En/Countering a Cliché

One of the tools I use for my instruction sessions is a cartoon of a librarian sitting at the reference desk with her “Librarian” sign sticking out of the trash, replaced by a sign that says “Search Engine.” I use this as an attention grabber, both to insert a bit of self-deprecating humor as well as to make students think about what librarians actually do. Of course, it is also a chance to talk about the services that UNLV Libraries provides.

So it’s cute; librarians aren’t necessary anymore because now we have Google – it’s a cliché about librarianship, which many people might actually believe. In the age of ebooks and Google and remote access to databases and journals that are so user-friendly, with the pace of change in technology, do we really need actual people to help us find information? Clichés are clichés often because they contain some truth, and the truth in this case is disconcerting when this is your life’s work.

It seems that the library world does see changes in technology and in the public’s perceptions as a serious threat, or there wouldn’t be a need to continually re-invent ourselves and our profession, or talk so much about the future of libraries. Even some librarians believe outright that librarianship is dying. With all the marketing campaigns and headlines touting the benefits that we will see with the “Future of Libraries,” the library world is tacitly acknowledging the truth that the traditional services of libraries are becoming obsolete, at least to a certain extent.

So as I enter this profession full force – teaching instruction sessions, meeting with faculty and students, learning the collections, etc. – I find myself experiencing some doubts about my professional identity, especially as I realize that no, my services are not absolutely essential in order for professors to teach their classes effectively. Did I choose a career path that is still necessary and important today, one that will continue to be necessary and important in the future?

I know what you’re thinking…yet another blog post on the death of librarianship or its counterpart the “Future of Libraries.”

My contribution to this conversation – which I believe is unique– is that I think that we should embrace the “death of librarianship.” I think we should confront it head-on, rather than whisper about it amongst ourselves every time those outside the library world bring it up, or bemoan the decline in reference services, for example. In order to really educate others about librarianship, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. We should even have a sense of humor about it, for this is a way to cope with a painful reality. To the belief that librarianship is a dying profession, we should be able to say, “Yes, it is,” because librarianship in the traditional or historic sense is dying.

Then we should follow up that “Yes” with an “and.” I think acknowledgement and recognition that there is truth to this stereotype is the best first step towards devising a solution. Yes, librarianship as it has traditionally been practiced is dying, and actually it is in the process of reinventing itself into something else. Libraries/librarianship is emerging and will continue to emerge as a profession, a space, and a type of service that are still essential for society and for academia. What will this look like exactly? One thing is certain: we’re outgrowing many of the traditional aspects of librarianship, and things are going to look quite different.

I won’t rehash all the ways in which libraries are growing and changing; there are plenty of places to read about those. Data services is one area in academic librarianship in which lots of changes and growth are happening, and I’m getting to witness and participate in those changes at UNLV Libraries on the Data Team. What I do want to focus on, though, is the need for all libraries, academic and public (and special, too), to connect with their communities. This is one aspect of librarianship that is timeless. Yet now it is more important than ever that libraries fulfill this need to provide a common space that is centered on knowledge, really in order to help equip people with the knowledge that they need to make their lives better. We need to fight for this enduring truth about libraries even as we reinvent ourselves. It is a truth that, if upheld, will secure our future.

With growing inequalities in the US, the racial tensions that are making the news every day, and the many other oppressive systems around the globe, libraries, as free public spaces, are necessary. I recently had a conversation via email with my Political Science professor from my MA program about the importance of libraries, and he actually put it a lot better than I could have myself, so I include his quote here with his permission:

“I think the stronger case for libraries is to be developed in a social argument. In some way, the defense of libraries is like the defense of public space, that is, like the defense of a commons or commonwealth. In other words, both the library and the librarian find their strongest defense in the guardianship of a commonwealth of knowledge, produced by a diverse collectivity, and for the sharing and intergenerational transmission of that knowledge.” – Richard Gilman-Opalsky

A public space, a commons, which is centered on knowledge – what could be more important and vital to a society than that? Realizing this, I can then ask how it applies to me and my situation here at UNLV. UNLV Libraries may be focused on helping students get the grade, but it supports students in other ways as well. With its extended hours, UNLV Libraries provides common spaces for students to go when they have nowhere else to go. The Libraries provides some of the most popular spaces on campus. The Lied Library building was even open on Veterans Day and will be open for most of Winter Break. In providing this common space, the Libraries encourages the pursuit of knowledge by all students equally, including those who do not have access to computers at home or those who have no other place to go that is free from distraction.

Besides this, there are other steps I can take to make sure that my services support and fulfill this crucial mission of libraries. In my instruction sessions and research consultations, I can ask: am I operating under this kind of ethos that I espouse as a librarian? I can engage in self-reflective practices and examine my assumptions that I make about students, and even professors from cultures other than my own, to make sure that I am a part of creating this kind of environment in which all are equally free to pursue, create, and disseminate knowledge. My beliefs about other people affect how I approach the class and engage students and others, and hidden biases and prejudice seep through, often in very subtle ways. I like to think that I am self-aware and free from prejudice, but I know that neither of those things is completely possible. I can deliberately work to challenge those assumptions that I make, through self-reflection, dialogue with, and mentorship by, colleagues, and quite simply, additional practice – through my actions towards others. I’ll conclude with a quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). Faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue […]” (p. 90).

I strive to have faith, faith in my students and other users as well as in myself – that we are capable and worthy human beings – both for its own sake and because it is a requirement for the ethos of social justice – and critical librarianship – to inform and infuse my practice.

If we simply cater to the elite and the privileged, if we simply conform to the status quo, allowing the systematic oppression that surrounds us, we will surely lose our relevance and our importance faster than the changes in technology that threaten traditional librarianship. On the other hand, if we fight to make our profession socially just, which is necessary for ensuring that all can participate in this commonwealth of knowledge, and if we treat others with the dignity that is rightfully theirs, we will secure a future and thrive. Libraries will become vital again.

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