Polarization of the Librarian Profession?


Recent articles and Posts I’ve been reading make me wonder if the librarian profession is on the brink of becoming decidedly polarized. Similar to our nation in may respects with its politically, culturally, economically, religiously based divisions, there seems to be conversation that sounds a lot like the 20th Century and 21st Century librarians are both right, and justified, and each is defensive toward the other.

The effinglibrarian (who, BTW, got tired of Blogging and ended in September, but still has archives available) entered the LISNews Librarian Essay Contest with the Post Patron Expectations vs. Librarian Expectations in Library Service last February. He made the statement that,

I think the general public are satisfied with library services. But I think the librarians are convinced that services suck. To read what librarians are saying about libraries is to get an image of libraries continually at the center of failure. The librarians say that libraries need new or more everything: more social networking features, more e-services, more e-books, e-readers, 2.0, 1.0, open source software, koha (whatever-tee-eff that is), iPhones, iPads, IM, SMS, Wii, virtual reality, real reality, Facebook, face punch, sustainability, sustainability???, advocacy, political action, fundraising, programming, css, drupal, SEO,… it doesn’t matter how much librarians know or do, there always seem to be other librarians who demand that we know and do more. Like it’s a personal offense to them when we aren’t up on the latest, … whatever, whether it’s a new author or a subject or a device or a philosophy.

Where Eff sees “an image of libraries continually at the center of failure”, I see librarians who never think that just “good enough” is good enough. Partly because of their initiative, and partly because circumstances don’t allow them to sit on their laurels. I hear librarians concerned about their future because they can’t depend on the brick&mortar library to ALWAYS be there, as well as librarians who want to be a part of shaping the future of their 21st Century Library. Thus begins the division in the profession because some are content to remain status quo, while others are eager to define their future.

He goes on to posit that “There seem to be two schools of thought on librarian adaptation: that we do it for our customers or that we do it for our colleagues. We work to provide for our patrons’ needs, but should we also master the accomplishments of other librarians?“ That difference alone might be cause enough for polarization within the profession, but my perspective is that working to provide for customer needs includes mastering the accomplishments of other librarians who are also serving the needs of their customers. Shouldn’t we be learning from each other?

His summary is on track, but not quite on target in my estimation.

How can librarians stay relevant? That simple answer seems to cover it, be prepared. But prepared for what? Be prepared for whatever your customer or your colleague (and especially your boss) might want. Be aware of what other libraries are doing to assist their customers. Be willing to learn. And be prepared for the next step.

This implies that librarians should learn EVERYTHING that their customers might want, yet I didn’t read support of that kind of approach in his Post.

What really caused the polarization question in my mind was the nature of the comments to Eff’s Post (as well as the diversity of articles I’ve read). Several comments were from individual Anonymous writers.

Thank you for articulating exactly what I feel. In the rush to have the latest and greatest of everything and impress online colleagues, we are completely forgetting the patron who actually walks through the door and needs service. It is as though we are driving away the 50 something patrons in a frenzy of trying to attract the 20-30 somethings. My library has turned into an internet cafe.

I don’t know.. most librarians I know (myself included) could not care any less about web 2.0 or advancing their educations, they just want to still have jobs. I would love for someone to write an article about that.

Seriously? Librarians don’t care about advancing their education?

Thank you as well. . .for saying a lot of what has been on my mind, and saying it so well. -Dances With Books

Again Eff, I love hearing from you, because your perspective on reality is a well needed grounding in the middle of dealing with the ungodly amount of theory I’m having to work with right now.
As far as “better technology,” I tend to think of all toys in terms of a cost-to-annoyance ratio. Laserdics are hard to store, scratch easy, but offer excellent video quality? That means I should probably wait and see if something a little less bulky comes along – and lo and behold, it did! Kindle has copyright issues and I don’t really “own” what I buy – but look at all the cheap stuff and saved storage? Well, if I’m in a place where I have to shell out a metric ton of college textbooks that are revised every 2-5 years, then what the hell? Kindle is fine. If I want to actually not get annoyed patrons when their Nora Roberts book goes bye-bye because of a contract dispute mid-way through their check-out time, maybe I should rethink the Kindle as a good idea.

There was no comment that disagreed with Eff’s essence that there is within the profession too much pushing and shoving to adopt the latest technology to satisfy customers with relevant library services. This leads me to believe that either Eff’s Blog was followed by other nay-sayers, or everybody agrees that there is too much scrambling to learn the latest and greatest technology.

My personal belief is that it is the former. The immediate issue for librarians is survival, when it should be transforming the 20th Century library into a 21st Century Library. That is NOT ALL technology. It is also Strategic Planning, adopting a more business-like organizational style, becoming an indispensable part of the community, AND being prepared by librarians understanding technology and how and when to apply it (as Eff noted) – which certainly means advancing their education.

My concern that we are becoming polarized includes a perception that too many librarians are satisfied to simply sit still and try to prolong the status quo of 20th Century library services. Examples of that are the enthusiasm expressed over The Big Read, and simply having a new branch location that replaces the Bookmobile.

I recognize that all things are relative, but when does the profession begin to move the bar to higher standards in order to make survival a result of a library’s relevance to its community, rather than a full time job? When do we get the majority of the profession to not be satisfied with the status quo?

Most successful business professionals will be the first to say that making money is a result of their business, not the purpose of their business. That’s the way it should be for libraries – library survival is not the purpose of our libraries, it is the result of our relevance to our community and the awesome services provided by awesome librarians. They will also tell you that business experience has shown that a business that is not growing is dying.
Are libraries dying because librarians are allowing it to happen?

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Polarization of the Librarian Profession?

  1. I see some of the same polarization as you do. I think what I’ve felt in my most cynical moments is that there are some librarians who are genuinely interested in the field, who want to learn and create and do interesting things and make libraries better, and some librarians who just want to do their jobs and go home. They aren’t interested in learning. They want to do the job they know how to do (status quo) and collect their paycheck, satisfied that patrons will always want the same things, that patrons won’t change.

    I work in an academic library, and sometimes I think our librarians refuse to accept that the students coming in the doors this year, and next year, and very different from the students coming in the doors two years ago, or five years ago. And faculty, as much as it seems this might not be the case, they are changing too, and new faculty will want different things.

    I try not to get frustrated, but when your own library staff is polarized along these lines, well, it can be hard.

  2. I agree that there is a polarization of the librarian profession. So what do we do about it? I know a few people who are happy with the status quo. They are happy to go to work, help the people who visit the libray, go home and collect their paycheck. I like them. They are my friends. They frustrate the hell out of me.

    These aren’t ‘old’ librarians either. Some are younger than me. How do I encourage them to adapt to the reality of the 21st Century Library? I am not their boss. I have no power over them. I’ve been encouraging them to think differently about libraries but have had little luck.

    Do we leave them on the desk (happy with their jobs) and promote and encourage people who do want to make the library more modern? Maybe. I feel that this isn’t a sustainable option. At some point they will be a drag on the library and the community. As new methods of serivice and new services take hold they may be downright hostile.

    How long can we continue to encouage them? How long can we hope they will realize that the future of their jobs is dependant upon their willingness to try new things, learn new skills and change their jobs. At what point do we encourage them to seek employment elsewhere?

    More questions than answers…

  3. Thanks for the feedback from the field. My personal opinion is that in regards to younger library workers, they are exhibiting the same work ethic as their peers.

    Is it just me or has service declined in virtually ALL businesses that deal with the public directly? When was the last time you got any quality service at any type business that deals directly with the public? When was the last time you had a server or clerk or whomever who could actually answer every question you asked? If you have gotten good service, how old was the person that gave it?

    I agree that any employee should be concerned about providing service that ensures keeping their job, but it doesn’t appear that Gen Y employees are. Maybe Jason Dorsey has some answers, because I don’t.

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