flying the flag over fort futility

I’m at a low point in my job. I have no motivation for it. But it’s not that I’ve lost my passion for librarianship. It’s not that. I still fervently subscribe to Sandy Berman’s adage that “I can’t have information I know would be of use to someone and not share it.” This philosophy, I believe, is the golden kernel rotating inside every librarian. However, my present job affords me little opportunity to exercise this reflex of mine. I spend more time outside of work fulfilling this mission: finding bits and pieces of information, cataloging and sorting them in my mind, and sending them off with a flourish to friends, relatives, and colleagues. But at work I am too far removed from this process. I primarily sit at my desk and wait for the day to end. I answer emails. I review and fulfill (or deny) photo requests. I catalog photos and documents. I select journal articles to include in a database. I attend meetings. I wander around outside at lunch and wonder what the hell I am doing with my life.

I have long known that I am a dreamer. At this point in my life I’m comfortable with this role, but it often interferes with practical matters. I could certainly leave my job and go find some other job. I could do that. However, I know that I would soon also tire of it, because this is a now tattered pattern that I’ve traced my finger along for my entire working life. What this present job has going for it is a four-day week, valuable benefits, decent pay, proximity to home, low stress, and not much in the way of responsibility. Collectively, these aspects would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in another job. So I bide my time, suffering my disconnection from how I spend it, eight hours each day, four days per week.

Leaving my own personal melodrama behind, though, and returning to librarianship, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about access to knowledge lately. This is chiefly because I volunteered to write up a blog post for APLIC about Brewster Kahle’s presentation at the conference I attended in San Francisco. While Brewster is a librarian, among other roles, some of his views are unusual within librarianship. For example, I’d venture to guess that the traditional model of librarian-as-intercessor still carries significant weight among many librarians. And yet Brewster is sending a wrecking ball through this ideal with his efforts to put all knowledge within grasp of anyone with access to an Internet connection. These days such access is becoming easier and more convenient to obtain than access to an actual physical library. The question is, then, does access constitute nine-tenths of the battle when it comes to knowledge attainment?

If so, does this mean librarians will become obsolete? My guess is no, but we are certainly becoming more specialized. And I think our role as intercessor has largely fallen by the wayside, despite our possible reluctance to admit it. At this point, the knowledge is out there (if anything, now in such high quantities as to warrant special skills in navigating it) and much of it is freely available. Now, rather than brokering information, I see librarians as more important in authenticating information, and taking it one step further, in showing others how to authenticate it. And by that, I mean showing them how to determine the trustworthiness of information. Because there is plenty of just plain shoddy information out there.

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  1. I considered a degree in library science for a good amount of time. I know too well the feeling you described: the pay is good, the benefits are great, but you feel disconnected or somehow unfulfilled no less. The four-day workweek sounds incredible…and being sent to wonderful places like San Francisco in the name of work even better. I hope you find balance and more enjoyment in your line of work soon. :)

  2. As someone who started out a librarian and has become something related but different, I subscribe to pretty much all you say here, on both personal and professional counts. The one notion I would debate is that of ‘authenticating information’. I think we’re fighting an uphill, Sisyphean battle if we try to kitemark everything of value. But fostering the critical faculties required to determine information’s trustworthiness – absolutely. And in that respect I’d venture to suggest we go beyond the tenets of journalism and verifying facts via two reliable sources.

    • I completely agree that it would be near impossible to authenticate all the information out there, and I didn’t mean to suggest that. I was thinking solely in the context of a reference interview situation (which I should’ve specified!). With Web resources so many people have difficulty differentiating between reliable and not-so-reliable information. And it’s getting harder all the time because of the general trend toward crowd-sourcing (a concept that I am wary of in most applications). I’ve had this argument at work constantly with the IT guys over user tagging of electronic resources. They don’t understand the value of a controlled vocabulary so it’s mostly hopeless.



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