Gracious. Such a response to yesterday’s discussion of library employment! Thanks to all who have commented, and all who will.
The Loon would call her readers’ attention to two additional dissections of the San Diego incident: that by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, which focuses on individual professionals’ responsibility for professional development, and that by Barbara Fister, which further interrogates systemic and management responsibility for lagging employees.
Here’s the thing: we’re all correct, all three of us! (Someone kindly stop the Loon before she starts trying to sing The Mikado.) Among us, we are blindly measuring the proverbial elephant. A complex ecosystem, this, with many interdependent organisms and many points of failure—or, for that matter, success.
The Loon could quibble with a thing or two. “But in reality most people who work in libraries don’t have wildly different definitions of what libraries are for,” says Fister. “They only disagree about the details.” The Loon shrieked with loonish laughter at this, having been the target of “but Libraries Don’t Do That” more times than she can properly count, on questions of publishing, open access, digital preservation (especially of gray literature), research-data management, copyright consultation, social media, computer programming—really, name it; if the Loon does it, some other librarian has questioned to her very face whether it’s properly a Thing Libraries Do. (Yes, the Loon has often wondered about that correlation, but she tries to avoid ruminating upon it, as it’s just too disheartening.)
“Usually,” says Bivens-Tatum, “it’s just a question of motivation and knowing where to look [for learning resources],” where “it” is autodidacticism. For talented autodidacts, like Bivens-Tatum himself, this is absolutely true. Most librarians, though, aren’t talented autodidacts (though the Loon pecks at her students constantly to remind them they should be). What librarians most often lack, in the Loon’s experience, might be characterized as “sense of direction.” Faced with a huge universe of possible things to learn, and little or no ability to synthesize a big picture from the apparent chaos, librarians flounder, unsure what to tackle first—and so they tackle nothing and hope the complexity goes away, or someone else provides direction. Alternately, they flail about “learning things” at random, without integrating anything they learn into actual praxis, and call that sufficient professional development.
(Or they arrogantly/fearfully declare they’ve nothing to learn; they are Good Librarians already, and that suffices. The Loon thinks this is far more common than Fister lets on, clustering particularly in large academic-library systems with unfirable librarians, whether because of tenure or just local employment custom. Acid test: Has a librarian been shuffled into a new position just to get them out of the way and doing no harm? Then librarians are unfirable. Supposedly this is humane employment practice. The Loon isn’t sure, believing that after a while, the accumulation and reshuffling of deadwood incurs a Very Large Budget Ax from the larger institution, which will affect many more staff than just the deadwood—and the deadwood, of course, may well be unemployable post-Ax.)
The Loon happens to be tolerably good at big-picture synthesis; it’s practically a necessity in the library-school-teaching game. Knowing her own capacity for it to be pure wild talent, however, she is sympathetic to other librarians’ struggle with it. She also believes that part of management’s job is to suss out big pictures and provide this kind of direction, particularly to those who have difficulty working it out for themselves; this, to the Loon, is a key aspect of “cultivating the bottom,” as Bivens-Tatum suggested. If this is overly aggressive, as Bivens-Tatum also suggested, the Loon pleads no-contest to aggression, believing this form of it necessary.
(Her favorite example of this process in action—stop her if you’ve heard this one before—is the mainstreaming of scholarly-communication outreach duties at the University of Minnesota.1 Management sussed out the landscape, formed a direction for the library, and insisted that appropriate employees learn what they needed to move the library in that direction—over their kicking and screaming where necessary.)
Does this always happen? Of course not; Bivens-Tatum is quite right about that, sadly, and his advice to librarians to protect their careers with constant learning is most wise. Does it need to happen more often and more consistently? Unquestionably. But the “kind, humane” culture of librarianship and library management doesn’t value directive management nearly as much as it perhaps ought.
So a buck-passing game begins. Fister demands that management step up, and Bivens-Tatum demands that individual librarians step up, and everyone can then pretend learning stasis in libraries is someone else’s problem. The Loon says “this is systemic, from individual librarians all the way up through individual libraries to library organizations to the total culture of librarianship, and attacking it at any single point is likely futile.”
(Even autodidacticism doesn’t always help the autodidact. The Loon is a dedicated autodidact, though certainly not as talented a one as Bivens-Tatum, but even so, her praxis has sometimes been shot dead in its tracks by another librarian’s ignorance, and inability or unwillingness to learn and change.)
She wishes she could be more optimistic, but having been driven out of practicing librarianship at least temporarily owing to being caged into an outletless professional backwater until she went even madder than loons are wont to be… she’s heavily scarred, and scared for the libraries and librarians she still loves dearly, and very leery of testing library-employment waters again. For now, at least.
- Malenfant, Kara J. “Leading change in the system of scholarly communication: a case study of engaging liaison librarians for outreach to faculty.” College and Research Libraries 71:1 (63–76). ↩
- Libraries: the last humane employers?
- Going boldly into the present