Who Are We and Where Are We Going?

I started library school soon after Michael Gorman’s American Libraries “President’s Message” on the crisis in library education. Gorman’s May 2006 article seemed to ignite a firestorm, in part because of his incendiary descriptions of “millenniarist librarians and pseudo-librarians… intoxicated with self indulgence and technology” who reside in “acronymic backwaters,” as well as “faculty in LIS schools who are, at best, indifferent to libraries and, at worst, hostile to libraries and their continuing mission.”

Naturally, the ensuing debate got my attention. Like many new academic librarians, I’m a thirtysomething career-changer. I left a good job in order to be a full-time graduate student, and library school is expensive; all told, the decision carries a $100,000 opportunity cost. I chose to attend Drexel University in part because I’m interested in the intersection of libraries and computing, but I was concerned that Drexel’s strength in information science might mean librarianship would get short shrift. Gorman’s assertions played on those fears. Would my new colleagues find my preparation wanting?

The major counter-arguments I found were laid out in Michael Buckland’s Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto. Given that Gorman provided the foreword for Manifesto, I suspect we have different readings of Buckland’s work. And his is probably right, given that he was ALA president and I got my diploma in the mail on Saturday. But what I see throughout Buckland’s Manifesto is an understanding that emerging technologies and ambitious standards and classification systems are our most efficient means for making information more accessible to patrons. He places technology within the arc of history, explaining how we got where we are, and describing where he believes technology could enable us to go next. Fifteen years after Manifesto, the barriers to exploring Buckland’s ideas seem to me to be cultural, not technological or financial.

“Cultural barrier” is another way of saying “identity crisis”. Buckland brilliantly predicts the issues we should consider, but he is not prescriptive when it comes to solutions. It is up to us to as individuals to determine the most important problems we could be working on, and up to us, collectively, to develop useful technologies. The best way to ensure our irrelevance is to remain divided. Our vendors license our electronic infrastructures to us, they own most of our journals and many of our most important copyrights, and they’re well on their way to owning virtual copies of all our books. I enrolled in library school because I love libraries. I love the profession because of the talented librarians around me who share my delight in assisting patrons. But, as a new academic librarian, I worry that our profession may retire before I do.

3 thoughts on “Who Are We and Where Are We Going?”

  1. Thanks for the though-provoking post. I love your distinction between technology and culture. We tend to think one defines the other, but you’re right – it’s up to us to decide who we are and what we need to do.

    I’m also cheered to have a colleague who isn’t afraid to say “I love libraries.” Welcome to the profession.

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