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Gavia Libraria

The Loon’s job

The Loon’s students are in library school to get jobs. No one involved, certainly not the Loon, is under any particular illusions about that. (Contrasts with doctoral-level education, in the humanities especially, are left as an exercise for the reader; the Loon notes only that she is not involved in doctoral-level education and that’s just fine with her, because she has serious ongoing ethical differences with how it is generally practiced, and given her subject position she is helpless to change it.) The Loon’s own job, then, is to increase their employability, particularly within the library or archives ambit most of them are desirous of working in, as much as possible within two years.

Because the Loon is genuinely fond of her students, she also wants them to land good jobs, jobs where they’ll do meaningful work and have it appreciated as it deserves. The Loon spent too much time in librarianship feeling wretched, alone, and useless to wish that on anyone else. The inevitable corollary is that the Loon is just fine with her students landing jobs outside librarianship. In fact, it’s often preferable, especially for the best and least hidebound among her students. The so-called I-schools figured this out a long time ago, of course, and while the Loon doesn’t teach at an I-school, she agrees with their broader placement mindset.

The Loon also feels a responsibility to librarianship, despite her many, many issues with it. She’s aware that the profession (like all professions) is historically contingent, that it’s under siege from within and without and may well not last another generation, that its roots as well as its current practice include some highly dubious constructions of gender, race, and what for lack of a better phrase she’ll call information snobbery. For all that, the Loon finds much to admire in the profession’s current construction of itself, from redressing digital divides to being one of the last lone voices arguing against copyright maximalism. The Loon owes much to the profession whose name she is still (still) proud to own; minimally, given her present position, she owes it fearless committed practitioners who are ethically strong, flexibly capable people that it can be proud of.

Let’s just say, a lot of the Loon’s students don’t come in like that. No surprise; it’s a lot of excellence to ask of anyone. Worse yet, this profession doesn’t at present abide hyperspecialization of its new entrants as some other professions do; it does like its practitioners to have particular areas of expertise, but those who are incapable outside their specific area have fewer havens than they once did, and are liable to have fewer still soon. It’s not enough for the Loon and her colleagues to produce dedicated catalogers or born reference librarians. A modern professional desirous of employment (remember, this is all about jobs!) needs baseline competence in a rather appallingly broad array of skills. Yet worse from the Loon’s instructional standpoint is that she must impart an even broader array of skills and mindsets than any given individual student actually needs, given that she’s looking at a promiscuous mix of future academic, public, special/corporate, and school librarians as well as archivists and those who will work outside libraries altogether.

(Incidentally, “yes, up to a point” is the Loon’s answer to the various “do librarians hafta?” discussions that have swirled about of late. No, any given librarian doesn’t hafta be an HTML5 guru, but she can’t shrivel up and die faced with an angle bracket, either. No, any given librarian doesn’t hafta be a code monkey, but he’ll be a lot better off if he can hack together a few lines to fix a one-time problem, or commit kludgy acts of bricolage to get work done. No, we don’t all hafta comprehend the arcane intricacies of MARC, but we’d better be able to figure out what’s feeding into an OPAC display as needed. Et cetera. Which means library schools hafta expose folks to… an awful lot.)

Two years isn’t very much time. The Loon thinks that the “union card” canard is partly a function of time commitment, especially when it is hurled at librarians by non-MLSed Ph.Ds. What, they think, is it even possible to teach or learn in such a short time?

Enough. That’s how much. It’s possible to impart enough breadth of skill, enough honed specialization, enough ethics, enough know-how, enough professional curiosity, enough aptitude for continuous learning. The Loon can’t honestly maintain that every L-school or I-school reaches the magic enough. She only knows it’s possible, and where she is—judging by placement rate—it’s usually managed. She also knows that she’ll put her best students up against anyone, anywhere, with any degree. They’re that good.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the MLS should be the only route into librarianship (granting, of course, that it isn’t anyway). We’re a cross-fertilized disciplinary and professional culture, and that’s a strength rather than a weakness. But when ACLS funds postdocs in libraries that the Loon’s students aren’t allowed to compete for, that’s dirty pool and the Loon will never like it. When it’s only the library-school route into librarianship that endures maddening, time-consuming ALA oversight, not the internship/postdoc route, that’s dirty pool and the Loon will never like it. When we cut down our own rather than celebrating them, when we restrict the reach of our best leadership and feed the erroneous belief that we have few worthy leaders, that’s just playing the game suicidally wrong and the Loon will never like it. When we librarians shoot ourselves and our own profession in the foot by expecting too much of new graduates (more, the Loon thinks, than of postdocs) and giving them too little to accomplish it with, the Loon will never like it.

And yes, that’s labor protectionism. Labor protectionism is what a profession is, and as both practitioner and educator, the Loon owes it to her students to police the boundaries. It’s not that a Ph.D can’t be a good librarian. It’s that Ph.Ds shouldn’t jump the line. While protectionism can unquestionably veer into the absurd, so does its opposite: those who fling about the “union card” accusation indiscriminately are asserting that the Loon doesn’t teach one damned thing of use or ornament, and the Loon begs to differ with that. Rather violently, in fact.

The playing field isn’t level. The Loon tells her students so, quite bluntly; they deserve to know. She tells them whom they’ll be competing with and that the competition won’t be fair, and she does her level best to give them what they’ll need to compete successfully. They do all right. When they don’t, it won’t be because they’re not good or the Loon hasn’t trained them up right. When they don’t—when they can’t, because the playing field no longer even pretends to be fair—it’ll be time for the Loon to hang up her laser pointer, because there won’t be any more good she can do.

That day may come.

The playing field isn’t level for the Loon and her colleagues, either. She is frequently amused at fledgling digital-humanities education efforts; they resemble library school in no small degree. Catch them reaching out to partner with library schools, though. Heavens, no. Might have someone teaching doctoral students who isn’t a Ph.D, horrors! If the playing field were level—if it were truly all about appropriate knowledge and aptitude and skill—this isn’t how it would look.

So that’s the Loon’s job: making sure her students get jobs. It’s not a job that entirely lives in the classroom. To some extent it lives here: pushing back on and questioning, sometimes curtly, some current discourses.