Monday, June 22, 2009

Pop quiz: who can tell me what a librarian does?

Not that many people, I can tell you from experience. From my real estate agent in Montreal telling me, "I was a librarian ... when I was about 16!" (yes, she meant she shelved books for a summer job), to the countless replies, "Oh, I had no idea you needed a Masters degree for that!," I'm not unaware that we have an image problem. I think the reasons we continue to have such a big problem when we have, in most cases, passed the point of the bunned, bespectacled librarian, are complicated. It has something to do with the way people romanticise libraries as a place, as a repository for knowledge, unchanging through time (as opposed to a vibrant, busy, constantly-adapting place filled with new and old knowledge).

It also has something to do with the type of people our profession attracts. By the time people get to a point where they understand what a librarian is, they have often become regular library users, and are therefore already part of one sub-set of humanity. We attract to the field of librarianship (and I am including knowledge management, archivists, and others in here, much to their probable chagrin) people who are readers, lovers of intellectual freedom, book-worshippers, dreamers, thinkers, observers, guardians. We do not attract (and I speak in general here!) people who are naturally outgoing, outspoken, political, ground-breakers.

In many places, these skills are unnecessary for everyday work. They are especially necessary, I would argue, in public libraries, where librarians often act, especially as they move up to management, as representatives of their organisation to the public, the media, local government, and non-users. Even on the ground, in community branches, it takes a certain type of person to do effective outreach in the community, and, let's face it, the person behind the Reference desk often isn't inclined (or well-prepared, but that could be a whole other post about library school education gaps!) to reach out, speak out, or effectively make those community connections.

I think about this situation all the time - not only do we tend to "keep our heads down," focusing on our work and advocacy for our organisation rather than advocacy for the profession as a whole, but we continue to undervalue people skills, love of connection and community, public speaking, and leadership potential when training and hiring (public) librarians. I think someone needs to do a scientific study about children's librarians, because I hear anecdotally (Superconference 2008: Session # 1206, entitled The Path to the CEO's Office) that they tend to end up as directors more frequently than other food groups. I suspect that once you've bid your dignity farewell by doing storytime in front of grown-ups, you have no shame left and are willing to speak up and take initiative.

I have an ongoing struggle trying to convince people that I was once exceptionally, debilitatingly, shy. I did learn to deal with it, mostly by pushing the fear down really far (I'm far too good at that, and at pushing down other emotions, too, but that's another story) and putting up a very brave front. It works a bit too well, because sometimes I say the wrong thing, and I'm sure people think I'm weird, but if it's happened to you talking to me, now you know it's likely because I was actually really nervous and blurted something out without thinking. I get nervous especially on the phone, for some reason, and even talking to people I know really well.

All that to say, I'm not insensitive to the often crippling feeling of shyness, and I understand why our profession ends up with so many shy people. I'm not saying we all need to be future leaders, or future revolutionaries; I'm just suggesting we need to take both small and big steps to advance our profession, some of which can be done by addressing our introvert (collective and individual) natures.

What triggered this rant was reading the Lipstick Librarian this morning. She was writing about minorities in the profession (or the lack thereof, rather). She points to a report by the ACRL Board of Directors Diversity Task Force (a subgroup of the ACRL Board of Directors) that states that "the biggest factor for minorities applying to library school is prior work experience in a library--in other words, direct exposure to the work." No kidding. That's why we don't attract lots of people, including minorities! How much do we talk about what we do, or show people? Sure, we get our friends' kids jobs shelving, and we talk about books to our friends, but do we talk about our day-to-day tasks? Do we even talk about them with circulation staff or pages in our own libraries (they are our biggest advocates, too!)? Do we talk about bigger issues, like copyright, the digital divide, intellectual freedom, RDA,.... with our non-librarian friends?

I try to make a point, at parties, for instance, if my profession comes up in conversation, of giving a few concrete examples of what I do in an average day. I might casually (at least I hope it's casually) mention supporting a book club with articles and online resources, visiting a grade 5 class and talking about great new fiction and non-fiction titles, judging book prizes, going to a teen mums' group to talk about babytime at the library, and so on. Every single time I do this, I get an exclamation of surprise, and interest: Oh! I had no idea you do that sort of thing! Once, my friend's husband asked me outright what I thought about the death of the book. I was so pleased, and on I went about libraries not being about books (books are a format; the format will change) but about knowledge, community, heritage, lifelong learning.... His eyes (luckily) did not glaze over, and he said, huh, I never thought of it that way.

I truly believe that even small victories like this advance our profession, slowly, step by step. There's nowhere to go but up: A 2006 survey of MLIS students at the University of Alabama’s SLIS found that only 2% listed the profession as a goal since high school. Seriously, 2%. Sadly, that says something about the state of American school libraries (or lack thereof, and therefore lack of good role models for our career), but it also says something about the general lack of awareness of libraries (public or otherwise) and of librarians as a part of children's communities, or personal lives.

The ARCL study goes on to underline that "The professional and research literature and Web presence on library and information science recruitment and retention ... suffer[s] from divergence," meaning that we divide our efforts and resources, instead of unifying them under one banner. The example given in the study of an unified presence for recruitment and retention is, but I would also suggest that Canadian chartered accountants have done a super job, also, with their CA advantage ad campaign. They're now implementing phase 2, "Decisions matter." The ads are brilliant.

Why can't we develop a national “ad campaign” for Canadian librarians? Coupled with recruiting, training, and supporting leaders within the profession, we could make a big difference in the type of professionals we attract, and the type of image we project in the world at large. Meanwhile, we have to never turn the "librarian" off, and seize every opportunity for public education and discussion of our role in the world. We simply can't afford to keep quiet, and toil in relative obscurity, any longer.

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