Why I am a librarian

Barbara Fister at Free Exchange on Campus tagged me to participate in the meme sparked by Dr. Crazy’s fantastic Why I Teach Literature post.

It’s a little funny – I haven’t felt the need to write fantastic prose for any of my other posts on this blog, but somehow being tagged and getting a topic like “Why I am a Librarian” makes one feel as if the resulting post should be carefully written. I’m going to try very hard not to succumb to that, and treat this instead as Dr. Crazy treated her original post – written quickly to express the feelings she had at the time, sparked in part by the discussions and ideas she’d been hearing immediately before.

Why am I a librarian? Because I think information matters on so many levels. And it is only becoming more important. I honestly don’t think one can be a functional, participating citizen anymore without kick-ass information skills. And I’m not talking about knowing what AND and OR do here. I’m talking about knowing where and how the information you need is produced and provided to you – the ability to apply all of those higher-order Bloom’s skills like analysis and evaluation to a situation, and to make sure you get enough information to make decisions that are in your interest and in the interest of the world. The person who’s dependent on others for the information they use to make decisions and solve problems is too dependent to effectively make decisions and solve problems. They’re at the mercy of others – and others who usually have some other agenda besides “making sure that people have the information that meets their needs.”

Except librarians. That is our agenda. That’s a huge reason why I am a librarian, and to take that a step further along the lines suggested by this meme – it’s also a primary reason why I teach information literacy. To help OSU students get to the point where they can do all of those things one needs information to do — solve problems, make decisions, have fun, explore, discover – without relying on me, or anyone else. And as an academic librarian, I get to do this together with faculty in the disciplines, but I get to focus on this part of it, all of the time, and with students across the disciplines.

And the thing is, I think this is more important now than ever. Maybe at one point it was enough to teach people how to get themselves to trusted, established information sources. Maybe there was a point in the history of publishing, or communication, where the name on the masthead was the last question you had to ask about a source. I doubt it, but maybe. I know it is not now, though.

I kind of like this story to illustrate this because it is so trivial —

I was watching the SAG awards on Sunday night because I love awards shows. I’m also very interested in the writers’ strike, with strong sympathies for the writers. So given that the SAG awards are a union show, I was interested how those things would intersect. So I was a little bit surprised when I watched the entire show from the red carpet on E! (shut up! I like red carpets) without hearing much of anything about the strike. “Wouldn’t you think that they’d be wearing something like the red ribbons to mark the strike?” I said.

Then the next morning, Shaun showed me the Statesman Journal’s story – which announced that the strike talk at the SAG’s was “kept to a minimum.” Now the Statesman didn’t send anyone to the SAG awards, this was just the AP story. Which means it is this story, or a lightly modified version of it, ran in almost all of the country’s newspapers. There’s a big factual error in the claim that only Julie Christie mentioned the strike among the winners (Tina Fey, unsurprisingly, did so as well), and the story gives the impression that the actors cared not at all about their fellow union members.

So I definitely took note of this headline from Variety when it appeared in my feeds — WGA strike a hot topic at SAG awards. HMM…. In this story you find out that the strike was all many people talked about backstage, and that the actors were wearing little black and silver pins for the writers.

So, if my problem or question is “whether I should support the writers’ strike” and the question of whether my favorite actors do or not is a big deal for me — well, yeah, that’s pretty trivial on multiple levels. But that’s not the point. The point is – that answering even a trivial question is not necessarily easy. And trusting the daily newspaper, or the 24-hour image industry television network is probably not enough.

So that’s one reason I’m a librarian.

On another level, though, I am a librarian because I love the scholarly tradition. Because I love the idea of information and knowledge created and shared, and I love the idea of being able to tap into that collective knowledge. Barbara’s post talks about this a bit, especially when she updates the conversation about libraries as knowledge “storehouses.”

But quibbles aside, libraries remain a significant and still-growing common ground for the academy. What a library provides is a place and space for students to not only find information and use it in their papers, but to see how knowledge itself is made – by people like them. In using a library, they learn how to participate in what Michael Oakeshott called “the conversation of mankind.”

Basically, I think that people need to know what it is that scholars and experts do. They need to know why it is important that scholars continue to do it. And more and more, I’m not sure they do. I don’t think that students fifty years ago came to college with deep knowledge about how to do scholarship, but I wonder if maybe they (at least within the narrower group of people who got to go to college 50 years ago) didn’t have a better idea of what scholarship was.

We talk a lot in libraries, and in higher education, about how technology has made our incoming students different, and I am very skeptical about a lot of those claims. I look at the students I meet today, and I don’t see the essential differences that some others see. I do see differences — I think their educational experiences before they get to college are pretty different than mine were. And I think technology means that they have more choices, and can choose not to learn some skills and sources I found valuable, without risking their grades. But I don’t think these differences are essential – I see them doing what I would have done had I had my expectations for learning built by No Child Left Behind, and if I had the same tools available to me that they had to them.

I worry when I read Wikipedia discussion pages and see people there dismissing information sources simply because they are the product of scholarly research, or because the researcher has a Ph.D after their name (and yeah, that definitely happens). The difference between what I’m saying and the criticism I associate with The Cult of the Amateur, is that I’m not sure that we’re trying hard enough in academia to make sure that people know what we do. That’s kind of a strong statement to make without any attribution or examples, but I’m going to make it anyway. Basically, I think we need to get beyond the idea that people need to trust experts “just because” — I mean, experts don’t trust each other just because — and really work to demonstrate why our scholarly work should be protected, and valued, and used.

I guess what I’m kind of saying is that I think we need to let go a little bit of the expert/ amateur dichotomy because we all need to act like experts, at least to one specific extent, even in areas outside of our own expertise. Even though we usually don’t have the subject knowledge to evaluate things instantly – we still can’t trust like amateurs. We have to have an expert’s impulse to question, to evaluate, and instinct to know when we’ve questioned enough.

And I think librarians get to think about that, pretty much all of the time. I’m happier focusing on this concept, no matter the discipline, than I was focusing on building knowledge within a discipline. This gets back to what Barbara says about helping students figure out that knowledge is created, and by people like themselves. And it brings me back to what I talked about in my earlier post on this subject, which means this is probably a good place to stop.

Don’t take the tag as anything stronger than “if you have time and the impulse to do so, I’d love to hear your answers to this” – tagging Karen Munro, Jeremy Frumkin and Paula McMillen.

6 thoughts on “Why I am a librarian

  1. This is terrific. The issue of expertise is fascinating. In some ways, faculty in the disciplines defer tremendously to expertise, even to the point of saying “I can’t comment on that issue, because it’s not my field.” Well …. we didn’t get training in most of what the world’s about, but we did get training in how to read and analyze and respond. Sometimes we have to figure it out even if it’s not familiar.

    That’s one of the devil-may-care things you get to do as a librarian, figure it out. And help other people learn how to think for themselves.

    Thanks for being game…. I felt a little guilty tagging you with a question that sounds like an essay exam.

  2. Always such an invigorating run to read your posts A-M. I’m honored you thought of me. I am an academic librarian because I feel like I’ve found my home in this profession. This is the 3rd major career in my long and varied worklife. I often found I got bored after I mastered the basics. That NEVER happens in this job…just the opposite. I feel like I must always scurry to keep up. I’m in academia in particular for a number of reasons. Most of what I’ve been in life is a perpetual student…my friends jokingly gave me a license plate holder that said “She who dies with the most degrees wins.” I love learning new things. I love being around other people learning new things. I like being able to help others learn new things. My family refers to me as a scholar so there is also a totally selfish aspect to working as a tenure track faculty because I get to indulge myself in pursuing things of interest and that’s thought to be a good thing in such a setting. I particularly like collaborating with faculty in the disciplines (and in the library) on research and writing projects. Then I get the energy transfer of their passions as well as my own buzz. I’m an academic librarian because it allows me to be around really thoughtful people, who think things in ways that I haven’t. I just thrive on that intellectual stimulation. Thanks for inviting me in, for being such a provocative thinker and writer, and for being a good colleague and collaborator.

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