What is Librarianship

I recently came across a post on Rory Litwin’s blog about what “librarianship” is.  This is a topic that is of interest to me, in part because it is my chosen profession, but also because I think there is confusion among librarians about what librarianship is.  Librarianship, to me, is a profession.  This distinguishes it from being just a job.  When you are the member of a profession, it is your responsibility to think about what that means.  Just as an example, on one of the email lists that I subscribe there has been a lengthy discussion about privacy and the ALA Code of Ethics.  As a “professional”, I believe these are the kinds of things that you you should be thinking about.  When you have a job, you just show up and do what you are told.

So what is the confusion about librarianship?  I think Rory’s post hints at it, but I see it more pronounced on some of the email lists that I monitor.  People talk past each other on a topic because they don’t start out with the same assumptions.  To go back to Rory’s post for a minute, as someone points out in the comment, Rory talks about the fields of “web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts” belonging to other professionals, but then claims that librarians should acquire greater knowledge about “scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies”, although those are fields that also belong to other groups.

I think the division created by Rory is informative, and relevant to the failed connections I was talking about earlier.  On the one hand is the a list of “technical” disciplines we should be wary of and on the other is a list of “pedagogical” disciplines that we should embrace.  The same dichotomy influences discussions on the mailing list mentioned above.  Arguments about what machines can/will do to make human intervention unnecessary versus how our users really use the machines can go on for weeks and usually only make both sides dig in more (Although, I do think recently it seems like there has been a little give on one or both sides).  The sad thing is that, for the most part, librarians aren’t experts on either the technical or the pedagogical issues.  We flounder around grabbing for whatever is popular (web scale!!!) or what catches our fancy (active learning!!!) without the training to back it up and without the research to show that it is worthwhile.

So, what is librarianship?  I can’t say that I know, but the idea I have been mulling around in my head since reading Rory’s post is that librarianship is about making sense out of the world of information.  Making sense in the broad sense in terms of defining the information universe, creating ways to describe the information in the universe, and developing ways to identify and access information.  And also, making sense in the micro sense, such as teaching information literacy to a class (or a single student), cataloging a book, building a local collection, or making a web site that helps users find what they are looking for.

To make this sense out of the incredible amounts of information out there and make it available to that person who walks in the front door or surfs over to your web site, you do need all the skills that Rory listed: an understanding of scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies and you also need to be web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts.


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