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You asked for it, you got it. I’ve uploaded a word-for-word transcript of the Killing Librarianship NELA keynote (see the link right after audio or just click here). I’m also working on an edited version if folks want to include it or parts of it in newsletters and such. Stay tuned.
“Expect More: Service is Proactive” CARLI Virtual Meeting, Webcast.
Abstract: There is an old joke that goes “what do you call three librarians at a bar?” “A consortium.” The library field does have a lot of consortia. This is a testament to the openness and attitude of sharing in the profession. For decades libraries have worked across boundaries to better serve our members. We shared through the postal then dial-up, not the Internet. We built the web of knowledge and resources before the world wide web. Libraries have a long and proud tradition of thinking beyond our own walls to serve our communities. We should be proud of that history, but we need to expect more.
We need our communities to expect more of us – not do more with less, but rather show the community that we are truly about transformation not simply information. We need to expect more from CARLI. The paradox of success is that the work that garnered that success is rarely the work that will ensure future accomplishments. We should expect CARLI will challenge us and innovate. However, ultimately we must expect more of our selves. We must look up from the day to day reality of staff shortages, toner cartridges, and cataloging backlogs and become our own future. We must prove to others and ourselves every day that librarianship is not clerical, nor about materials, or about the building. Librarianship is about improving society.
We must now think about sharing more than just our licenses and loaning our books. We must share authority and responsibility with our communities. We must share our services and expertise with each other. Ultimately we must become a truly open market of ideas. You may have joined CARLI to expand your database offerings – use it now to expand possibilities. You may use CARLI to share materials, now use it to share yourselves and the brilliance of your local communities.
I have too much to do to write this post, but this post has to be written.
“I’ve also gotten a sense lately that some working librarians are getting frustrated with constant advocacy, and are starting to believe the hype that libraries/librarians are doomed. How can we change their minds?”
That was part of a comment left on my blog by Topher Lawton, a current (and excellent) student. I share his frustration. Every week I go into my introductory class for librarianship and talk about amazing librarians, big ideas, and the opportunities to shape the future. On a pretty regular basis mostly receptive students tell me “I love it, I get it, but when I go into some libraries, I don’t see it.” There are simply too many librarians that can’t see beyond what they do today to see a brighter tomorrow – or realize that what they do today will shape that future brighter or not.
I am getting tired of the “yeah, but…” questions that seek to ground new ideas and innovations in what those opposed to change call reality. Their reality is in fact their limited view of the world. I am tired of the hand wringing, and committees, and paranoia. I am tired of those who wait for the white knight, or the new app from Silicon Valley that will save us. I am tired of hearing about cataloging backlogs, government bureaucracy, conservative management, the Tea Party, and the other million excuses for resisting change. If your library won’t let you do something, start a blog. If your policy doesn’t allow it change the damn policy.
I am sorry if my frustration is leaking out here, but you have to understand my view. Take every preconceived notion of the library school student – second career woman who loves cats and quiet – and throw it out the window. I see the most amazing people becoming librarians. I see people fresh out of undergraduate degrees (the average age of this year’s class is 25), and lawyers looking to give back to society. I see technologists, and humanists, young and old who have a fever to be a librarian. They are no longer coming to library school to read, or because they are good at crosswords. They are coming into library school to change the world.
Then I see these amazing people run into a librarian who toss the student into the meat grinder of lowered expectations and mediocrity. To be sure not every student will hit this wall. There are a huge number of progressive and supportive library role models, but it only takes one librarian who is pissed off the world has changed to damper the enthusiasm of a new librarian.
Understand if you are a librarian today, these students revere you. They want to be you. You are a role model. I know it’s not your job description, but it’s true. So every snarky comment and your foreboding sense of doom, it has an effect. I am begging you to expand your sense of professional responsibility to mentorship.
I hear, from time to time, that library schools are not preparing graduates for the jobs available. I listen to these critiques closely, and do my best to act upon them. However, understand that you as a working librarian have an equal responsibility here. Are you looking for the skills of yesterday or today? Every conference presentation you give is a classroom. If you don’t get excited about your topic, the students know that – it has an effect. When a student shows up to interview you or look for an internship, you are the most powerful classroom there is. If you don’t think there is a future in the field, get the hell out of the way for those who do.
I have been called (and now wear the title proudly) a pragmatic utopian. I am someone who sees a brighter future, but understands we need to slough through the mud to get there. Here’s the thing, don’t be the mud. As librarians we can and should argue about the shape of the future. We can and should have honest and heated debates on where we want to go now. But if you are convinced that you are the last generation of librarians, that the field is going away, then get on with it and let the folks seeking a better tomorrow get to work.
I have seen glorious librarians. I have seen librarians work in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, and bravely support the revolutions of Egypt. I have seen librarians organize camel caravans to get learning to the remote villages of Africa. I have seen librarians help the homeless, give dignity to the unemployed, inspire students to learn, and save lives of abused women. I have little time for those that would say these librarians are exceptional. To be sure these librarians are brilliant and amazing, but to say that they are exceptional is to say that their work falls outside of the mainstream of our vocation –excepted from the norms. They are not exceptions – they are the yardstick that we must measure ourselves by.
Topher, I wish I had a good answer for you. I wish I had the ability to stop librarians from worrying about their future, but instead go about creating it. I wish I could change the minds of librarians waiting for the end. I can’t…but I will keep trying. And your job is to become a librarian that sees extraordinary as your job description.
I have included a discussion about what we call the folks who use libraries (members) in several presentations and it’s all over my book. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what we call ourselves. Over the past month across two continents and four different venues this question has come up.
Before I get too far down this road, I realize that I am treading a well-worn path with plenty of wreckage along the way. I am not playing coy here for a push for a new name. I am honestly struggling with this personally, and I’m looking for help.
So here is where it all started. I was talking with our board of advisors for the iSchool and reviewing the LIS program. We have a great board made up of business folks, technologists, librarians, and educators. I was making the case that librarianship was a skill set that extended well beyond libraries and asked how the school could open up opportunities in the business sector.
The answer? Don’t call them librarians. They bought that librarians would be great in institutions facing big data problems, helping out analysts and research scientists in communicating and conversations, the whole bit. The problem was that when you threw in the name “librarians” all they could think about was the building, and really the public library they visited as a kid (to be fair this was not a universal comment, as I said there were plenty of librarians in the room).
We even started talking about the possibility of the profession splitting into folks who work in the building called a library and folks with the skills that worked outside of it. I want to reiterate that this was a very positive conversation, and not riddled with the stereotypes, except to say many thought the name itself got in the way because of the widely held stereotypes.
I threw out that it was time to retake the name and associate it with the real progressive work librarians were doing today. Then one member of the board asked “so which is more important, the name ‘librarian’ or what librarians could accomplish in these other settings.” That got me thinking.
I went directly from this meeting to a summit in Salzburg. There I met amazing librarians and museum professionals from 24 different countries. We were talking about libraries and museums in the era of participatory culture. I was part of the discussion around the skills needed for librarians and museum folks (more on that later). After my presentation, during a panel discussion, someone asked, you guessed it, should we still call these folks librarians?
What started to develop at this meeting was a line of reasoning that goes like this: If as librarians we need to shape ourselves around our communities, and if part of what we need to shape is the language and terms we use, then shouldn’t we be flexible about the titles we use? If the community wants to call us librarians, then fine. If they want to call us “awesome epic cool people” then so be it. AASL wrestled with this in going back to the title school librarian from school media specialist. At the time I thought (and tweeted) “how boring.” A school librarian pointed out that the name just caused confusion, and a name doesn’t gain respect or attention, performance does. In essence call me what you want, it is my action that will show me as a librarian.
Fast forward to this past week when I presented at the New York Library Association. After I did my thing about what our mission was, up it popped again – does it make sense to call ourselves librarians. Here I talked a little about my developing “let the community decide” logic. But I added “no matter what the community calls us, we are still librarians.” In essence, I was thinking the term librarian may be more important in identifying ourselves to ourselves than to the community. So, I was thinking, let the world call us what they want, but know still you are a librarian with a common mission, values, and skills. This has worked with folks like accountants, that used to be people who worked in counting houses. Now they have the title of office manager, CFO, and so on, but they are still accountants with a common preparation and professional culture.
So here I am…librarian or not? Do I work to rename our degree to make librarians more marketable outside of libraries (keeping ALA accreditation)? Do I still push to retake the term librarian? Does it even matter? Help!
“Publisher of the Community: New Librarianship Unencumbered by Our Stacks” PLS President’s Program at the NYLA 2011 Annual Conference. Saratoga Springs, NY.
Abstract: Imagine libraries are places to learn and create, not consume and check out. Imagine the day when every book published is not only available digitally, but at a very low cost……imagine.
Here is a video of my closing comments at the ILEADU session in Springfield Illinois (just under 14 minutes). To my international friends, if I messed up details, just let me know so I can post it here.