright’s study, originally published in 1988 by Brigham Young University’s School of Information Sciences, is the only book-length biography of Shera that has been written. The focus of Wright’s biography is Shera’s role in defining and negotiating the boundaries of library science and information science, as he sought to make the most intelligent use of technology in libraries without getting lost in the capacities of the astounding tools that were being developed. Wright succeeds in showing how over a long career, Shera developed an intellectual foundation for librarianship that was dependent neither or the new ideas of information science and its technologies nor on traditional methods. This book is a superb introduction to Jesse Shera’s life and career and its meaning. Includes a foreword by Kathryn La Barre and an index by Victoria Jacobs.
This book is available from Amazon or your favorite vendor to libraries.
April 3, 2013
In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an interesting editorial this morning titled, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy,” though editorial may not be exactly the right word for it, because mostly it is a call for discussion of the ideas it presents. Library Juice Press is mentioned as an example of a DIY project, and so as you might guess I have some comments.
Lead Pipe editors Emily Ford and Micah Vandergrift both refer to the history of DIY, Emily stating that it is (in a way) what academic librarians have been doing all along, and Micah calling on the specific meaning of DIY in punk culture as a standard we should be keeping in mind. I would like to talk about it in terms of something that happened in the 60s and 70s that was called the “new careers movement,” and what sociologists of the professions at the time were calling “the revolt of the client,” because it was an important DIY moment that relates to this one. I am drawing these comments largely from a couple of papers written by sociologist Marie Haug: her 1969 paper with Marvin Sussman titled, “Professional Autonomy and the Revolt of the Client,” in Social Problems 17.2, and her 1975 paper titled, “The Deprofessionalization of Everyone?,” in Sociological Focus 8.3, which was a response to an influential paper by Harold Wilensky in 1964 titled, “The Professionalization of Everyone?”
Marie Haug developed a concept of deprofessionalization in response to the idea first proposed by Daniel Bell (famous for the term “the information society”), that the rapid proliferation of knowledge and technology would give more power to professionals and would also increase the share of knowledge-work as part of the economy, as machines would gradually take over all of the less-skilled work. Haug thought about this idea in terms of something that had begun happening in the late sixties, which sociologists termed “the revolt of the client.” What this referred to was the way “the person on the street” had started to feel alienated by the authority of professionals of whom they were clients, started to see them as “The Man” and started demanding the right to take care of needs that the professions had a monopoly over fulfilling, at the street level. Simultaneous to this revolt against the authority of the professions were some other social changes that had begun to enable non-professionals to perform some of these roles. Haug focuses on the medical profession, but we can see how the same changes gave power to people working in paraprofessional or non-professional roles in various institutions or outside of institutions completely. Haug observed that the professions’ monopoly on knowledge was being eroded by the general increased level of schooling, and also by the rise of computers, since data-driven software allowed for professional knowledge to be codified for access by non-professionals (essentially what happened later with desktop publishing software). So Haug argued that contrary to the main stream of the sociology of the professions at the time, these factors would lead to a loss of autonomy for professionals, who had previously enjoyed a strong monopoly on the knowledge on which their practice was based. In medicine specifically, the “new careers movement” was the beginning of the trend of giving nurses and nurse practitioners more of the privileges of MD’s in terms of basic medical practice. There was a gender element to the new careers movement and the revolt of the client in addition to a class element. So, I think that moment is important to think about in the context of DIY, because it links what are now a couple of separate meanings that DIY may have – the punk idea that Micah Vandergrift evokes in order to talk about the political reasons behind DIY, and on the other hand the power that desktop software gives people to do a lot of things pretty well that formerly required a professional (like desktop publishing). At the time of the “new careers movement,” the social trend toward deprofessionalization that Haug saw just beginning was motivated at one level by the desire for a sort of revolution in a political sense, and was enabled at another level by mass education and computerization.
While the rise of the new careers movement and the erosion of the professions’ monopoly on knowledge might seem simply like something to celebrate, Haug was concerned that it would lead to an increase of power for the bureaucrats who worked in professional institutions, resulting in less autonomy for professionals. This does seem to have happened and seems still to be happening (and in an ironic way may be part of the impetus for DIY practice among professionals now). At the same time, she acknowledged that people did become empowered outside of the professions in meeting needs formerly in the total purview of the professions. There is a certain way, however, I think, in which changes that enable DIY and sub-institutional work can redistribute and veil professional control as much as they can undo it. The reason for this is way software that makes use of professional knowledge in a codified form has decisions embedded into it, so that what for the professional may be questions of judgment to apply in various different contexts become software limitations of which users may not be aware, not having the background of a professional who can articulate the questions that the software has already answered for the user. Software that empowers us also makes decisions for us, decisions that are by nature outside of our focus as we are using it. (This is part of the argument for open source software.)
As librarians, we occupy an ambiguous position in the space defined by these changes. We claim an area of professional expertise but do not claim a monopoly over it; in fact, our professional ideology goes against the monopoly of knowledge on which professions are traditionally based. Our self-defined role is to empower people with knowledge, yet we try to protect our status as a profession as having a unique ability to do it. We also occupy an ambiguous position as designers of systems at the same time we are users of systems in which professional knowledge is embedded that we don’t necessarily have access to (think about the opacity of function of next-generation discovery tools). This may mean, in Haug’s terms, that we function both as professionals, with authority over a knowledge domain and a need to protect our autonomy from encroachment by the bureaucracies of our institutions, and as allies of clients who want solutions outside of the professions, in pursuit of an opening-up of professional privileges (though copyright battles, through access to medical and legal knowledge that we can share, etc.). In light of this, I think DIY work can accomplish a number of goals. First, it can enable us to do things that our bureaucracies have made difficult for us to do, despite the fact that we are ostensibly the professionals in our organizations. Second, it can demonstrate for our users that we are their allies who work in the same “DIY consumer space,” meaning that we understand the limitations they confront or feel that they confront. Third, DIY tools that are sold to consumers can afford us the benefits of professional knowledge outside our own fields without the cost of high-level business-to-business deployment, which we can’t control as individuals anyway.
I think there is also a dark side to observe, as well as a danger in attempting to understand DIY entirely through a historical lens, and that is that the kind of DIY affordances we are talking about are a part of a major economic shift that has taken place over the last half-century, away from Fordist production toward more software-driven, small-scale, customizable production and the different economic relations (and subjectivities) that Post-Fordism entails. There is a lot written about these changes in the field of political economy, but I would like to mention one article that relates to DIY specifically: Yiannis Mylonas’ article in Triple C, titled, “Amateur Creation and Entrepreneurialism: A Critical Study of Artistic Production in Post-Fordist Structures.” (Full disclosure: Mylonas has a chapter in the upcoming Litwin Books title, Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, edited by Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis.) Mylonas suggests that the DIY orientation is a part of the transformation of everybody into an entrepreneur, i.e. the spread of neoliberal subjectivity. So, I am careful about getting behind it as a “cause,” though I like to take part. Furthermore, I can admit to having the ambition to bridge the gap between DIY voice and institutional voice, and to cross that bridge, as entrepreneurs generally do.
– Rory Litwin was an academic librarian prior to working full time as a small press academic publisher and continuing education provider with Litwin Books, Library Juice Press and Library Juice Academy.
January 14, 2013
AAUP has just released its new Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians, a new version of a similar statement drafted in 1973 and reaffirmed a couple of times since then. What I’d like to point out is that the new statement backpedals significantly on what it actually says about faculty status. The earlier statement said that AAUP considers academic librarians as faculty across the board, irrespective of how they are considered by their institutions, while the new statement says that faculty status of academic employees should depend upon the librarian’s function in teaching, research, and service at a given institution, with the institution being responsible for setting the specific criteria and procedures for according faculty status. In other words, AAUP has retracted its strong support for faculty status of librarians, stating only that, essentially, “librarians should have faculty status where they should have faculty status, according to their institutions.” It is pretty toothless now. I also note that there is no link provided to the earlier statement.
January 3, 2013
There’s a passage that stood out to me in an article I read a few months ago, “Why Must We Be Small? Reflections on Political Development and Cultural Work in Brazil’s Landless Movement” by Tamara Lynne. (The piece is the Fall 2011 issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory; it’s not online, but you can see a glimpse of it on the Justseeds website.)
Speaking of her own entry into political activism via anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, Lynn writes:
No teach-in, no books or notebooks, no academic discussion could have accomplished what thirty seconds of action told me about my own power and its connection to why we were resisting the WTO. However, post-WTO, the processes of political development I observed appeared to focus on information. There was an attitude that if people simply had the correct information, they would see clearly what to do and take action. This view misses the point that most people feel powerless most of the time, their experiences of themselves and their world are often submerged, and that many people do not have enough sense of their own power to speak up in the face of injustices in their daily lives, let alone in the face of unjust international trade agreements. (p. 44)
I’ve written a little about this topic before, about the potential and the limitations of “information” in liberatory social movements. So, as an early-2013 thought, how might we who work in libraries offer information in various formats while also creating channels for people to grasp a sense of their own power?
To bring this to something rather more concretely applicable to the library context, I was also struck by a line in Anil Dash’s recent post The Web We Lost:
The technology industry, like all industries, follows cycles, and the pendulum is swinging back to the broad, empowering philosophies that underpinned the early social web. But we’re going to face a big challenge with re-educating a billion people about what the web means, akin to the years we spent as everyone moved off of AOL a decade ago, teaching them that there was so much more to the experience of the Internet than what they know.
His “we” is developers and technologists, not librarians (not that some librarians don’t also have those skillsets!). But still. Here we are, in our buildings, with our classrooms and computer stations, and whatever slice of humanity that uses our libraries looking for education and empowerment on any number of levels. How do we best use this opportunity our work affords us?
Happy New Year.
December 3, 2012
Call for Papers
TITLE: Focus on Educating for Sustainability: Toolkit for Academic Libraries
EDITOR: Maria A. Jankowska
PUBLISHER: Library Juice Press
BOOK ABSTRACT: In the last ten years literature on greening libraries has expanded considerably. Furthermore, by signing the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, university presidents and chancellors committed their institutions to finding new solutions to environmental, economic, and social issues through their teaching, research, and service operations. Since 2007, higher education has observed exponential growth of programs integrating sustainability literacy into teaching and research. Academic libraries must respond to this increasing focus on educating for sustainability and go beyond greening libraries to become active partners in advancing education and research for sustainability.
OBJECTIVE OF THE BOOK: This edited collection strives to capture the current status and future direction of libraries’ commitment to advance the focus of educating for sustainability. It will serve as a toolkit offering a wide range of best practices, case studies, and activities ready for implementation within academic libraries.
POSSIBLE TOPICS: With this call, the editor invites articles, essays, and case studies that describe specific activities undertaken by academic libraries or visions for future activities that support university sustainability research and teaching. Such activities may include, but are not limited to, the following:
· Integrating sustainability literacy into information literacy instruction and university courses
· Selecting materials in support of sustainability-related curriculum
· Creating effective research guides on sustainability topics related to social equity, economic practicality, and the environment
· Promoting open access content resources related to sustainability
· Partnering on university sustainability curriculum design and collaborative teaching
· Participating in university efforts to educate for sustainability across disciplines
· Supporting the university’s sustainability research, teaching, and outreach
TARGET AUDIENCES: The editor believes this book will be of interest to a large variety of audiences including the following:
· Librarians seeking inspiration for ways to combine their expertise with their passion for sustainability
· Library managers interested in leveraging and highlighting library services that support their institution’s focus on sustainability
· Teaching faculty collaborating with libraries on projects related to sustainability
· University administrators interested in the strategic role of libraries in educating for sustainability
SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Authors are invited to submit abstracts and proposals of 300-500 words to email@example.com by January 15, 2013. Notifications will be sent by February 26, 2013. A first draft ranging from 1,500-7,000 words will be due by April 2, and a final manuscript will be due by June 25, 2013.
Submitted manuscripts must not have been published previously or simultaneously submitted elsewhere. Following review, articles will be returned via e-mail for revision before final acceptance. All materials are edited as necessary for clarity. Submissions should include an abstract of no more than 150 words (highlighting the scope, methodology, and conclusions of the paper) at the beginning of each manuscript. Authors should follow the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. Examples are available at: http://www.dianahacker.com/resdoc/p04_c09_o.htm (Research and Documentation Online by Diane Hacker).
Submission of proposals should include:
Name of author
300-500 word abstract
Abstract submission: January 15, 2013
Notification of abstract acceptance: February 26, 2013
Full chapter submission: April 2, 2013
Communication of review results to authors: May 2, 2013
Final chapter submission: June25, 2013
Estimated publication date: 2013
November 30, 2012
I HATE the slogan, “Librarian: The Original Search Engine.” It is on a coffee mug that was given to me as a gift by a family member, and it seems to appear in my Facebook news feed every month or so. I find it problematic as an attempt to promote the services of librarians or the value of the library profession, and I don’t know why more people don’t see this.
To say that “librarians are the original search engine” is to concede that search engines do what librarians do, which would be another way of saying that there is no reason to talk to a reference librarian if you can just Google it. While it is true that before the internet, many people relied on reference librarians as a source of factual information that is now readily available through a search engine, it is a sad thing to see librarians tacitly accept the idea that this kind of provision of simple factual information adequately describes what it is we do by sharing this slogan.. A better slogan would be designed to get at what librarians can do that search engines don’t know how to do, and would communicate something of the way a librarian’s general knowledge and understanding of people gives her the ability to translate a user’s question into a search of resources (including Google) that will actually help. Very often, library users come to the reference desk after having hit a wall searching Google because of something specific that they do not know or do not understand about their subject of inquiry or the nature of the resources that will help them. Given that kind of knowledge gap, Google alone can only take them part of the way, and what they need is the consultation of an educated and understanding human being. Google, Microsoft, and others are investing a lot into research that will allow their search engines to take steps in the direction of interpretation and guidance, but AI researchers almost always underestimate the breadth and creativity of human intelligence as they seek to imitate it. So if we say that librarians are like search engines at all, we are misunderstanding our own skills, role, and social contribution, and in the process failing to see what we need to do to expand our expertise or train future generations for the profession. If you want a slogan for a coffee mug, I would prefer to see one with an SAT-style analogy, like, “Librarians are to search engines as astronomers are to telescopes.” People who don’t know much about astronomy can get some use from a telescope, but we understand that with an astronomer’s knowledge it can become much more powerful as a tool for discovery. We would not say, “Astronomers: The original telescope,” and we wouldn’t think for a second that that a slogan like that would be flattering to astronomers or supportive of the astronomy profession.
The other problem with the slogan is that it only has in mind the librarian at the reference desk, who is the tip of the iceberg of the library profession. Users talk directly to reference librarians, and as a former reference librarian I would never want to understate the breadth and depth of the skills involved in helping people find information in that role (retrieval and access). However, a good slogan for the library profession should also encompass the other roles that librarians play in their institutions, as selectors, organizers, and preservers of information resources who have their communities in mind, and as the creators and maintainers of the systems and intellectual infrastructures that facilitate the connections between them.
In conclusion, please don’t buy a librarian a coffee mug or other item that says, “Librarians: The Original Search Engine.” What to do if one is given to you is a more complicated question.
November 7, 2012
If you can make it to the Boston area on Saturday, November 17, head to the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. The wonderful Boston collective of Radical Reference is putting on a symposium called “Practical Choices for Powerful Impacts: Realizing the Activist Potential of Librarians.” It features a panel of “librarians who use their skills to undertake consciousness-raising in libraries and within the LIS profession; actively participate in anti-oppression and empowerment work; and develop programming that supports the library as space and library as a means of liberation,” followed by group discussions. And it’s free!