Professional future tense.

It’s been a controversial week or two for academic libraries–at least in the American blogosphere.  Here in Oregon, Mount Hood Community College just pink-slipped all three of its full-time faculty librarians, in the midst of a budget crisis and possible faculty strike.  Elsewhere, McMaster University’s chief librarian, Jeff Trzeciak, gave a presentation at Penn State that suggested he won’t be hiring many librarians in future.  Instead, he’ll be looking for people with subject PhDs and technology training–and will be taking librarians out of undergraduate classrooms and supervisory positions, to focus their attention on faculty research consultations.  This has ruffled some feathers in lots of places.

These two things raise important issues with immediate implications for our profession (and in some cases, our livelihoods.)  They bear your consideration–you librarians, you library students.  This is our shared corner of the world, and there’s no question that it’s changing around us.

I think we can agree that we aren’t served by nostalgizing our bygone professional past — maintaining that because once we learned library penmanship and catalog card stitching and print index consultation, that we must continue to learn and teach and do those things  Of course not, right?  No one would suggest such a thing.  The world has changed.  We don’t have any of that stuff anymore.

But neither is it useful to nostalgize our immediate professional past — to maintain that because academic librarians have for many years served at reference desks, that we must continue to do so in the same way.  Or that because we’ve taught one-shot research methods classes for years, that we should continue to do so, absent a demonstrated need.  That might be a little harder to swallow, because those things are closer to where we live now.  Many of us started out in jobs that included those kinds of responsibilities, and many of our jobs still do include them.

That’s fine if our institutions work that way–if we have a busy reference desk and instructors asking for us to teach.  In many places, we do.  In those places, the model of the immediate professional past is still working fine.  It’s the model of the professional present, and probably the model of the future, at least for a while.

In other places that model is faltering, because the traffic at our reference desk is slowing down or instructors aren’t asking for our help, or some other factor is affecting how we do our business.  Those are the places where our future is really starting to blossom.  That’s where we need our leaders to think carefully and humanely about the best disbursement of the vast financial, social, and intellectual investment we’ve made in our libraries over the last hundred years or so.

I respect Jeff Trzeciak’s spirit of innovation, and his willingness to dig in and do the hard work of changing academic libraries.  I don’t entirely share his vision — at least, what I know of it.  I don’t know what to say about the situation at Mount Hood Community College, because I don’t know the behind-the-scenes, but I can hardly imagine a scenario that justifies the sudden firing of an entire professional library staff.

I do think we’re becoming a more digital institution, in a more digital society.  I don’t think we should cut people loose (students, staff, or faculty) on the way to getting there.  I think major upheavals take their toll on organizations–on morale, productivity, even direction.  I think sometimes, in some ways, they’re still warranted.  I think they should be balanced with a plan for more gradual change that takes into account human nature and the persistence of habits and ideas — our own and our patrons’. I think that’s what we might call wisdom, and it balances what we might call energy.

I think change will look different in every library, and that’s a good thing.  A diverse ecosystem is a healthy, resilient ecosystem.  I think the future of our profession, and of the informed and responsible citizenry it supports, is literally in our hands.  I think we should be paying attention and talking to each other, across all barriers and divides.  What do you think?

Crossposted at Re: Generation.

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3 thoughts on “Professional future tense.

  1. Same thing happening in Australia. Less librarians, more IT and library technicians to do the “grunt work” (no disrespect to library technicians meant). We librarians are marked for extinction.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Flamingo Dancer. It’s not surprising to hear that you’re seeing similar trends in Australia–I’m pretty sure we’re seeing it all over the world. But I’m not sure I agree that we’re marked for extinction.

      I see different libraries, and different communities, responding to changes in media and teaching styles very differently. In some places the library is central to the academic mission. In other places the library seems to have lost its way.

      If I were a library director (I’m not) I’d consider it my responsibility to make sure that my library was a linchpin to my institution. I’d want to make sure that we were connected to the academic mission in multiple ways–as a place to do work, as a partner in new academic ventures, as a set of services, as a collection, as a symbol for donors and parents and the community.

      If I didn’t do that much, I’d consider that I was either not doing my job or I was in a totally untenable situation, with an administration that was so hostile I couldn’t effect any change. Some places are like that, but I think they’re on the far end of the continuum.

      Far more, in my opinion, are somewhere in the middle–looking for a strong academic partner that can tack with the wind. In those places, the library can still thrive.

  2. […] my last post, I was encouraged and pleased to see this piece in the Chronicle by Robert Darnton, Harvard’s […]

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