Gavia Libraria

Libraries: the last humane employers?

The Loon would not be surprised to see more stories like this coming from libraries of all stripes in days to come. Much about library-as-profession made this inevitable. The Loon does not care to point fingers at classes of individuals, but insofar as she cannot tease apart the system without doing so, she will do so, with regret.

One attribute that sets librarianship apart from other self-proclaimed professions (this is not a slur, only an observation; non-librarians are usually bewildered by the idea that librarianship is a profession, and they do not accord librarianship the social status of most other professions1) is its lackadaisical approach to lifelong learning and re-credentialing. It’s quite possible for a degreed librarian to keep her job for years or decades without going to a single conference, attending a single continuing-education class, or demonstrating new learning of any sort on the job.

It can be no surprise, then, that some librarians have done precisely that, for years or decades. Others treat “professional development” as a yearly conference kaffeeklatsch; actual learning, much less application thereof in the workplace, barely makes the radar if it does at all.

Their workplaces collude—after all, nothing prevents a library from being run by librarians allergic to learning. Professional-development funds may not be allotted, or they may be over-allotted to the cattle-car conferences where avoiding learning is easiest. (The Loon defies anyone to avoid learning from a conference of one hundred attendees or less. At conferences of ten thousand or more, it’s easy.) No assessment of learning happens, nor are librarians given learning goals from their managers, nor is unwillingness or refusal to learn grounds for employee discipline (if such resistance is even documented).

The larger profession colludes as well, by making the MLS the sole criterion for membership (when it’s a criterion at all, a snakepit the Loon doesn’t mean to fall into just now). Medical professionals re-credential, as do educators. Legal credentials can be revoked. None of that is true of the MLS. True, building a re-credentialing program for a profession as varied as librarianship would be a terrifically tall order, but is that an explanation or an excuse?

The very variety of the profession sometimes creates excuses for librarian tunnel-vision; as long as one knows what one must to do one’s own job, why learn about any other librarian’s? Cross-training in libraries is all but nonexistent, present only where librarian jobs themselves have hybridized (as with liaison librarians, or reference/instruction librarians). If the Loon had a fish for every time another librarian has told her how lovely it is that she’s around, because she knows All About That Stuff (whatever “that stuff” is for any given interaction), she’d eat well for life. If the Loon knows about it, you see, her librarian interlocutor need not learn about it. Both appalling and sad the Loon finds it, that an information profession lets its members get by with such attitudes.

Library environments have colluded until now, but are beginning not to—dealing with things digital is no longer a frill, no longer an add-on, and quite a few libraries that have resisted web/mobile development and digital preservation and social media are now finding that their patron base demands such things, and does not have happy thoughts about libraries lacking them. Change that could once have been eased into no longer can.

And that is how librarianship arrives at the sad situation in San Diego. The Loon suspects that management’s situation has been slightly misrepresented in the Inside Higher Education article (though it is also likely that management explained itself poorly): it’s not so much that the fired employees’ specific jobs required an infusion of technology, it’s that in a zero-sum hiring environment, the only way to open hiring lines and budget for needed technology-intensive expertise is to cut someone else’s job.

Faced with the learning-averse, often having neither carrots nor sticks to move them, libraries have historically worked around them as best they could. Doing otherwise, particularly in the enforced-niceness culture of librarianship, invites charges of disloyalty, unnecessary cruelty, or in some cases actual ageism. This bulwark too is failing; the need for technology-oriented change, particularly in libraries that have resisted it, is just that great of late.

The Loon doesn’t like this situation one bit. She has (you might have gathered already) been herself crippled professionally by the disinterest of colleagues. She has seen well-intentioned library initiatives fail because they were not truly library initiatives, just face-saving measures intended to preserve the library’s status quo by shoving the new off into a disregarded corner.

She feels both for endangered employees—after all, it’s no picnic to learn suddenly that one’s skills, experience, and loyalty no longer have sufficient value to justify one’s continued employment—and for library managers lacking easy ways out of zero-sum hiring dilemmas.

If libraries are to continue to be humane employers, however, they must insist upon and intervene in professional development before matters with any individual employee reach such a perilous pass. Not to do so is not kind or humane, nor is it healthy for librarians or library workforces.

  1. Swigger, Boyd Keith. The MLS Project. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2010. pp. 23–36.

7 thoughts on “Libraries: the last humane employers?

  1. Dances With Books

    And yet those of us who actually want and need professional development, who are committed to growth, are often neglected. This may be due to lack of funding; sorry, but administrators and powers that be need to put their money where their mouths go. You want your librarians to learn and grow, be ready to pay what it takes other than the cattle car conference–assuming they even do that. Free webinars that are pretty much Mickey Mouse stuff do not cut it. What the neglect results in is either those good librarians eventually breaking down (I mean, why bother, the workplace certainly is not supportive nor committed to what they claim) or they leave for better places. So yes, there is a lot of deadwood out there, but there are also good people getting neglected at the peril of libraries.

  2. Brenda Chawner

    In 2007, the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) established a profession registration scheme, in part to encourage librarians to keep their knowledge and skills up to date. As far as I know, the scheme was based on similar ones in the U.K. and Australia. To keep their registration, people need to submit professional development journals every three years. I believe that one of the good features of the revalidation process is that it emphasises reflection on learning outcomes, and their application on the job. So far only a few employers have given full support to the scheme (for example, by linking registration to salary levels). As we all know change takes time, and I’m optimistic that support for the scheme will increase.. You can find more information about LIANZA’s professional registration at

    Disclaimer: I’m a member of LIANZA’s Registration Board.

  3. The Digital Drake

    Nice post. I’m reminded (by both this post and Wayne’s) of my recent experience with a local choir I sing with. Like many choirs in small parishes, its members have a rather wide range of musical talent and commitment. We recently changed our directors. The previous director was nice, and picked out good music, but in my view she had a tendency to rely on the “stars”– the one or two people in each part who were particularly strong musicians. She worked with the others as well, but when it came to a crunch, she would concentrate on making sure she could get a few people singing out strongly, and not so much on bringing everyone else along.

    Our current director’s been with us just a few weeks, but already I notice a definite difference in style. He spends a lot more time, comparatively, working with the weaker sections, making sure they get a handle on their part, and delaying introducing pieces into Sunday services until they do. So far, at least, it seems to be working. We “stars” still get time in rehearsal to do our stuff (with compliments and critiques as appropriate), but most of the focus is on other choir members. I’m quite happy with that (especially when it means this Drake can stay on his natural part instead of being asked to quack up into the high tenor range to cover for others)– and the whole choir sounded great at the recent anniversary Mass we sang for the archbishop.

    Basically, this is the “cultivating your bottom” principle that Wayne mentions in his post, and that’s also relevant in the library context. Specifically, libraries need not only to insist on all their staff learning new skills, but also give them all — not just the digital “stars” on their staff — the responsibility and authority to use those skills in practice. That helps ensure not only that the learning sticks, but that the libraries develop the broadly supported technology capabilities that so many of them need now.

  4. k8

    This is part of the reason I find Indiana’s Public Library Certification interesting. I think it needs to be implemented better, but there’s potential in it.