What is a Librarian Without a Library?

By Connie Crosby, Principal, Crosby Group Consulting, Toronto, Canada  http://crosbygroup.ca http://conniecrosby.blogspot.com

On my mind lately has been how the role of librarians, library technicians and other library staff is so intrinsically connected to a place (the physical library). As we lose space in our libraries, I wonder if this creates more of a challenge for our clients to understand our roles. It’s almost as if this change is both symbolic and real.

While reading Joshua Foer’s 2011 book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (http://joshuafoer.com/), I learned how what we remember is often very connected with place. Memory champions use this to their advantage with a tactic called “the memory palace” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci) wherein they mentally associate individual memories (names, words, items) with rooms in a building they know well to help them remember.

It made me wonder how people’s past experiences of libraries (how the shelves were arranged and where certain books were kept) was tied to the knowledge and information we store in our brains. Would this be especially true for knowledge workers such as lawyers who have relied so heavily on books for their thinking?

Books have long acted as surrogates for our thoughts and how they are organized. As  physical books slowly disappear and our library shelves shrink, are we, as library staff, inadvertently becoming less and less associated with the knowledge the lawyers seek, even though those books may still exist electronically?

I have never really seen my own status as a librarian as being tied to place (much as I adore books), and took that to the extreme when I went out on my own as an independent consultant. But now I wonder if this disconnection from the library itself is coming at the cost of how we are perceived. In a recent interview by Jean P. O’Grady (http://deweybstrategic.blogspot.ca/2012/06/climbing-value-ladder-rethinking-law.html), Jordan Furlong (http://www.edge.ai/Edge-International-1492510.html) puts it this way:

“…lawyers tend to shrink or cut anything whose function or value they don’t really understand. So if your lawyers don’t clearly understand the work or perceive the value of your library professionals, you’ve got cause for concern.”

In his June 20th blog post “All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late” (The Digital Shift Blog, LibraryJournal) (http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2012/06/ebooks/all-hat-no-cattle-a-call-for-libraries-to-transform-before-its-too-late/), Jamie LaRue points out that it does no good for librarians to complain to one another (being all talk and no walk); we need to look at how things are changing in our industries and find new processes and new roles. In this particular article he talks about how the rise of ebooks is dis-intermediating librarians in our role as book gatekeepers, and how we have to adapt with new processes.

I wonder if a librarian without a library starts to look like a cowboy without cows to the outside world? And how can we flip this around to take advantage of this great disconnect to reinvent ourselves?

This again raises the questions with which many of us struggle:

  • How do we reinvent ourselves?
  • What new roles/procedures do we take on?
  • How do we demonstrate our value?

Answering this last question, I believe, is one of our greatest challenges. We cannot adapt simply for the sake of adaptation. Our clients must value the work we do, and it is not enough to simply guess what would be most valued.

Here, therefore, is what I suggest for special librarians: get out and talk with your clientele. And not just about the latest research you completed or a book on order. Get out and talk about the bigger picture: about their specific needs with respect to information and research.

Forget about the library for a moment. What is the most important information to them? Where are they getting their information? What difficulties are they having? Is there any specific information they are missing? When they can’t find specific information, where do they go/who do they go to for it? In the ideal world, how would they like to see this done better?

After you have talked with a number of people at different levels and in different departments, map out the information flows in your organization: who specifically is doing the research? Who do people go to for answers? What is working? More importantly, what is not working?

I suspect when you stop talking about “what can the library do better” and take the library itself out of the picture in your inquiries, you may discover something quite shocking: the work you have made a priority has little to do with the information seen as important to the organization’s overall business. Unless you have been out talking to your clients regularly and asking these questions already, you may have been missing something.

Uncovering this gap between the services needed and the services provided is the key to answering the questions. And for each of us the answers will be different.

From there, focus on: What is valued? What can help contribute to the revenue of our organizations? How can we make ourselves essential by providing what is valued? And also don’t forget to tell others you are providing what is valued. Get out and talk it up! And if you can’t have that physical presence in the “real world”, you need to make sure you have a presence in the electronic world, whether it is the intranet/portal or on the Internet.

There is a lot of important work for us to do once we determine what our new roles are; however, we have an even greater task of demonstrating the value and marketing ourselves in the new roles. And if we lose our libraries altogether, the challenge of this will grow exponentially. We may not be able to (or even want to) prevent this from happening, but we should see this as an opportunity to re-make our roles.

8 thoughts on “What is a Librarian Without a Library?

  1. A library should be almost entirely irrelevant to the work of the librarian. A library is simply a collection – it is the professional, the members and the community that give it value. Librarians have been associated with the artifact for far too long – because it’s easy to link the two together. What isn’t seen, and the profession hasn’t bothered to articulate, is the activities of the librarian.

    Surgeons are not viewed as people who do things with scalpels – they are linked to the activity of making people better – mainly because we have a very hazy idea of what the scalpels do. However, we all know what books do, so it’s easy to make an incorrect assumption.

    You’re right Connie – librarians need to get out there and demonstrate what we can do. It’s almost like missionary work I think. Go to local businesses if you’re a public librarian and see what information needs they have. If you’re corporate, ask to sit in on meetings and provide ad lib content and information. If you’re academic, sit in on classes, tweet links to resources and so on.

    The library is what holds librarians back. Focus on activity, focus on improving the community, pay less attention to the books and buildings.

  2. We don’t reinvent ourselves by sending our favorite potluck recipes to Spectrum! Sometimes I feel that AALL is working against changing the role/image of law librarians!

  3. Phil–I love your analogy of the surgeon. Thank you for expanding on my thoughts. I like your thinking with respect to solutions.

    Mary–This is much how I feel about the book cart drill videos on YouTube. They are kind of fun but do little to really change how we are perceived. On the other hand, if this brings people in our profession joy, who am I to criticize? We will just have to look elsewhere for change!

  4. You are so right, Connie. Many thanks for this thought provoking article. We have to do this ourselves, it is in our own interest. We have to market ourselves, we have to demonstrate our skills. I also want to support Phil Bradley’s suggestions. Perhaps we can organise some sessions about this topic in the next CALL conference or the Education committee of TALL may like to get some library professional who is doing it already. Thanks again Connie, Phil and Mary.

  5. I think status quo, inactivity, and negative perceptions are our worst enemies. A focus on activity and getting out and talking to our clientele are major steps to increasing our value. I have met many “stuck” librarians, but also many who are enthusiastically and creatively blazing a trail to re-make their roles. This is one of the best and most accurate articles I have read in a long time. The onus is on the individual librarian to get out and make the case for the library (physical or virtual). I am not sure why we always seem to sell ourselves short when the services we provide are so valuable

  6. Pingback: Librarians Demonstrating Value « Library of the European Parliament's Blog

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