Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Defining What We Do - Or Don't Do

Recently I had an interesting discussion with a colleague, friend and mentor when I was both technician and a neophyte librarian. It was one of those conversations that really gets the wheels turning. And after an earlier, three hour meeting, getting the wheels turning is really something.

We discussed a wide range of ideas that orbit the theme of "what is the meaning of what we do, as 'library' people"? I was surprised to suddenly realize that nowhere in my library training (and I have had a fair amount) was there ever a course or formal exploration into the foundations of librarianship. Another colleague, involved in library instruction for nearly 30 years, wryly informed me that although he had more than 15 courses examining the foundations of philosophy in his undergrad career, never did he have a similar course in library school.

Something is very wrong with this picture.

Without adequate discussion and reflection about what it is we do as librarians, library technicians, library assistants, records managers, information technicians, etc., we run the risk of losing our purpose in a world that is grappling with incredible change. So, where can we start talking about the philosophy of information work?


As a group, information professionals are often wary of "blowing their own horns" and celebrating the accomplishments of the profession. We know we add value to society and, more importantly, improve people's lives. Yet, we hold back and fail to adequately assert ourselves as bastions of culture and democracy. We make life better. This is a very good thing.

So what DO we do? I don't mean things like loan out materials, complete interlibrary loan requests or answer reference questions. The question is much bigger than all of those pieces.

I put the question out there for you to ponder.

It is my hope to investigate this much more fully in an upper level course where, in the safety of the "classroom" (virtual or not), we can explore the meaning of information work.


Leanne said...

On a broad (if somewhat flippant) note, we organise. Fundamentally, this is what human life is primarily about

Most human experience comes through the organisation of data. Whether it is simple, survival-related organisation (a goat is not the same as a leopard, this red berry is edible, that yellow one makes you sick), or more complex and detailed -- not to mention esoteric -- the human brain needs a degree of organisation.

Religion and science both grew out of a need to understand and bring order to the chaos of the universe. Library work -- through such things as classification, cataloguing, research and even the loaning of materials -- was created by that fundamental desire for order. It's no mere coincidence that libraries and institutions of faith and/or learning grew up hand in hand. Once we, as humans, recognised that it was not possible to know everything and that information stored in a single place -- especially a single brain -- could quickly meet an untimely demise before it could be passed on and propogated, the role of the library worker came into being.

I would say the biggest difficulty in tracing the foundations of librarianship is that they lie with the foundations of communication and understanding themselves. To understand why we created libraries and librarians, we would have to understand why we feel a need to share information and keep things organised.

And the answer to that is probably in a library, somewhere.

Kristin said...

"So, since you're going to be a technician... can you fix my computer?"

As someone just embarking on this career path, I am curious to see how this question develops into solid answers. I have found myself searching for stories about life as a gain perspective of the job for myself, and for my friends and family members who think that being a Librarian is all about crowd-control and shhh-ing!