Saturday, December 24, 2011

The words "library" and "librarian"

Carnegie Library Building in downtown SyracuseOver the past several years, I have been involved in conversations about the respect that the words "library" and "librarian" receive.  Tell someone that you are going to a "library" and that person will instantly have an image of what the place might look like and what its services might be.  The word conjures familiar images, and often those images do not fit our current reality.  Libraries rely heavily on technology, contain cafes, might contain studios where people can work on creative endeavors, and can be quite noisy - which all fly in the face of that traditional image we all have.

The same is true of the word "librarian".  Thousands of people around the word are professional librarians (with a masters degree), and they serve their users/patrons/customers/members/owners in a variety of different ways.  Often these people are not in physical libraries and they may not have the title of "librarian", yet they are part of the "library" profession.  Saying that they are a librarian communicates something about their skills and knowledge, as well as their values.  However, the word "librarian" can also put that person in a box that limits what people believe they can do.  Would you seek out a librarian to help you handle, organize, and analyze massive data sets?  Would you turn to a librarian for help in bringing an invention to life?  Would you put a librarian on the front lines in your operation, knowing that the person could access and analyze information quickly, and thus ensure that the front line team had the information it needed to make quick, accurate decisions?

Ruth KnealeResearch conducted on behalf of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) during 2007-2009 showed that (and these are my interpretation of the results):
  • Many members did not hold the title of "librarian".  In fact, there were thousands of different job titles among the SLA members.
  • Although many didn't have the job title of librarian, a vocal segment of the membership did value the word and saw themselves as being librarians.
  • Those that hire "librarians" value their skills and knowledge.  If fact, it is the skill and knowledge that is most important, not that the person is a "librarian".
  • What we call ourselves - as librarians - may not be in agreement with the image that our employers have of us.  The word "librarian" may conjure the wrong image in their heads.  An image that is limited and limiting. 
Which brings me to a question that was asked of Dave Lankes this fall:
so which is more important, the name ‘librarian’ or what librarians could accomplish...?
Chadwick SeagraveI must admit that this question made me stand still and think.  I have called myself a consultant, analyst, supervisor, manager, and professor...but have always considered myself at the core to be a librarian.  What if I totally stopped using that word; would their be a negative impact?  Could I use words that are more descriptive?  Could I use words that resonate better with the communities where I'll be talking about what my [library and information science] students can do for them?

And what if people said, "gee...that kinda sounds like a librarian?"  I could acknowledge it and then point out that what we do now is so much more than the image that comes to mind.
  • We are the analysts and information organizers that people have been seeking.
  • We're the information and digital literacy trainers for the community.
  • We are the researchers and advisors for innovators and entrepreneurs that are bringing jobs back to economically stressed regions.
  • We are the people skilled in handling big data as well as ferreting out hidden details.
Seattle Public LibraryFinally, when you go into a doctor's office, the person has his degree on the wall. The fact that the person has a degree gives you some level of confidence. This isn't just someone who was hired off the street to provide medical services. This is someone who was trained and vetted. The person was selected by the medical group because of the knowledge that person had acquired starting in medical school. In the same way, our employers need to look for people to handle their data who have the right degree for that activity. Too often organizations think that anyone can do it, but we know that is not true. They need to seek out the people who have studied that activity and who are intent on making it their life's mission (just like our doctors).

I know...the words "library" and "librarian" are just words and how they are used or interpreted should not matter.  Sadly, however, it does matter and maybe not to you, but to a colleague that is job searching, a student that is graduating, or an organization that needs a skill and isn't sure where to find it.  In those and other situations, the words may hindering what is truly possible.


Ulla de Stricker said...

Right on Jill. It behooves us to encourage our colleagues and students to consider using synonyms (curator, content manager, etc) when communicating with potential employers and clients. The L-words can be there too, but we must connect for our clients the specific skills we have with the specific challenges they have.

Deb Hunt said...

What a wonderful and true post, Jill. As a consultant, I seldom let my clients know I am a librarian as they immediately limit their expectations of my skillset and ability to consult for them. They know I am an independent info pro.

And to be honest, I seldom tell people I meet that I'm a librarian as they immediately react by saying something like "you don't wear a bun".

I've found that if I tell them I'm an "independent information professional", they say "wow, what's that?" and I'm able to explain what I do. Then, I tell them I have an MLS. said...

A long time ago I ran into a young man in my neighborhood--that ever-expanding and increasingly vibrant area of West Philadelphia known as University City--who had recently graduated from Penn's prestigious law school. After we'd been chatting for a while, he asked me what I did for a living, and when I told him I was a librarian, he reacted with surprise. "But you're so smart!" By that time he knew I'd been to Smith, Yale and, for my MLS, the University of Maryland. "Why are you only a librarian...and why did you go to Maryland?!" My answer: "Exactly how do you think you'd have gotten through high school, college and law school without your libraries and librarians?" He thought about that for a minute, and then nodded and had to agree that he'd have been up a creek. I described Maryland's rigorous, diverse, forward-looking program, perfect for someone who had a range of interests and wasn't wedded to a particular type of job or library. That poor kid, I actually silenced a lawyer! In terms of our image, we could certainly do a better job advocating for ourselves, but the range of communication tools available to us today will make that task a lot easier, if we use those tools assertively.