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:”
- Education & Lifelong Learning
- Intellectual Freedom
- The Public Good
- 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, Service, Education, 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.