Can This Profession be Saved? Should This Profession be Saved?

LibrarianshipI am growing increasingly concerned about the future of this profession (librarianship). We have so much to offer yet we actually seem to be the problem to survival.

First we morphed into the “information professions.” Then “information professionals” whatever that means. I am not sure how information became a profession. Sure, the term “librarian” carries some baggage so call yourself what you like, but librarianship is still the profession.

Then we got the “i-Schools,” a rebranding exercise within the academy taken as a much more significant move.

So we focus on information, and its management and use. But to what end? Is our “calling” and purpose not much more significant than that?

Lately I have been struck (read disturbed) by the growing number of public library CEOs and University Librarians talking in the corridors and back halls about whether they need librarians at all. This is after the nodding agreement that we certainly don’t need so many. How could this be true in such a complex environment?

Self-Serving Platitudes?

Seems that librarians can dish up all the self-serving platitudes they like about Google giving you thousands of answers but a librarian giving you the right one, but it doesn’t take a librarian to do an advanced Google search. We quote the Pew studies on what Americans think about their libraries (we do like warm and fuzzy). But, really, who cares?

Employers think that they can get more for less, as in hiring a trained library technician rather than a librarian, and they are usually proven right. And they don’t come with “attitude”. We’ve heard for twenty years the question about needing a master’s degree to read a book to children and still haven’t developed an evidence-based response.

More importantly, it seems that librarians (CEOs/ULs) don’t want to hire librarians because they see them as whining, inflexible and demonstrating a high sense of entitlement. Basically, they are out of touch with reality and many think that this starts with the LIS graduate programs.

My own view is that libraries are not offering much that is scarce in the information marketplace except “product” to some extent and the librarians’ expertise, if it uniquely exists.

Focus On – and Exploit – Our Expertise

We need to focus on this expertise and develop it deeply and exploit it mercilessly for the good of our communities. Not “expertise” that can be exhibited better by a teacher or a social worker or a … but unique expertise.

Even our associations seem not to get it. Looking at a national conference list of preconference sessions recently, Measuring Outcomes was up against Book Repair I and Book Repair II. Of course the response is this is what our members want! And isn’t that part of the problem? Sure, you may need that skill set but do you need to come together at a national conference offered only once a year to get it?

So employers say that they want deep expertise but they also want people who can identify and solve critical problems while leading teams for improvement and implementation. In other words, leaders. Leaders on whom they can rely. Who have the best interests of the enterprise and its customers at heart, not themselves.

It is growing apparent that if we can’t hire and develop people with critical and unique expertise able to lead organizational teams we have a big, big problem.

About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.


6 Responses to Can This Profession be Saved? Should This Profession be Saved?

  1. Ken Williment April 1, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    I am a little confused by this posting, but maybe since I am not in the back corridors talking with CEO’s I am out of the loop.

    However, I must say that libraries are currently full of librarians! Libraries are changing, and from my own personal experience know that public libraries need to reflect not only the needs of local communities, but also reflect local community demographics. Members of the community need to see themselves reflected in the institutions they enter. I am not sure if the demographic makeup of students coming out of library school reflect local communities, nor are students coming out of library programs currently taught how to work with (not for) communities.

    As for libraries changing, that may imply that these physical spaces need to adapt to allow others with varying skills to also enter the workforce – beyond those with a para-professional or MLIS degree. I think in a changing environment we need more difference, not more of the same.

    I think libraries are looking for leaders to lead teams. However, I think the bigger question is – is credentialism a greater predictor of a leader or are strong interpersonal skills and knowledge of understanding community need more important in predicting leaders in the changing library environment?

    I think this issue could be addressed if ALA reviewed and updated library school course content to reflect the new realities of work in libraries.

    As a profession, I believe that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expect different outcomes.

  2. Smitty April 1, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    Thank you for articulating this so succinctly. I agree whole-heartedly. It’s a chicken and egg conundrum, though. Is it the profession that needs saving or is the institution? They are inextricably linked (that’s a problem in itself).

    I believe that our personalities are what are going to kill us, pure and simple. Unfortunately, our profession traditionally attracts a particular “type” (read: stereotype—perhaps justified): organized, rule-following, detail-oriented…pillars of erudition. Not that this is bad…but is it ‘modern enough’?

    We are now in an era of needing to have a wider set of skills and a narrower sense of rules. We must throw off the shackles of being quietly defined by our traditions and institutions and learn to advertise ourselves (or expertise) in the most modern and, sometimes, brash terms.

    “Survival of the fittest” applies to our profession more and more. I think that, in 2014 and beyond, the fittest will be the loudest.

  3. Cameron April 1, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    Institutional theory posits that establishment of legitimacy is associated with three forces, coercive, normative, and mimetic. Within the field of librarianship, the cultural-cognitive power of the mimetic derived legitimacy, is certainly the dominant force. I believe if we explicitly embrace the legitimating power of isomorphism we will once again reclaim the library’s public. In practical terms, less men-more women, closed stacks, books only, card catalogs, corporal punishment in library schools… ; )

    Ahhh the one day of the year I can be openly foolish. Though I kind of like the corporal punishment idea.

  4. Heather April 2, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    I am not sure it is the public librarians who are out of touch. No “evidenced-based” responses to how librarians select children’s materials, run programs, and teach library staff to run programs? You yourself have written previously about library systems that market and and utilize early-literacy programming from approaches such as Every Child Ready to Read, endorsed by the ALSC and PLA, and which has over 20 yrs. of research behind it. In some communities, we are the only early-literacy game in town, and we know that the first 5 yrs. are crucial. We model programming for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to parents and daycare leaders and explain why we do what we do, and how we do it! We often are working in vulnerable neighbourhoods or with newcomers. The idea that we act for ourselves and not for our communities is very simply wrong. Do we evaluate, partner, collect quantitative and qualitative data? You bet.

    We often partner with schools when teachers are desperate about decisions to get rid of their own libraries and librarians and collections. Recently, you also criticized libraries for not working with a national program aimed at preparing kids for kindergarten, entirely ignoring the fact that some of us did not know that the organization even existed because it had never contacted or reached out to libraries in some provinces. It is the libraries here who have taken steps to correct this, not the organization.

    Finally, while many of us have taken advantage of online learning with webinars and other sessions that may last from an hour to 1-2 days (from The Partnership courses to the National Reading Summit), when asked about whether the conference in BC that you were promoting could be made available online to others across the country, your response was that it was too long! Talk about an irrelevant, out of touch response!

    Today I obviously feel extremely frustrated with the tendency of this blog to continually blame libraries and librarians for every shortcoming under the sun, never to consider whether other organizations and institutions have a role to play, and to seldom celebrate innovations and successes. Talk about self-serving enterprises!

  5. Ken Roberts April 3, 2014 at 12:59 am #

    I think you said it well and there is not much I could possibly pick apart. I admire your willingness to raise issues and say things that others avoid

  6. Heather April 3, 2014 at 7:19 am #

    I also appreciate the willingness to raise issues and ask important questions here. I am frustrated that no matter what question is raised, week after week, the tenor is always that librarians don’t. Librarians don’t partner with other professionals and organizations; that libraries don’t hire from a variety of backgrounds and skill sets; that librarians don’t innovate, lead, change, seek to learn, or evaluate. Maybe that’s the impression in the back corridors with the CEOs, but the view can be different once you move into the room.