Out! Out, Damn Ego!

Recently, I was a minor participant in a Twitter thread that began here.

There was a lot of activity and I can’t comment on all of it, but what is clear from @RandiFoorDalton‘s responses is that there was much negative reaction and gatekeeping about how one should become a librarian.

I’ve mentioned many times before in this blog how I was not happy with my library school; how I paid 25% tuition and still feel like I got ripped off to get a Master’s degree that has no value outside the profession and exists primarily as a gatekeeper to prove one’s worth in library-land. Fourteen-and-a-half years into my library career and four-and-a-half years past my MLIS librarian hazing and my feelings about the degree have only hardened.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a librarian and working in this profession. I am surrounded every day by amazing, talented, and dedicated librarians who I find inspiring. But I’m also surrounded by amazing, talented, and dedicated staff who work just as hard, if not harder, than the professional librarians doing work of equal value for far less pay or recognition. As a supervisor of some of these people I do my best on the recognition aspect, but I can’t do anything about their pay.

Randi — I’m going to call her Randi. I have no idea what her real name is — is a high-school educated woman working in a library in Michigan and shows herself to be a highly intelligent and capable woman of color who I’m sure could go far in librarianship if she chose to pursue an MLIS. But the fact is that she chooses not to. The circumstances around this decision are unknown to me and none of my business, but the fact is that because of the gatekeeping feature of the MLIS our profession will never benefit from her skills and talents to the extent possible because she couldn’t advance to any place of power in the profession even if she wanted to.

We have lots of hand-wringing in our profession about diversity (here, here, here, here, here, here, just from a quick Google search). These important discussions will remain hollow if ALA and the profession at large do not do the hard work of reevaluating what skills are actually needed to be a successful librarian and how to get those skills. Many of us are like me. We learned how to be librarians by working in libraries and doing librarianship. The academic pursuit of librarian education has value, but only as a supplement to the boots-on-the-ground learning of actually doing the work and learning from those who’ve done the work before you. Standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will.

Most people have to take on a literal lifetime of debt for the privilege of applying for the jobs they want. That’s fact.

It’s true that for most the cost of an MLIS is a major hit to one’s financial health, and out of reach for many more. Most people don’t get to go for 25% tuition because they happen to work for the parent institution. Most people have to take on a literal lifetime of debt for the privilege of applying for the jobs they want. That’s fact. Those who already feel burdened by the cruelties of our late-stage capitalism and the commodification of education are forced to opt out of a profession they aspire to and to which they would add great value because of the cost. And then, the profession has the gaul to turn around and ask why their leadership is mostly affluent white people.

ALA and the profession must do some heavy soul searching and ask themselves difficult questions? Why do we insist on supposedly advanced academic degrees for positions that may, or may not, pay a living wage? Why do we create and permit library education programs with scant practical training? Why must one endure a lifetime of debt to aspire to our noble profession?

One solution is to realign our thinking on librarian education. Treat librarian education as an apprenticeship program in which novice librarians learn directly on the job (with a salary and everything) from established professionals. This is the ONLY way the nuances of the profession can be learned. Want someone who can problem solve and resolve conflict? Put them at a busy circulation desk. Want someone who can research effectively? Put them at the reference desk. Want someone who can work with complex detail oriented tasks? Put them in cataloging and metadata. Make sure the novices reach benchmarks. At the end of their training they get certificates showing they’ve reached proficiency. The more certificates they receive the better the jobs they are qualified for. Classroom learning isn’t excised from the process, but serves as theoretical background for the 80% of your training that is done in the field.

“But I loved my library school!”

Great, for you. That’s not the point. I don’t propose the above scenario to replace library school as we know it but propose it as a concurrent and equally valued approach to building our workforce. Doing librarian education this way reduces the financial barriers to the profession and will naturally draw in the marginalized communities that ALA wrings it’s hands about. You won’t even have to try. They’ll just show up because libraries are a beloved feature of American society that any number of people want to be a part of.

“This will diminish the value of my degree.”

Get over yourself. Your degree only has value now because you need it to get a “professional” position. Your degree only has value because others say so. It has no intrinsic value of its own. It says you paid the money and did the work and only now are you let in. It’s by definition a gatekeeper to keep the wrong sort out of the profession.

“This is an academic profession. We’re not plumbers.”

Again, get over yourself. We provide vital services to our communities that require years of specialized training. If that doesn’t sound like a plumber, or a carpenter, or a doctor, then I don’t know what is. (Yes, doctors are tradespeople too. Your family physician isn’t inventing the drugs, just administering them). The fact that people act like professions gained by going to a whole bunch of school classes are fundamentally superior to those that are learned outside by doing the work do themselves and their communities a great disservice. It is elitist snobbery that betrays your true nature. Try calling a Ph.D. when your toilet breaks and see how much help they are.

“I’ve spent my career doing library research. You’re saying it’s meaningless?”

Absolutely not! There is no choice here. It’s not “be a trade” or “be an academic pursuit.” That’s a false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other. It can be one, if that’s your skillset and perspective. It can be the other, if that’s you. It can be both, too. We make the profession better by contributing to the trade and the study of the profession.

Bear in mind, that carpenters and plumbers have trade publications and conferences, too. I have no idea what research would look like in these trades, but are you really prepared to claim that they don’t, or can’t, do it? Or that that work is meaningless?

We’re not saving the world. We’re providing a path for others to do that.

As a society at large, we need to stop treating the trades with derision. As a profession, librarians need to set aside the notion that they are serving some grand higher academic purpose. Our primary function is to make information available for others to use. That’s it. We provide access and teach them how to use it effectively. These are vitally important roles to play in civilization, but we’re not curing cancer or plunging the deep questions of nature. We’re not saving the world. We’re providing a path for others to do that. You know what else people need to save the world? Houses, working plumbing, and medicine. We’re tradespeople and we’re great. The rest is just ego.

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