Fine young (and new) librarians

February 20, 2007

In The Chronicle, Stanley Wilder writes about The New Library Professional. Just looking at the title, one would assume correctly that he writes about younger librarians, which Wilder defines as those under 35. I actually made the same assumption myself. However, I remembered that most of the students I teach (as a SLIS adjunct) do not fit the under-35 demographic described by Wilder. Nevertheless, they will become new library professionals fairly soon.

Since I have another 10 months to go before reaching Wilder’s magic number, I decided to compare myself with the demographic he discusses. The time has probably arrived for me to stop considering myself “new,” however, as symbolized by my unsubscribing from the NEWLIB discussion list a few weeks ago. I have yet to reach 35, but I have worked as a professional librarian for the past six years.

In the opening, Wilder says, “If you work in an academic library and are under 35, you probably don’t have a lot in common with your older counterparts.” Although that sounds like a fair statement, Wilder’s generalizations about my cohort do not apply specifically to me. In contrast to his description of under-35s in academic libraries, I work as a subject librarian in possession of a stalwart MLS. I also do not fit into the category of “feral professionals,” as my near-namesake calls them. I entered library school with a rather traditional outlook on libraries, and I pursued a course of study that led to a traditional degree and position. Nevertheless, I have encountered plenty of ideas that have made me think more broadly about prospects for libraries. With her background in computers, my wife Diane has guided me further in thinking about such ideas. As a result, I have considered how libraries can continue to fulfill their traditional societal roles, while also considering how to handle the societal and technological challenges that have emerged over the past several years.

Every so often, I have wondered how I fit into the current environment of academic librarianship, as well as its future. The end of Wilder’s article gives me some hope. While academic libraries may hire “feral professionals” to meet constantly-changing needs, Wilder suggests that administrators should use those with more traditional backgrounds to keep libraries anchored. On the surface, some hardcore visionaries and technophiles might view such an idea as arch-reactionary. I believe that traditional library values do not preclude flexibility and openness to new ideas; “because we have always done it that way” is a different matter, being a problem of individual library cultures (rather than librarianship as a whole).

When considering the many changes that could affect patrons and the profession, we should find ways to balance new ideas and technologies with the idealistic principles of librarianship. We should contemplate how best to respond to challenges and opportunities posed by new devices, new modes of communication, Web 2.0 (with an eye towards the potential for Web 3.0, however that turns out), and anything else that could change how libraries operate. That may seem obvious, but it is not always feasible when time and money are scarce. Related to that, librarians also need to consider the necessity (and feasibility, as mentioned above) of integrating new technological advances into their institutions. Some “innovations” might sound useful on the surface, but library staff should determine if patrons actually want the library to facilitate activities that require such technologies.

Going beyond the offerings of current technology, I believe that librarians should take on the role of visionaries. I speak not of those who think in terms of technology similar to what’s available now, but of ways that would make “information” in various formats more easily accessible. Ironically, I think taking on the attitude of a Luddite would be a good start. Various technologies pose different problems, so why not consider ways to transcend those problems so that everyone (patrons and library staff) can find what they need, and do what they need to do? Not everyone has the expertise to make changes, but everyone knows what problems need to be overcome. Perhaps feral professionals and librarians can work together towards such a goal, and improve the information-finding lot of all. That may sound a bit too idealistic, but I would like to think of such serious dreaming as a good start.

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