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.
- Swigger, Boyd Keith. The MLS Project. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2010. pp. 23–36. ↩
- The Law of Conservation of Complexity
- In which the elephant is measured