I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a librarian.
Icons in the library world tend to be book people. At one time, the most venerated librarians were book scholars who knew the publishing trade inside and out. These lions of the profession have been held up as the quintessential librarian.
As professionals, we have a personal responsibility to take ownership of our own learning. And never before have we had such easy access to a wealth of rich resources and opportunities to learn. Technology has become an extension of our brains, and all librarians need to live and breathe in that environment. High quality internet access and our fluency with the many vast resources are key to modern librarianship.
That said, I think there’s a more interesting conversation to be had. Let’s look beyond professional development, to the development of the profession.
David Lankes says that the mission of a library is to facilitate the knowledge creation of the community, to help the community make its own meaning of knowledge. That libraries are moving from being “grocery stores” where people come to consume products, to being “kitchens”, a hub of innovation and experimentation where you can actively combine the “ingredients”, perhaps with other people, and construct your own creation.
If libraries are moving from grocery stores to kitchens, what does that mean for the library profession? Sounds to me like we need more actively engaged.
If librarians are community facilitators, more actively engaged in linking people and knowledge, what’s the skill set? Do we really know what it means to collaborate with others whose interests, needs, goals and values don’t always align with our own?
Dealing with other people and giving up some control is messy work! If we are collaborators, do we know how to handle ourselves while understanding the drivers and needs of our partners, knowing what’s essential to the library and what’s negotiable, and finding common goals and purpose? Do we know how to give up some of the control and allow the collaborative partnership to shape things? Do we know how to deal in a healthy way with that inherent conflict?
If libraries are key community spaces to support learning – life-long and life-wide, formal and informal – are we creating a learning environment? Are we maintaining our currency on innovative and wise practices that facilitate learning?
And importantly, if we are creating a learning environment, do we see ourselves as learners?
And I think that’s the crux of the conversation around the development of the profession. For too long, librarians have positioned themselves as experts. We feel good about knowing things that others don’t. We like to control access to information. We like to be all-knowing and feel smart. But is that mindset still serving us? I don’t think so – it’s a limiting position.
In this digitized, globalized, personalized and complex world that we live in, anyone can be an expert at anything.
To identify ourselves as learners, we have to let go of the control we have traditionally held over knowledge. We have to become intentional in our own learning.
And what does all of this mean for the development of the profession? Who are the new heroes of our profession?
Are we attracting a new breed of librarian – those skilled in making connections, and handling complex and messy collaborative projects? Those comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing? Those who can leverage technical skills and relationships to engage with their community?
Or are we attracting “nouveau traditionalists”, people drawn to librarianship because they like books and think libraries will provide them with a quiet career as an expert?
I’m not implying that the traditional competencies, including book knowledge, are no longer important. Rather, it’s an expanded way of thinking of the role of a librarian, incorporating old and new knowledge. The kitchen still needs the groceries, the sink and the stove. A blender, a spatula and a measure of ingenuity are useful too.
But are we being clear about the thinking that’s needed as we seek to attract, recruit and support people through the profession?
None of this is new. A hundred years ago, BC library pioneer Helen Gordon Stewart was a library evangelist, an engaged educator, a community developer and collaborator. She made libraries relevant. Quite simply, she was a difference maker. Providing access to knowledge was a key strategy, but that wasn’t the point. Her mission was to profoundly improve society through supporting the development of learners.
We need more Helens.