Watching this ever-so informative video about library careers from 1947 only highlights the oddness of the panicky mindset that seems to pervade a lot of librarianship. Yes, many things have changed for the field, but many things remain. All of the jobs in the video—cataloguer, reference librarian, outreach librarian—haven’t exactly gone the way of computers. If anything, technology just means an expansion of possibilities.
The rhetoric surrounding librarianship is what has really changed; in 1947, there was a certain amount of Do you like BOOKS? Also people? Also READING? Did we mention that libraries have BOOKS? BOOKSBOOKSBOOKS. Maybe some other stuff, who knows. Whereas today the unofficial motto of libraries everywhere seems to be: More than books.
The literature of librarianship reflects a lot of theorizing around the nature of the field itself—I’m speaking not just of trends or developments, but about what it is or what it should mean to be to be a librarian, or why libraries are important—and I find myself alternating between being really engaged by the introspection and thinking ah yes, more navel-gazing. Is librarianship in a unique position? I have a hard time imagining that this is the case, that this is the one truly ill-defined career path—but at the same time I’m finding grad school to be a peculiar mix of high ideals, academia, and practical skills, and I wonder what sort, or what amount, of readings are assigned to other Master’s students relating to the ethics and varying visions of their prospective fields. Be warned, I’m about to do some librarianship navel-gazing. But I’m not a librarian, I’ve just dipped my toe in recently, so it’s a little more like gazing at someone else’s navel. Which sounds deeply weird. Watching them navel-gaze? Nope, still weird. Whatever, you get the idea.
Not having any enforceable code of ethics is one of the main reasons why many see librarianship as failing to gain the status or marker of ‘profession.’ At the same time, it’s a career choice that is built on skills, but in tandem with incredibly lofty ideals, which feels plenty ‘professional’ to me—I went through a half dozen of those ‘this is who I am, this is why I chose to pursue an MLIS’-style introductions along with my cohorts during our first week of classes, and my classmates overwhelmingly echoed the sentiments of library code of ethics worldwide; a belief in the importance of free and equal access to information and intellectual freedom were near universal statements. Maybe this is entire ‘profession’ issue just underscores the sense of disconnect I feel between academic and public librarianship—I am interested in public librarianship, and I don’t personally care whether librarianship is defined as a profession because, let’s face, we all know that’s just an arbitrary social-constructed distinction. We can talk lofty ideals all we want, but when push comes to shove, librarians are operating in a larger context.*** With funds allocated by people who are not librarians.
The Internet certainly has changed things for information dissemination and seeking, but the extent to which it threatens libraries—well, is the rest of the world really still talking about this? In some ways it feels like librarians have moved on: they know what they are capable of, and they know how to make themselves useful. But then, in certain ways, we rely on public perception: it informs the funding public libraries get, and the understanding prospective employers have of the skills or knowledge librarians can bring to bear on a job or project. And so librarians seem oddly defensive by still talking as if to justify their own use and their place in the world. This is not a conversation that needs to happen inside the field—’why yes, fellow librarian, I too agree that libraries are relevant!’ oh god, what if everyone else decides they aren’t!—this is a conversation we need to be having with everyone else. Not by justifying the existence of libraries, just by being good at being libraries. Getting better and better at being libraries. I suppose that’s an easy thing for a first term MLIS student to say, but I think it’s something libraries have been doing for a while now, anyway. According to PewResearchCenter “fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities.” I mean, that number is ridiculous. (Not all of those are using the library; only 76% say libraries are “important to them and their families,” but public opinion is pretty clear on the importance of libraries.)
It reminds me of discussing eBooks in the final year of my undergrad, in a publishing course run by Simon Dardick, the manager of Vehicule Press in Montreal. This was a few years ago, when a lot people were still maintaining that odd notion that physical books and hardcopy books are some how mutually exclusive, and that moving to digital copies and eReaders was somehow a betrayal of books. Dardick described the reaction of the publishing industry in a manner that later reminded me strongly of the ‘crisis culture’ of librarianship—always worried that the old models of the profession were two seconds away from obsolescent or that they’re about to become completely useless—every time there was a new form of media, publishers were convinced it was the demise of the book and of publishing. Magazines, radio, television—the publishing industry was done for. Even books were the demise of books: the release of the ‘original pocket book’ in the 1950s (books that are released as a paperback instead of the usual hardback with later release of a paperback copy) apparently had the potential to “undermine the whole structure of publishing,” according to the amazingly named LeBaron R. Barker of Doubleday.
The situations aren’t a perfect comparison, but it’s nice to see librarianship isn’t the only field dealing with a crisis culture and the fear of becoming culturally obsolete. (I’m looking at you, publishers. How’s the Internet treating you these days? You guys still sweating over there? …Or have you decided to pass the buck on to retailers? Or are you two just playing hot-potato with the buck?)
I’m certainly not saying that libraries and publishing houses are going to keep looking just the way they do now in the future—that would be absurd—but I do think they ought to take a moment to reflect on the variety of changes that they’ve adapted to over the years before the pronunciations of doom begin.
Speaking of larger context, I’m mostly off in grad-school-land, knee-deep in readings about how very important librarianship is, when, every so often, some larger context intrudes hilariously. I see those weird comments online, on some news site or other that happen to mention librarians. In this case it was an article on an entertainment news site about librarians being annoyed about J.J. Abrams ‘mystery’ book that is difficult to catalogue (because of mysteriousness) and stuffed full of loose things that will get lost the moment it’s checked-out—alright, jeez, it’s mysterious, Abrams, we get it, just like every mysterious thing central to your movies that doesn’t actually affect the plot and is starting to feel suspiciously like a lame marketing ploy instead of engaging writing.
Right, comments. Here was my favourite:
I mean, I guess it’s a disconcerting sentiment, but mostly it’s just funny because of that final sad-face emoticon. Admit it, poster, you aren’t sad-facing for the last library, you’re sad-facing because you’ll miss those cantankerous, anachronistic, sullen, and socially awkward librarians… and long distance runners. Is that an actual stereotype? I really hope it is. Yes, librarians and long-distance runners, true soulmates.
(Please excuse my cantankerousness about J.J. Abrams’ movies. Mostly I like them, but it’s literally how he builds his stories, and it does not always work.)