Random Thoughts on Emergent Librarians

It would be unreasonable to expect LIS graduates to enter the field with mastery of all the practices and theories that comprise library science. Many students complete the program having had only cursory engagement in practical management, public relations, programming, fundraising, and collection development. Others will join the workforce with vague thoughts on ethics and little idea of the practical applications of gaming and social media. C’est la vie. Such is the nature of a 12-course program. Library schools regularly monitor emergent practices and repair the curriculum to address changing demands. In turn, the student’s own discernment determines how balanced his education. Not all information professionals are involved in adult programming or community outreach. Yet there remain several areas where all aspiring rookie librarians should be particularly erudite.

Reference Librarian

The most fundamental skill of the librarian is to perform reference. A basic familiarity with categorical print reference resources is essential in most libraries. Librarians are often characterized as information consultants. They work with clients, analyzing their information needs, evaluating available resources, and determining how to best meet the client’s request. It’s true that reference questions and use of print resources have plummeted in many libraries, particularly public libraries. Many theorize on the pending death of reference service as a function of the librarian. Yet many public and academic libraries commonly report relatively stable numbers in reference questions asked.[1] One need look no farther than the reference desk at one of Chicago’s regional and neighborhood branches to see librarians steadily fielding reference questions both in person and on the phone. And as chat, text, email, and even Twitter reference gain popularity with libraries and patrons, librarians will absorb those responsibilities, as well.

As more reference searching does take place electronically, the fledgling librarian must be proficient in traditional databases. In many libraries, print reference sources have been superseded by packaged databases by ProQuest, Gale, and EBSCO. Graduate LIS programs should probably require one course in electronic database searching, comparative databases, and fundamentals of the library-vendor relationship. Familiarity with the databases available at one library can benefit the astute librarian in other libraries, as many academic and public facilities contract with the same vendors and offer the same or similar products. Advanced database savvy and the ability to instruct users in search methods can go a long way toward serving the mission of any library.

In addition, the Internet, for all its imperfections as an information resource, is utilized daily by researchers and librarians in every type of facility. All librarians must be able to judge the reliability and integrity of Web-based information. Still, there remain those library school graduates who have developed fair proficiency in finding information on the Internet but lack the facility to critically evaluate the sources they find. As Internet publishing increases exponentially, an understanding of the information landscape and when to apply which information sources is essential. New librarians must not only be capable of discriminating among Web sources. They should also have a sense of what kind of information they might search on the Internet and what they would more appropriately search on a library database.

I don’t want to overstate the necessity of a function that has entered its ice age in many places. I merely suggest that it remains necessary for librarians to know how to use reference resources to help patrons find answers and information.

Team Librarian

Conflict exists in many forms and in every place of business, even among professionals, and is not always easily buried. Extensive layoffs of library support staff have spurred changes in the daily workloads of many degreed librarians. At the Chicago Public Library, they are often found occupying the circulation desk, shelving in the stacks, and bagging materials in the basement. New graduates of library schools must be prepared to wear a number of hats. Depending upon the type of facility, you may be called upon to serve as teacher, researcher, mentor, shelver, programmer, clerk, supervisor, janitor, or IT person. For every research question, there is a staff complaint. For every time you supply a patron with the keys to discovery, you will supply another with the keys to the ladies’ room. To be a professional in this type of environment is to be adaptable and to have the nerve and skills to navigate a multitude of situations. It also means you may be the newcomer on a staff of, say, twenty professional librarians, nineteen of whom have been struggling in this atmosphere for a long time.

We hope that the current financial climate in this country will soon relax and that libraries will regain funding and staff and, therefore, peace and harmony. However, in many libraries, relationships are strained and conflict potential is great. The onus of conflict management instruction and leadership skills would seem to fall upon the shoulders of the library school. All graduates, particularly those with limited or no practical library experience, should have the knowledge of at least one course in which they study conflict, relationships, and other topics selected to maximize the graduate’s ability to deal with imperfect conditions. Students should work together as groups and evaluate each other’s contributions and shortcomings. I recall the work of Robert Garmston, who has written on collaborative groups and their behaviors.[2] Students exposed to this type of collaborative work will find that collaboration may breed conflict. They learn that conflict can escalate or be remedied. They also learn that conflict can sometimes be productive and trump avoidance. One might trust that the stereotypical model librarian–passive and reasonable–would usually choose to avoid conflict at all costs. But as Garmston’s work suggests, it is just as important to understand the inevitability of conflict as it is to know how to deal with it. The impressionable library neophyte must always be prepared for conflict because, sooner or later, personalities, needs, and wants will collide.

Librarian 2.0

Many veteran librarians still ask, “What is Library 2.0?” Emergent librarians should be able to answer. Graduate library science programs have incorporated technology literacy and other Library 2.0 fundamentals throughout the curricula. Central to the complexion of the modern library are evolutionary changes in library spaces, computing and storage practices, and library marketing. “Library 2.0” is the label ascribed to these modifications in philosophy and practice. There are many distinct concepts that comprise Library 2.0. Some imply drastic change and carry huge financial burdens, while others are simple and free. LIS graduates who haven’t properly studied these practices in the classroom should educate themselves in Library 2.0 concepts. Widespread use of new information and communication technologies has altered the information seeking behaviors of library users and changed the ways they communicate. It has also changed their expectations of the library. Moreover, it has changed what librarians do and how they think.

New librarians should understand that the focus of Library 2.0 is not technology, but people. They should know the place and use of information and communication technologies in the library. New librarians can (and are often asked to) help teach veterans that these applications exist in libraries not as novelties, but to serve the population, to aid connectivity, and to sell the library brand throughout the community. The librarian who understands hyperlocality can use Web 2.0 tools to help create brand ubiquity and foster a reciprocal, participatory relationship with the library’s community.

LIS graduates should also, by now, understand a few things about social media, particularly social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. The lucky library student will have participated in productive, detailed discussions regarding these applications, their use and misuse, and the importance of privacy. Librarians should know how to manage their own public profiles and control what, if any, personal information is available on the Internet. These skills are naturally transferable to the library, where the clever programming librarian might host a monthly course teaching users of all ages how to take responsibility for their own Internet profiles.

So much has technology influenced the information landscape that library scientists have had to reevaluate the relevance and role of the information professional. In many places, the taxpaying public, school administrators, and civic board members believe the Internet has obviated the need for physical libraries. If that sounds like a problem for librarians, that’s because it is. New entrants to the field should be versed in the many concepts inherent in Library 2.0 to help combat these misgivings; to help dissuade unscrupulous budget-cutting, aid library education and information literacy, and help plan and operate the libraries of the future.

Engaged Librarian

There are scores of volatile topics churning throughout today’s library science literature—too many to cover in one 12-course graduate program. Information science journals and the blogosphere are charged with passionate supporters and opponents of fee-based services, ardent would-be protectors of digital copyright, and daily theorists on the feasibility of archiving tweets. With so much library-related news and participatory online discussion available, the MLS student should be encouraged throughout the program to read print, explore the blogosphere, and get involved in global library discussions. Students should familiarize themselves with literature and professional information sources and become regularly active in online communities. The emergent librarian brings her personal learning network into the field, prepared to learn and contribute without catalysts like research papers and assigned reading. Staying current on professional topics and adding to the LIS information pool may be more important to one’s professional development than, say, determining whether to select Zane’s Sex Chronicles over a second copy of Desperate Housewives.

For now, the upstart librarian will be successful if he can discriminate among reference materials and can augment his reference work with some readers’ advisory and a bit of creative programming. But to succeed and distinguish oneself in the changing field of library and information science, the librarian should master electronic information resources and communication technologies, understand relationships and how to treat conflict, and become actively involved in the profession. In time, these endeavors should facilitate other skills and knowledge, helping to turn the rookie librarian into a balanced information professional.

Sources Consulted

Berry III, John N. “Get a Voice!.” Library Journal (2007). Web. 6 Aug 2010. <http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6457206.html>.

Fisher, Roger. Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge. Harper, 1999.

Garmston, Robert J. The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon, 1999.

[1] http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/libraries/index.asp

[2] Garmston, Robert J. The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon, 1999.


About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

3 Responses to Random Thoughts on Emergent Librarians

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