You Are What is Killing Librarianship

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague at a different academic library about potential large-scale (read: scary) changes to our information literacy instruction program models. We talked through rationale, pain-points, and strategies for cultivating buy-in from our colleagues. At a certain point in our discussion, we recognized that this was going to be a tough sell, and this wonderful colleague shared an anecdote where she was once demeaned for ideas like these. You are what is killing librarianship! she was told by a former coworker. We were able to laugh off the comment in our conversation, but it’s one I’ve been continuing to mull over in the days following our talk.

It’s such a hard line to take, because what it implies is that this profession you are a part of–one that required at least one advanced degree and years of practice and experience–is fundamentally incompatible with the way in which you conceive of and are practicing it. You are not only not doing your job well, you are actively working to dismantle the profession you love. To your colleague(s) you are a threat to the professional identity they’ve constructed as a librarian. But as hurtful as this line (and line of thinking) is, it does beg the following question:

What exactly is the “essence of librarianship” and by whom is it determined?


What the ALA Has to Say

It’s natural to want to turn to our professional organizations when faced with this question. Ideally they represent us and we embody their beliefs. According to the American Library Association, “modern librarianship” is based on the following core values that “define, inform, and guide our professional practice:”

  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education & Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • The Public Good
  • Preservation
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility

Notice that these are “core values” and not “core tasks.” There’s no mention of staffing a reference desk, planning library orientation for first year students, soliciting book recommendations from faculty, or teaching every class an instructor requests us to teach. In last week’s ACRLog post there was a great comment by Sandra Cochrane who claims that many librarians respond to the question, “What do librarians do?” with “a list of tasks.” In many ways it’s natural: Our CVs and resumes are lists of things we do/have done; our job advertisements list duties and responsibilities, and our day-to-day is spent in practice. But those practices are rooted in deeply-held beliefs and core values, which may or may not align with those put forth by the ALA.

I’m not going to deconstruct each ALA Core Value in this post, but I will say that there are likely parts of this list that are open to interpretation based on sociopolitical contexts, problematic in light of issues of racism and oppression, and questionable in regards to their intent/founding motive. All of that is to say, it’s complicated, folks, and there are likely other values we’ve internalized as a profession that haven’t made it onto this list.

Core Values & Professional Identity Formulation

Just last week, guest writer Courtney Block expressed the centrality of advocacy to librarianship on ACRLog, and two weeks before that a group of librarians gathered at USC’s Doheny Library for the first ever conference on Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries, where discussions on our professional values, identity formulation, and labor conditions abounded. Attending this conference reinforced for me that although I may share certain professional values with other academic librarians, the ways in which we conceptualize them may be vastly different. That being the case, how does that then impact our formulation of our professional identity and the ways in which we perform librarianship?

For example, ServiceEducation, Anti-Racism, and Social Responsibility are the heart of my own professional practice. I view these values through a feminist, relational lens, in which I am a co-educator, co-learner,  and partner with students, faculty (in and out of the library), staff, and my local community. What’s important to me is cultivating meaningful relationships at all times. This perspective has a direct impact on the ways in which I facilitate classes, approach reference, and propose the development or elimination of certain library services. Someone else in this same job role might have a different definition of each of those values (or a different set of values altogether), which would in turn make their professional practice look different from my own. This difference in practice then accounts for the difference in experience of librarianship and the difference in what we see as “the essence of the profession.”

In my mind, I am improving my professional practice by exploring alternative reference models to the reference desk, because I see the “desk” as both a physical and emotional barrier to egalitarian educational relationships, and a barrier to the core values of Education and Service. My coworker might see the reference desk as an expression of librarian visibility in an educational setting and an embodiment of the professional value of Service. Am I killing librarianship with my practice? Is he? Or are we “killing,” or to be less dramatic, contradicting, our deeply held notions of professional practice?

Is Practice All Relative? 

As I write this post, I am chatting with a friend online about it, working out my argument and thought-process via Google Chat. I’m anticipating being critiqued for being overly equivocal and unable to come to a “correct conclusion” or “truth.” It’s ok! I can take it! Yes, there is a whiff of social constructionism to this post, but really what I’m trying to do is encourage a professional conversation about what we value about librarianship. This needs to happen locally, at our respective institutions, and nationally, via professional conferences, writing (“academic” or otherwise), conversations on social media, and other venues.

When we assume that we all not only hold the same professional values, but define them in the same way, without ever explicitly discussing them, we are setting ourselves up for professional blow-ups. As my friend on GChat put it: “We’re led to believe that if we aren’t ‘moving,’ we aren’t working.” We need to consider critical inquiry, reflection, discussion, and revision of our professional values and practices as an integral part of our work. The only thing that will ever “kill” librarianship is our inability to reflect and discuss our interpretations of our professional values and practice.

12 thoughts on “You Are What is Killing Librarianship”

  1. Thanks for putting it so clearly, that when we have conflicts about what the library should do, that it’s because our notions of the library may contradict each other.

    Last week, at a lecture in Berlin about bringing innovative thinking to the library, Olaf Eigenbrodt offered a similar explanation when discussing why pushing for innovative processes in the library leads to so many conflicts.

    On the one side you have innovation advocates, who think that serving patrons mean:
    1. making room for failure
    2. rough prototypes and iterative processes
    3. embracing change

    And on the other, librarians have more traditional been taught that the best way to serve patrons means:
    1. avoiding errors
    2. paying attention to every detail
    3. maintaining consistency

    No wonder the two sides find themselves at odds. It’s not about really about whether the library should add a maker space or keep the microfiche reader instead, or, as you pointed out, whether it’s the pro-maker space librarian or the microfiche defender who is trying to “kill librarianship,” but rather, about contradicting notions of values.

  2. This is interesting but leaves out the power dynamic of who gets to decide how librarianship is executed in any given setting.

  3. This is a good point, Jennifer. Those power structures are real and often rooted in some deeply problematic structures (patriarchy, white supremacy). I think we too often take/replicate/internalize our professions’ values without even stopping to question why or what they mean. If we can’t start there we won’t be able to uncover what roots they have and whether or not they are just propogating unhealthy power dynamics.

    I also like to think about your comment at a micro-level in terms of work place power. Often those in administration get to decide what’s valued and how that value is interpreted. That’s awesome when it coincides with our own, but you’re right about it being rough when we don’t agree and when no discussions or compromise take place.

    I know this is a really long-winded response to your comment, but I think it’s an important point you make. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Hi Veronica & Jennifer & Leslie,

    What a wonderful post & (emerging) discussion 🙂 In my experience (which I acknowledge may not be representative of the experiences of others), many librarians lack something absolutely critical – the ability to reflect-in-action & the ability to reflect-on-action (Schon). If these were commonly part of the practice of librarianship, I think that we would be better equipped to understand our own & others’ practices.

    If we could clearly articulate the depth of our own practice in a really familiar way, then we could (if powerful colleagues had the courage to allow it) also have genuine conversations about professional ontologies, & the benefits & challenges that these various ontologies bring to our specific workplaces & our professional more broadly.

    Because reflection in & on action are not fundamental to librarianship (generally speaking), I can’t help but think that many librarians are left with a common & unhelpful human response to things not understood – negative assessments such as the dismissing & demeaning of other people. As the world constantly shows us, these are damaging responses. And, they are as professionally damaging as they are personally damaging. Demeaning a fellow librarian with a comment like “You are what is killing librarianship” is a prime example of this professional deficiency. And, it is a reflection on the practice of the person who said it, not a reflection on the person to whom it was directed.

    I love the contrasting characteristics that Leslie has provided – they provide fantastic starting points to guide the kind of regular critical reflection that is much needed. They lack the ring of subjectivity & could be used to help take unhelpful emotion out of considerations & conversations as we seek to develop our capacity to reflect in & on actions & share our reflections for the ultimate benefit of our clients, ourselves & our profession.

    THANK-YOU AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂 Sandra

  5. One way we are killing the profession is by pretending that what we do is easy (i.e., we can teach you to retrieve information effectively yourself, through participation in bibliographic instruction or information literacy training or whatever you want to call it). It causes people to devalue us when we convince them they can do it themselves just as well as we do. Do attorneys teach people how to defend themselves in court? Do CPAs teach people how to prepare a complex tax return? I wrote about this problem in 1997, but no one is listening.
    “Putting the Service Back in Library Service.” College & Research Libraries News 58
    (3), March 1997: 186-187.

  6. This is really interesting, Leslie. Thank you for sharing! This conflicting notion of “service” is a tough one to resolve, and I’ll admit I’m still thinking about what happens when we reflect, share, and subsequently disagree. What then? How do we negotiate shared values? Are we doomed to both sides feeling dissatisfied, or can compromise feel empowering? I’m curious about Eigenbrodt’s and others’ thoughts on this issue.

  7. Thank you for bringing reflection in & on action into the discussion, Sandra. You’re point is important, and I think speaks to our profession’s emphasis on action and practice, when we would be better served to incorporate reflection and discussion as well. I feel like this just needs to be added to the list of “discussions I should have had in library school.”

  8. This is interesting, Carol, particularly that your analogies compare our profession to attorneys and CPAs. I think is maybe a case where our professional values differ. I see more parallels between librarians and teachers, social workers, and midwives. Yes, we absolutely have expertise, but we are fostering relationships with our patrons that help connect them to knowledge that will in turn empower them.

  9. Hi everyone

    I think that Eigenbrodt’s comments are very insightful & important but we also need to dig deeper (as I mentioned in my previous comment). I also use parallels of teachers, and nurses too. But, I haven’t identified as an “information professional”, I’ve always seen my role about supporting knowledge creation & knowledge sharing so I’m certain that this has created a different environment for my professional ontology & epistemology.

    When I was a medical librarian, I felt that librarianship was in a similar place to nursing before it developed its Caring profession identity. This seemed to open it up to a solid foundation that had really positive impacts on all aspects of Nursing’s practice & it’s scholarship which seemed to successfully challenge the old “handmaidens & battleaxes” stereotype that scholars felt had pervaded Nursing.

    I think that we have struggled similarly with the acceptance of the prevailing “information professional” identity. I don’t think that it has the capacity to give us a strong identity from which to practice. And, I often wonder if this is the reason that a good proportion of librarians seem to be so concerned about the stereotype (bun, glasses, shhhh, etc) rather than just getting on with doing the job well which shows the clients that the stereotype is an irrelevancy.

    Does an underlying fear about the stereotype lead us to a certain kind of defensiveness that works against powerful & productive practices like critically reflective thinking & conversation?

    I remember a time not so long ago that we were constantly saying that libraries were about empowering/supporting lifelong learning. But, I didn’t see a lot of true understanding of, or genuine conversations about, lifelong learning in librarianship. I wonder if a prevailing defensiveness might also have helped create barriers to the genuine engagement with this important concept for librarians? I certainly think that the “information professional” identity did.

    Now that Lankes’s new librarianship is starting to gain traction, I feel that there is the chance to develop a solid, positive & productive way to develop a professional identity that is strong & useful. For the first time, we are also being offered an overarching theoretical foundation for our practice. Even if a good proportion of librarians reject new librarianship approaches, it provides an example of overarching theory & may offer opportunities for others to propose alternative overarching theories of librarianship.

    Once we have our own thinking tool/s, perhaps we will be more capable of talking to each other in ways that let us actually hear each other, even when we disagree – & so respect & value our differences. Perhaps, as a profession, we are trapped in a 14 year old’s mentality & we are on the verge of truly growing up?

    Fabulous conversation. I hope that this page gets seriously long with lots of thoughtful & challenging comments 🙂 Sandra

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