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Barnacles on the Ship of Librarianship

Submitted by Tom Peters on December 15, 2008 - 10:09am

Every now and then, usually when I have a moment by myself, I think about the state of librarianship.  I ponder the opportunities, the problems, and the progress.  Generally, these periodic, informal "state of librarianship" addresses to myself are optimistic. 

Over the past couple of decades, rather than concentrate on outright threats to librarianship, I have tended to focus on things that are holding librarianship back, or retarding its growth and development.  Questions of momentum, acceleration, and deceleration are much more mundanely interesting than questions about the life and death of a profession.  Although Google is doing some interesting and large-scale things to make information findable and usable, and thus seems like it poses something of a threat to librarians, we really cannot do much about what Google does or plans to do.

By concentrating on the retarding factors, perhaps we can identify tangible problems that we can work to solve.

Over the past two decades I have been known to mutter occasional comments about various professional associations, for-profit vendors, and not-for-profit organizations that, in my overall estimation, were retarding the progress of librarianship at a particular time.  I couldn't prove it, but I had my suspicions.   

In the past two years or so, however, as I  thought about the state of librarianship, a wild and crazy idea keeps surfacing:  What if libraries themselves are unnecessarily retarding the progress of librarianship?  What if they have become barnacles on the ship of librarianship? 

It seems that more and more librarians, many of them among the best and brightest of our profession, are quietly or vociferously refusing to work in actual libraries.  Is this normal for a profession?  Is this a sign of a healthy profession? 

Of course, my impromptu analysis may be simply wrong.  Although a few malcontents in our profession may be eschewing working in actual libraries, perhaps the overwhelming majority are as happy as clams. Or perhaps this situation is not unusual.  Perhaps many of the best and brightest lawyers love practicing law, but they cannot abide working for law firms.  Perhaps many of the best and brightest healthcare professionals love helping people regain or maintain their health, but they cannot stand working in most hospitals and clinics.  Perhaps many educators love to teach, but cannot tolerate working for most schools and school districts.  Heck, in higher education, scoffing at one's place of work is a point of professional pride. 

Even if most libraries have become barnacles on the ship of librarianship, what can we do about it?  We cannot just pry off the offending libraries and chuck them into the finny deep.  Without libraries, librarianship would become primarily a thought experiment, not a field of practice. 

One thing libraries could do to convert themselves from barnacles to naval jelly (i.e., that which removes rust and reduces drag on the ship) would be to embrace the global aspect of today's and tomorrow's information environment.  Most libraries still define their primary clientele in very conventional, constrained ways -- as the people who live in the library's defined geographic area, or the current students, faculty, and staff of a school, college, or university, or the current employees of an organization. If global users are mentioned at all in the mission statement of a library,  they are often listed as secondary or tertiary users.

The time soon will come when the idea of defining the clientele a library serves in very narrow, often geographically constrained terms will seem very quaint and old-fashioned.  Usage of information and information services has been going global since global information networks became widely used.   

How can we realize this change?  Perhaps a few forward-thinking library staffers, with the full support of their boards and their currently defined clientele, should openly declare that they serve the entire world, at least in theory. That may apply enough pressure to other libraries to at least consider making the big move. Of course, some library services cannot really serve the world's population, at least in theory.  Interlibrary loan comes to mind. 

If we all woke up one morning to a world in which all libraries treated everyone in the world as their primary clientele, what may amaze us is how little other aspects of libraries would have changed.  Most people would still go to their local libraries for most of their information needs.  Some libraries may be noted and heavily used for certain types of information and information services.  But I don't think we would witness a radical decline in the number of libraries in the world.  If all libraries served the entire world's population, at least in theory, the number of libraries may actually increase. 

If libraries opened their doors to the entire world, I believe we would see a burst of innovation and modernization.



Comments (15)

Standards? I suppose low

I suppose low standards are still standards (based on ALA accredited MLIS programs curricula).
I am not saying that there aren't great librarians out there - there are! And I've met them! BUT they are great librarians *despite* the MLIS. They complain about it, they acknowledge that it's a "union card" but they are complacent about it. Instead of fighting for reform, they pay up, go to classes where they may not learn what they need to know to be cutting edge librarians (with a foot in the past of course), and they come out with debt, getting so-so paying jobs *and* reinforcing the "MLIS-only need apply" attitude of the industry.

I find it ironic that I am

I find it ironic that I am reading a "MLIS" is exclusive post when librarianship has suffered unbearably for decades under the assumption that "anyone can be a librarian so it is not a profession and you don't need a degree." You just cannot make everyone happy!

The main issues to libraries as barriers to librarianship have already been rubbed on: funding, original structures, populations served. I would add that libraries necessarily have to be a "little behind" while working on being a "little ahead" because of the full range of patrons using the resources. Staying behind is egregious and a barnacle, yes. Leaping into the future with some sort of cutting edge global perspective and set of tools is alienating to many - and not a great solution for institutions that are still trying to figure out how to connect their local people with that which they are seeking. Especially when people are lazy and have a computer. There is a comfort zone about traditional libraries that just cannot be deemed a barnacle, in my opinion. Libraries serve a walk-in population FIRST, despite all the global technologies.

So, back to my reply about MLIS and the topic at hand: if your institution is refusing to let you "play ball" despite "equivalent experience" then you are not selling your skills correctly or your administrators are lazy and relying on procedure to do their thinking. This is usually the case, but it is not a terrible thing. It makes it hard for enthusiastic, dedicated, and knowledgeable non-degreed "librarians", but it also sets a standard for a field that was desperately in need of some professional credentialing!

I cannot tell you the number of times someone has derisively said "you went to school to become a librarian - a (insert animal of you choice) could be a librarian! Then an argument ensues in which I show them what librarians are capable of doing and what skillset they have that (insert animal of your choice) will never have, and I ask them if that addled dolphin they hired to create a standards compliant, accessible document repository is really working out for their business. Or if that sad lemur with a non-specific IT degree really knows what story time is all about. Or if that sexy turtle they hired can do story time AND figure out what to do when the freaking catalog system won't allow off-site patron access.

Libraries are not barnacles on the librarianSHIP - but they are mostly seen as an older, barnacle covered model that is not as fast or as sexy as the newer librarianships of "learning centers", "digital repositories", yadayada. The reason more librarians are not running to be employed by libraries is that it is common knowledge that libraries are considered expendable budget items along with their (usually) underpaid librarians and staff. It is an age old fight that a love of learning and knowledge (or pastel paint and new computers) will not cure. Activism, local public support, and greater integration of libraries into various other institutions might.

best wishes and excuse the rant,

To Steve Casburn (Dec. 16 at

To Steve Casburn (Dec. 16 at 11:42 p.m.): Hi, Steve. Oh, the people I know who are very dedicated librarians but by choice are not working in libraries are doing all sorts of things. Some are working alone or in small groups. The phrase "library consultant" doesn't really capture well what they are doing. Others are working for associations, vendors, and other library-related organizations. As another commentator noted, this is always the case in every profession, but the general sense I have (without hard supporting data, I admit), is that this very small slice of the overall employment pie for our profession is growing quickly. These people are doing many interesting and important things that I think in general are tending to advance our profession.

To Bookwoman (Dec. 17 at 9:06 a.m.): I think you've touched on the key issue. IMHO, the local funding of most libraries, while it made good sense when these libraries were established, is increasingly "out of whack" with how people actually seek and use information. I think this will become a huge issue (problem, really) for libraries as a group as we move farther into this century. My suggestion in this blog post is to try to create a movement whereby libraries would declare that they serve everyone in the world, at least in theory. If most or all libraries did this, we would collectively develop a new library service landscape. I think the outcomes of such a move would be generally positive, but would need much more discussion and debate.

To Rochelle (Dec. 17 at 10:31 a.m.): Interesting comments. You mention several system factors (funding models, vendor agreements, and potentially miffed taxpayers) that make my proposal seem impossible. While I agree that trying to encourage all libraries to "go global," not just on a case-by-case and service-by-service basis, but fundamentally, in the sense that mission statements and funding schemes actually acknowledge that the library serves the world's population, at least in theory. Notice that I've always qualified my comments by the "at least in theory" phrase. I do this, because I think that if most libraries could officially go global, the impact on any individual library (at least initially) would be minimal. Quoting from the original post, "Most people would still go to their local libraries for most of their information needs. Some libraries may be noted and heavily used for certain types of information and information services."

Actually, the instance of the Swedish librarian who discovered your excellent reader's advisory pages is exactly what I had in mind. What if all libraries were known and used worldwide for certain pockets of expertise like that? Personally, I think that would be great for librarianship as both a profession and a field of practice.

I have some concerns about your analogies with garbage and ambulance services, because both of those services are inextricably object-based, it seems to me. I cannot imagine a garbage service that does not pick up physical garbage, or an ambulance service that does not pick up physical bodies, but I can easily imagine a library that eventually will not primarily deliver (or allow users to pick up) physical objects (books, DVDs, etc.). In fact, I think that's where library services are headed. We may never get completely there, for good reasons (digital divide issues, for instance), but it may become the dominant mode of library service soon (i.e., sometime this century).

At my public library we will

At my public library we will help anyone, and I think this is the case for most libraries. We are, however, constrained by vendor agreements, funding models and other factors. For example--we are five minutes from Minnesota and get a lot of users from across the river, because of our exceptional library service. They can come in and use resources, call us on the phone for reference, bring their kids to programs, etc. We do, however, charge for a library card, a fee equivalent to what the average homeowner here pays in property taxes to support the library. I'm guessing that our tax paying users would be a little bent about paying for services that others get for free.

I received an email from a Swedish librarian recently, asking for read-alikes for Twilight. She found our reader's advisory pages and thought we'd be a good place to start. Of course I helped her out.

We provide interlibrary loan to cardholders, at no charge to them, even when we incur charges. In addition we loan our materials to libraries all over the US.

Our Archives department takes genealogy and local history requests from people all over the US, and farther, without a fee, except for copying charges. They continue to digitize materials and make them available on our website.

Libraries have to define their user base. How do you develop a collection and provide resources for "everybody." Does that mean I need to buy Russian newspapers, snuff flicks, obscure literary publications, etc, because that's what my user base likes? We do not purchase materials with academic users in mind because there are three other academic libraries within 2 miles of the library.

Would you also advocate for global garbage pick up or ambulance service? Should rural people with inadequate refuse service be able to dump their trash in my alley because we get weekly pick-ups? I guess I'd like more specifics about how an individual library would become more global, given the examples of wide-open services I shared and given the practical constraints of funding models and agreements with vendors, etc.

While I have nothing against

While I have nothing against serving a global patron group, I am wondering who is funding the libraries that do so? If a majority of libraries had such a service policy, we would all receive the benefit of greater service. However, one library offering its services globally when all others in its state or region do not may end up not serving its nearby residents.

Tom: To re-phrase my

Tom: To re-phrase my original question: What are the "more and more librarians" who are "among the best and brightest of our profession" but are "refusing to work in actual libraries" doing, and how is what they are doing contributing to the profession?

What is your current job

What is your current job description?

Why do you choose to work in the library?

Hi, the.effing.librarian.

Hi, the.effing.librarian. Thanks for working the lifeboats. Actually, I think if most libraries openly declared that they gladly serve anyone in the world, that would help people who need that hound you mentioned. If they, with some canine or GPS assistance, could find a library, any library, they would be treated as a member of the library's primary clientele. If we could somehow collective effect this transformation, which would indeed be a true sea-change (block that nautical metaphor!), library users would benefit tremendously.

One more ship metaphor before I try to give it up: I've thought about writing a post like this for several years. Whenever I did, I always imagined be keelhauled by the readers! Here's a paragraph copied from the Wikipedia article on keelhauling (note that barnacles play a role!): "The sailor was tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship, and dragged under the ship's keel to the other side. As the hull was often covered in barnacles and other marine growth, this could result in cuts and other injuries. This generally happened if the offender was pulled quickly. If pulled slowly, his weight might lower him sufficiently to miss the barnacles but might result in his drowning."

Hi, Steve (12/15/08 at 8:57

Hi, Steve (12/15/08 at 8:57 p.m.) and Anonymous (12/16/08 at 5:52 a.m.). Just to clarify: What I wrote ("It seems that more and more librarians, many of them among the best and brightest of our profession, are quietly or vociferously refusing to work in actual libraries.") does NOT lead to these logical conclusions:
1. Any librarian who works outside a regular library must be among the best and brightest of the profession.
2. Any librarian who does work in a regular library must not be among the best and brightest of the profession.

What I did mean to indicate was that many of the librarians who are not working in libraries are very bright and dedicated librarians. They may consitute a miniscule percentage of all the "best and brightest" librarians in our profession, but still I think the phrase "many of them among the best and brightest..." is a fair and accurate statement, at least based on what I've observed. This is true even if the overwhelming majority of the "best and brightest in our profession" do indeed work in regular libraries, however we may choose to define the meaning of best, brightest, and regular.

So, no insult to librarians working in regular libraries was intended, and, if that sentence is read carefully, no insult is delivered.

Your claim that the best and

Your claim that the best and the brightest librarians are no longer working in libraries is rather insulting to those who choose to work in libraries.

As a matter of fact I have just returned to working in a library (a medical school library) after years of working in consulting as a content/knowledge management specialist. I'm happy to get away from all that nonsense. As far as other professions go, I can best talk about the medical field. Do you think all doctors practice medicine? That's ridiculous. Around the world doctors work as administrators of hospitals, or in ministries of health, for insurance companies and national health services, for medical schools and pharmaceutical companies. Organizations like the WHO are chock-a-block with doctors who are not practicing. I've worked in countries where more doctors worked as administrators than those actually treating patients. So I can't agree with your assessment.

Tom: If the "best and

Tom: If the "best and brightest" are "refusing to work in actual libraries", then what are they doing instead? And how is what they are doing in those jobs or causes advancing the profession?

While I find your barnacles

While I find your barnacles on the ship metaphor delightful, I'm not sure that you have come up with a viable solution. Primarily a pragmatist, your idea gives me pause when I consider "serving the world" when most libraries don't even have funding adequate for their local needs. I would like to suggest, instead, that librarianship needs to be re-defined. (Microsoft's Sharepoint is using the term "libraries" for ways of organizing files i.e., information).

Yes, let's be inclusive, rather than exclusive, but let's focus on identifying our profession as information specialists. I'm very interested in seeing librarians positioned as the most savvy or "go-to" profession in enhancing communication between techies and non-techies. I would love to hear how others feel about my solution. What's obvious to me may be anathema to others.

As a wanna-be MLIS student,

As a wanna-be MLIS student, I have never considered working in a library for many of the reasons you listed in your post. Also, for the reason listed by "Incognito" in his post - money. I feel like the MLIS masters degree would fit my skills and abilities perfectly, and I feel like I could be a real asset to the profession with my considerable experience and background (I am an older aspiring student). My whole life has been about learning, yet I do not find working in a library enticing. I have heard stories of rigid hierarchies in the personnel pyramid, low pay for recent grads, no end of complaints about lack of salary increases, and so little inspiration. If the job descriptions are this boring, how on earth do you attract bright, interested candidates? My wish would be that all libraries start acting more like Google in every way (salary, treating all like equal professionals and colleagues, open to ideas and change) and less like government bureaucracies. Yes, degrees are valuable, but they are not the only measure of a person's ability to be a librarian. If I thought I would find a library job I love that paid what I was worth, I would have graduated with my MLIS by now. As it is, I wait to see whether the barnacles will bring down the ship or if it will rid itself of some of its' excess weight of tradition to fly over the water.

I guess I'm working the

I guess I'm working the lifeboat on your librarian"ship."

I think some of these thinkers forget that there are always people who can barely swim well enough to make it to the boat. Sure, the thinkers got on in a dry port and sit up with the captain and get Leo DiCaprio to hold them against the bow to feel the wind rush by, or whatever part that was in the stupid movie someone made me see. And if the ship hits an iceberg, they probably have helicopters to fly them to safety.

And they forget about all the people in the water. Every year we see people who can't find any information in libraries or online; they couldn't find their asses with both hands and a specially trained ass-finding hound.

Libraries are there for people who need them. And each day they arrive, as many as the day before. So don't give up on that "ship" (can we finish with the damn ship metaphor already???).

The problem with

The problem with librarianship is that is is an exclusive profession rather than an inclusive profession. I am a young professional that works in a library without an MLIS. In order to get the librarian title you need this MLIS. I have an MEd, and MBA and an BA in Computer Science. By all means I could be a systems librarian, or a public services librarian (I've spent enough time with reference books and in the stacks to know my way around reference questions in diverse fields).

When I have applied to libraries my resume gets tossed in the 'not suited' pile because of the lack of an MLIS. Now could I get an MLIS? If I had the money necessary for another masters degree, I am capable of getting an MLIS, but I've already covered most of the coursework in my other degrees or through work (the exception to this is cataloguing)
And even if I had an MLIS, some libraries wouldn't pay enough because their budgets are strained. So why would an MLIS grad (with or without other education), go work for a library when they could be making better money in corporate america?

I think that the 'or equivalent' (of the famous 'MLIS, or equivalent, required') needs to be seriously considered if you want libraries to be inclusive work environments. Instead of trying to shoehorn everything into the MLIS, the librarian profession needs a fresh infusion of minds outside of the library school norms.