The Ambivalent Librarian

About six months ago I wrote about the perception of professionalism in libraries. About three months ago I began a post with the above title. That post was begun at a point of emotional nadir in which my depression had had a significant resurgence. I was in fear of losing my job, and I really didn’t know what I was doing in the profession anymore. Fortunately, that time has passed and I have since deleted all of the content from that depressive would-be post.

Why Am I an Ambivalent Librarian?

I was twenty-six years old and halfway through my undergraduate degree when I began working in my first library job. Over the next two years I began to really enjoy the environment and the work I was doing and decided to make libraries my new career. I knew that for the best paying and most career advancing jobs I’d have to get a Master’s degree in Library Science. But, as I looked around at the librarians and paraprofessionals I worked closely with I saw no significant difference in the work they were doing. Even my department head was little better than a retail manager. What then was the purpose of a library degree? Later, I worked at a local public library, where again, the librarians in charge were little better than retail management and they did many of the same tasks as the paraprofessional staff. What was the degree good for? Later, still, I got my first full-time library job at a university library and again, I couldn’t tell what was so special about the library science degree. As far as I could tell, all of the specialized work that was being done — in the front of house, at least — was stuff that was relatively easy to learn through one-on-one instruction and trial and error. Now, I was never involved in library instruction, subject selecting, and the like, but I still didn’t see what was so important about that library degree.

I did see that I was never ever going to get a better job without it, though.

I enrolled in library school and spent the next four years mostly complaining about the lack of depth and generally low instructor expectations from something that claimed to be a Master’s degree. I was not a happy student and did not make many friends in that time. With only a few exceptions I felt that I was required to work much harder as an undergraduate than a graduate student, which seems upside-down to me. Furthermore, I was learning that that for so many jobs in academic libraries one was expected to have a second Master’s degree in a certain subject. Still, the question persisted, what was the purpose or use of a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science?

I Call It “Librarian Hazing.”

It’s the gauntlet; the basic training, of a profession that rarely looks like what is presented in the classroom. I’ve talked to librarians from all across the country who went to any number of library programs. Some, seem to had wonderful and challenging experiences in library school that they are grateful for. Others, like me, had disappointing experiences that really put into question the value of the whole process. I, for one, think the whole thing is done incorrectly.

I’d endorse a medieval-style apprenticeship program that placed a novitiate in the library on day one in which they develop skills based on actual library work, rather than relying on textbooks and theory. Textbooks and theory are important, of course, but can’t convey the realities of the work. Ever. This approach would not only make better librarians, but also stem the market flood of inexperienced library graduates that hit the streets every year. This would also greatly extend the time required to train librarians and be so relationship-based — rather than classroom-based — that it would be financially unfeasible for universities to implement. So this won’t happen, but it’s a dream.

When I began thinking about librarianship as a career, I was thinking of getting into ILL or cataloging (i.e. back of house operations), but by the time I was half-way through my librarian education I had realized that while I do have a cataloger’s brain and could be very successful in that kind of work, that the lack of variety and patron interaction were something that I’d miss. I’d accidentally become a public services (i.e. front of house) librarian. I couldn’t have made that change without direct experience in the field.

I would get very frustrated with classmates — who usually were lovely people — who seemed to enter library school on a whim; who did not or had never worked in a library. People who seemed to have romantic notions of what library work was like and saw it as the greener grass on the other side of the septic tank. Library schools, by not being able to provide these people with hands-on work, only did these people an expensive disservice. I wanted to shake them by their shoulders and tell them that they were wasting their time and their money, especially when they would look you in the face and say they could never relocate from their tiny Missouri town because they had children or whichever honorably sentimental excuse they were using.

After I received my Master’s degree it took me two years to get another job, and even that one only required a high-school diploma. I’m still not a “professional” librarian by industry standards, regardless of the work I perform. The reasons it took me that long to get a job are complex and we can’t ignore the significance of sheer dumb luck, but there are two relevant professional reasons that my job search was longer than advertised:

  1. I had no full-time employee management experience (student assistants only).
  2. I had never been a teacher.

Lack of management and teaching experience disqualified me from ninety percent of the jobs out there. If a decade’s experience as a student assistant and paraprofessional weren’t enough to qualify me for librarian job after achieving my master’s degree, my wistful classmates wouldn’t have a prayer.

So, we have a situation in which the library degree, by itself, is not enough for the best-paying, most advancing careers, and is sometimes seen as secondary to your other Master’s degree. Furthermore, librarian education is uneven, at best. Yet, we have this culture that only says your a “real” librarian if you been through the MLIS degree process. Library school is truly librarian hazing: an expensive, difficult, and time consuming process with few tangible rewards.

That’s Library School, Yeah, but the Work…

The work. I really like the work. I get frustrated like anyone else, but I get to come to work every day and work with college students on both sides of the desk. I get to work with these remarkable and ambitious people and be a small part of their education. With the youngest of them who work for me I get to be a small part of finishing their journey to adulthood. I get to support my amazing colleagues who are teaching research skills and information literacy. I get to lean on talented technicians making sure the information is findable.

The thing about the work, though, is that it is largely moving away from what is stereotypically seen as library work. The traditional reference desk is dying the slow painful death of suburban shopping malls as more and more information is readily accessible online. SMS and Chat services mean that many questions about library access can be managed from any computer. With the advent of RFID tagging and self-checkout stations, plus, tablets and web-based circulation software the traditional circulation desk will soon begin to die out as the reference desk has. Neither will disappear completely, but if you can purchase an iMac at the Apple store without a cash register, then why do we need a massive piece of furniture dedicated to book circulation or ready reference consultation?

My colleagues in the back of the house are performing work more akin to a computer scientist than the catalogers of the past. Newer features like makerspaces and whole departments like my library’s new “Knowledge Production” group are asking fundamental questions about what an academic library can or should be. We’re putting in audio and video production studios, video editing suites, 3D printers, and a GIS lab. None of this is covered in any library school I’ve ever heard of. It’s almost like the term “librarian” doesn’t mean anything anymore. That’s not bad or good. It is just reality.

I’m an ambivalent librarian because I see the wonderful work and true value of us dedicating our professional lives to ensure students and faculty have access to the resources they need to be successful in their studies, but I also see the anachronistic approach to librarian education and credentials that do not reflect the future — or even the present — of the profession.

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