That Issue of Complexity in the Job of a Librarian
I’ve been trying to decide how best to write about the recent news story sprung here in the frozen tundra about librarian demotion. The two news stories that have been published have so many contradicting statements in them that I can hardly make heads or tails of the situation. And this evening I heard that the staff and director have been advised to say nothing further on the situation. So other than expressing frustration that the director decided to cut the pay of her staff but shows no sign of taking a pay cut herself, I think I’ll stay away from what is at best a confusing, sticky, and highly dissatisfying situation.
I will just take a small quantity of umbrage to the comment she did seem to be allowed to make on record–regarding the complexity of public librarianship. Her opinion is that librarians are doing less complex work these days. I disagree.
Librarians in this brave and still relatively new 21st century are faced not only with the print resources that have served us since faithfully since Alexandria, we are now challenged with a conglomeration of resources coming at us in myriad print and electronic formats.(1) No longer faced with ‘merely’ the traditional responsibilities of collection development, research assistance, and lots of ready reference (phone numbers, etc)–we now take on the tasks of early literacy education, genealogy research assistance, and technical support–to name only a few. Add to that the fact that to read library jobs ads these days is like looking for a computer guru on the cheap with a Masters degree and you begin to scratch the surface of why I suggest some complexity might yet be found.
Computer science positions are the up and coming way to make money–this was a belief almost universally held when I was in high school.(2) I would argue that knowing computers, networking, computer programming language, and systems management are still very solid careers that afford quite decent salaries. In example of this I know two young men who are living in the Chicago area and making six figures doing something along those lines–and both have changed places of employment within the last six months. (3) While I spent six months looking for a job in Chicago–both lost their jobs due to companies folding and had interviews within 24 hours. Clearly, the talent of people good with computers is highly valued.
Then one reads library science job ads. No longer content to have people who are capable of organization and understanding of information and its structures and who are able to do research and assist others in learning how to conduct it–or how to find the Curious George picture books–now we’re also asked to be web designers, database designers and administrators, network administrators, systems managers, computer programmers and of course well versed in all the current programming languages. In the reflection of at least one web designer I know, this means many amateurs are stuck struggling to compete against or at least do as well as professionals for whom this is their entire job–rather than just a small portion of it.
I’m not arguing that librarian education involving computers is unnecessary. Quite the contrary. I supported myself with the freelance design work that came out of a class in my library science program. Librarians certainly need to understand what makes the computer systems they are using run appropriately and many of us are interested in the more technical side of things. Sibling-the-Elder took several classes in web design that has provided a number of opportunities that might not have otherwise come. I’m currently seeking further database design education. But those are to enhance what we do–which primarily is still helping patrons find information and learn how to understand it and determine what is most useful for their needs. (4)
Librarians are called upon to understand and navigate databases–which grow more and more complicated and less user friendly all the time. Yet the data our patrons need is captured within them, still within that hidden internet of resources that cannot be retrieved full text in a Google search. While more information becomes readily available on the web and “ready reference” often goes the way of a well structured Google search–there’s still such a glut of hidden and confusing information that it is necessary to continue to train people to understand the difference between reliable and sham online information.
So with those added responsibilities of computer knowledge (and every other technological toy that comes out), database searching and training, understanding and participation in social networking, online information literacy, computer literacy, and computer management as a requirement for the successful public librarian, along with a healthy knowledge of everything (5), or at least where to find everything, as well as a suggestion for a book that might be useful or enjoyable to read–I still see a lot of complexity in my position. (**Update 2/26 –we’re also supposed to be able to do all of this bilingually too.)
And I thrive in that. If it means the most valuable thing I am perceived do today is explain to a new computer user that she hasn’t won a laptop just because a box popped up on the screen and said that she did or if it’s launching the new MySQL database that I keep promising Database Mentor I’ll work on–it’s now a part of an incredibly diverse and complex position that my Masters degree helps me to do.
If I’ve missed anything pertinent, I hope you’ll share in the comments.
Aside comments I wanted to say but waited:
1. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I was an English major.
2. Unfortunately–that whole young single man with a fortune seeking marriage having gone by the wayside.
3. Before anyone asks–both have long term steady girlfriends who are also close friends on mine.
4. Also–directions to the Curious George books.
5. It’s a long standing joke with my friends that once I got my degree I was blessed by the library wand and that now I know EVERYTHING.