Gavia Libraria

Steady-state vs. expanding-universe librarianship

The Loon is often told that she is an intimidating instructor. Some of that is sheer physicality: the Loon is a large, loud, and forceful avian, and it is not only students who have been known to find that disquieting. Some of it is subject matter: the typical library-school student is intimidated by computers and all their works. All but the most fearful students get over both these Loonish traits, and the Loon has more than enough good word of mouth that they don’t damage her course enrollments.

She is coming to suspect a third factor, however, one potentially problematic enough for the profession that she wants to think out loud about it.

Some students come to librarianship in search of a steady-state body of knowledge in a steady-state profession. “Just teach me what I need to know to get and keep a job,” they (implicitly) say. “The rest is all theory, and theory is witless and useless.” When these students graduate, they become librarians like a cataloger Jenica Rogers once tangled with: tunnel-visioned, incurious people who work by rote and desire nothing else than to be left to work by rote:

I got into an argument a few months ago with a cataloger in a special library who maintained furiously that he has no need to understand copyright in order to be a librarian. His argument, as best I can tell (we were arguing on Twitter, not the best place for nuanced discourse), is that as a cataloger in a special library, all he needs is the item, his systems, and a desk. He can do his job without understanding a bit of copyright, because all he has to do is catalog things.

The Loon is of course highly tempted to squawk about how that cataloger lives on a razor’s edge, and she hopes he’s close to retirement because his job is in medium-term trouble, but she’ll refrain. The point is, library schools admit, and librarianship therefore contains, a lot of these steady-staters.

The Loon is constitutionally incapable of teaching a course, any course, in a steady-state fashion. It’s true that the Loon gravitates toward teaching in relatively young areas of the information professions, but that’s not all there is to it. The Loon also teaches her school’s hoary ancient core org-of-info course—but she can’t even teach that in a steady-state fashion. Metadata! Linked data! XML! SQL! SPARQL! RDF! RDA! PageRank! User-derived metadata! NLP and automatic subject-term derivation! To the Loon’s steadfast delight, everything’s changing…

… and steady-stater students find that intimidating. Not to mention steady-stater librarians.

On the other wing, expanding-universe students tend to find steady-state courses rote, stultifying, and uninspiring. (The Loon sure did when she was in library school!) To her certain knowledge—students tell her these things—the Loon’s expanding-universe courses have kept at least three expanding-universe students from dropping out of library school altogether.

No bones about the Loon’s bias: she prefers expanding-universe students and expanding-universe librarians. She thinks librarianship has far too many steady-staters for its own good, and conversely, she believes that new steady-staters are unlikely to find what they desire in a changed and still-changing profession.

The question becomes what the Loon owes her steady-stater students, how best to acclimate them to the expanding information universe. She flatters herself (perhaps falsely?) that she doesn’t do too badly with them, but her email uncomfortably attests that the freedom of exploration she tends to offer students isn’t always welcome.

She’ll keep working on it. She does think newer steady-staters can be inveigled into curiosity about the expanding universe.

2 thoughts on “Steady-state vs. expanding-universe librarianship

  1. Ned Quist

    I couldn’t agree more! But, I can’t help but reflect back on my own library school days at Catholic U. in the late 1970s when I actually made a presentation on “steady state libraries” in an Academic Libraries course. While that notion, one of collections remaining the same size, is much different than the “steady state” of yours and that of Jenica Rogers, it struck me as both interesting that the phrase has now been applied to the horizons of narrow-minded librarians, but also that the original notion, is still radical in ARL circles where size still matters… I am also concerned that too often our library schools “teach to the test” of the average job description and pay less attention than they should to the reality of the expanding information universe.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Useful metaphor is useful!

      The Loon shares your concern about “teaching to the test,” not least because the first question she is asked whenever she proposes a new course is “Where are the jobs?” That’s not a bad thing, mind—it cuts down on a lot of unproductive faff in the curriculum—but at any given moment, the jobs available don’t necessarily match the information work needing doing. There’s a lag.

      Given that library-school instructors are not always expert in all areas they teach (the Loon certainly isn’t), there’s a bias there toward steady-state instruction. Changing a syllabus can mean a lot of research, reading, and experimenting!