September 9, 2011

Introduction and Some Reflections

Not to start grandiosely or anything, but I’ve been thinking about philosophies of librarianship as well the current state of the profession.

Some time ago I read a little online commentary about the people who get into librarianship as a calling that happens also to be a career, versus those who just treat it as a career.  I think I approach it as a calling but not a career, which I guess makes me the most annoying of all.  When I first got the idea to become a librarian, it was out of a love of books and reading and the space of a library.  Then, in the few years between college and library school, I started thinking about the role of libraries in civic life and how crucial a non-commercial venue for self-education and some kinds of recreation is in society.  So becoming a public librarian was a political as well as a vocational choice. Now, after almost nine years on the front lines of the same urban public library system, I’m in a new grant-funded position that will end in mid-2013, and it feels (and may be) that my life – career included – will change dramatically when I fall off that particular cliff.  Enough about me.

So, what is the status of the profession, at least as I see it from my little corner of public librarianship?  My personal assessment has been that there are three main areas of service.  First, we are an access point for books and other materials – mostly physical, though that of course is evolving.  We are a repository of stuff.  Second, we are a cultural and community venue.  We host author talks, book discussions, art exhibits, children’s storytimes, teen gaming programs, and so on.  Third, we are an educational institution.  And this is the area in which I think we need the most improvement, and also where I see the most hope for the profession.

People don’t really view public librarians as educators.  Can we at least claim to be some kind of information expert?  Well, not necessarily.  Listen to this, from an ally: “I’ve read many times that librarians know how to find the most authoritative sources. Based on my experience & observations, that claim is wearing thin. […] Of public librarians, I’d say many, many are overwhelmed and not any more equipped to sort and sift information than an average intelligent patron.” (Hey, we can be like the “computer expert” in the great xkcd cartoon.)

So it’s not as simple as trying to be “better” than a search engine, or, oh god, being a “cybrarian” (the bus between NYC and Montreal goes through a town whose library actually has a big sign in the window advertising their helpful cybrarians).  There are conversations taking place in my library about our current vision, and at the forefront of many colleagues’ minds is the concept of the public library – us! – as a space for learning.  I’m happy about that, just as I really like the idea of the library as a “fourth place,” a place for social learning, that Paul Signorelli and others have been talking about lately.

“Facilitating autodidacticism” was a phrase that popped up in the live chat during Char Booth’s “Trends in Library Training and Learning” presentation, as one of the purposes of a librarian.  I loved that, and I also think that we need to remember that the patron’s goal is not the finding – the part that we most obviously assist with –  but the doing.  We’re part of that progression to get the patron to what he or she actually wants to do or be.  As one of my favorite librarian thinkers, Laura Crossett, recently put it, “People talk a great deal about how libraries are great socialist institutions, and I think that’s true. But I want them to be great anarchist institutions, too: places where we face each other not as supplicant and benefactor but as people with different skills involved in mutual aid, both trying, in our fumbling way, to build a better world.”

And the library itself needs to encourage an atmosphere of autodidacticism among its staff.  We need to think critically about what we’re doing, and why, and we can’t think that more academic measures such as, say, pedagogical theories are not pertinent to our work. Part of the problem, I think, is that public libraries are so dependent on circulation and other quantitative measures to demonstrate our worth, and also legislators and other funders tend to have a pretty simplistic view of the “digital divide.” It’s easy to lose sight of the more nebulous, less numbers-friendly things, but that’s where the intellectual rigor and integrity of the profession is located.

I mean, I’ve experienced many of the hallmarks of public librarianship – having strange conversations with children, getting hit on, getting cursed at, cleaning up vomit – and depending on my mood I’m happy to share these anecdotes with you and hear about yours.  But we can’t forget to also aim higher – yes, dealing with the public can be weird and frustrating and makes for good anecdotes.  But let’s think too about the public sphere and the collective good and what our responsibility is here.  And let’s consider the problems with an overly broad definition of “neutrality” in our field.  After all, we live in a society where, as Karen Coyle observed, “The information access gap between a university researcher and the average person on the street is immense. We have an information elite that, like most elites, considers its position to be earned, just, and reasonable.”  How is the public library, serving as we do “the average person on the street,” addressing this situation?

Some more inspiring philosophy, from the Library Loon: “Libraries and librarians have duties that extend beyond their local patron bases. Collectively, we are the voice of the poor, the young, and those desirous of learning, in societies that prefer to ignore or exploit those voices.”  That last part is key.  This isn’t an argument about how librarians need to be social workers, or whatever, in addition to everything else.  It’s about acknowledging that the status quo is oppressive to many.  And that being neutral supports the status quo.  Despite the shifting landscape of our profession, amid the changing technology and content containers, we library workers need to believe that our role is to enable not only individual but also collective education and – why not? – a more just society.

2 Comments »

  1. Melissa, I’m honored to be included in such a fine post.

    Comment by laura — September 9, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  2. Thanks for helping spread the word about libraries as fourth place/social learning centers. Maurice Coleman, Jill Hurst-Wahl, and I remain very excited about the possibilities this provides for libraries and those they serve, and we’re continuing to promote the idea whenever and wherever possible.

    And no need to think that the situation you’re facing in 2013 has to mean the end of your connections to libraries; many of us find the sort of broad field you’re discussing here–workplace learning and performance as part of libraries’ integral mission–have us working with libraries and other organizations in ways that bring them together rather than forcing us to choose full-time work in libraries to the exclusion of all else.

    Your final paragraph says it all; best of luck.

    Comment by Paul Signorelli — September 15, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

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