Disposing of the Disposable Librarian

There has been a lot hand-wringing and blogging about a recent article in the New York Times, along with an earlier article in the New York Sun. The gist of the complaints is that the articles trivialize librarianship, may be sexist, and ignore the fact that librarians have been “hip” for a long time. If you missed it you can get started here. I think it is much ado about nothing. Around the same time, the American Association of School Librarians blog had a post about Disposable Librarians. The gist of this post is that school librarians are leaving their jobs, to take new jobs or retire, and their positions are not being filled. According to the author of the post, disposable librarians are partially to blame for these positions not being filled, or being filled by people who are not degreed librarians.  The post focuses on issues specific to school libraries, but it isn’t difficult to see similarities in other libraries. In short, these are librarians that are not adding value to their libraries. I’m sure you know them. They enforce rules for joy of enforcing rules. They are afraid to do any assessment, unpleasant truths are best left in the dark. And things worked fine before all this technology, why should they waste their time learning it.

These disposable librarians are a bigger problem for librarianship than an article in the style section of the NYT. Every disposable librarian makes it harder for the rest of us to do our jobs. They perpetuate the stereotype that librarians sit around all day and read. They give librarians a bad name. As a result we end up fighting against perceptions of librarians. If we had confidence in our colleagues, that they weren’t disposable, we wouldn’t feel the need to defend ourselves. Of course, if there weren’t so many disposable librarians, we wouldn’t need to worry about it.

The good news is that people are fighting back against the disposable librarians. For example, Laura Cohen, at Librarian 2.0, has written a Librarian 2.0 Manifesto. The contrast between the disposable librarians and the librarians follow the manifesto is easy to see. One point that stood out to was: “I will validate, through my actions, librarians’ vital and relevant professional role in any type of information culture that evolves.”  It really hits the nail on the head.  This is how we avoid becoming disposable librarians. But I can’t help wondering, is it really a 2.0 phenomena?

The manifesto is a useful tool for librarians to read and think about how they are providing services. Am I putting the library before the users? Am I holding on to practices that are no longer applicable? Am I moving my library forward? But are these things really something new. Shouldn’t librarians have always asked themselves these questions? Haven’t they?  Shouldn’t the manifesto apply to Librarian 1.0, 3.0 or even 0.1. I don’t think you need to be a librarian 2.0 to move your library forward or to show the value of librarians. Is it really that important to get your administrators to blog? (For that matter, are there really people that fear Google?)

On Library Garden, Tyler Rousseau had a post that asked, “Why do we have professional librarians who refuse to keep up with the professional and technological requirements?” Laura’s response lists 3 possible causes: “our culture of optionalities”, “2.0 is a great leap”, and “the speed of change”. I won’t dispute that change is quicker, but I don’t know that if change were slower, people would be any more comfortable with it. Two point oh is a big change. Big enough that sometimes I really don’t get some of it (Twitter? Really?). The biggest change is that for much of the 2.0 stuff to work, you need to have a substantial community of users.  To see an example of what happens without the community, check out this post on fauxonomies.  And, truth be told, if my friends were on Twitter, you could bet I would be too. For that reason, a lot of it may never touch the majority of people. Which is to say, I think this 2.0 stuff looks bigger when you are part of it. And it looks like it came out of the blue, but these things have been creeping up on us for decades. Lack of agreement in our standards is a major problem. But it isn’t the “aspirational standards” that are holding us back, we wouldn’t want everybody moving lockstep in the same direction anyway. It’s baseline standards. What is the minimum level of service a library should achieve? What do we expect as a minimum requirement from out librarians? I started this post talking about disposable librarians. We need to enforce a minimum level of competency, so there is no such thing as a disposable librarian. So that when a librarian is changing jobs or retiring, their administrator begs them to stick around to train their replacement.

So this is my answer to Tyler’s question: we need to not allow disposable librarians in our institutions. How do we do that? First, we should look at the quality of the graduates of our library and/or information schools. Are schools exchanging a diploma for the cost of the tuition? Next, we need to look at management. Does management treat it’s employees as professionals by both giving them professional responsibilities and expecting professional results? Lastly, we need to look at ourselves and our colleagues. Do we have the support and the training to move the library forward? Do we have the interest and the will? Ultimately, it up to us to keep setting the bar higher so that our colleagues will join us in providing services that users need and want; our management will give us the leeway to do what we think is right and expect that we will get results; and our library and/or information schools will need to produce graduates who can keep up. And no one will need to worry about disposable librarians or how hip the librarians are in Brooklyn again, because our actions will speak for themselves.


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