Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why librarianship is difficult and contentious

It is the month of Janus when we take one last long look behind at the year that was and then after this reflection, we turn away from the past, look straight ahead and step forward into the unknown next.

And that is why I started my 2014 by doing some reading from Bret Victor’s annotated bibliography of favourite puzzle pieces of 2013.

I didn't tackle these pieces in order because that would mean I would have to have read the Latour article first, and I'm just not up to it. Well, not yet. I suspect I will tackle the daunting French sociologist’s work with my investigations into cartography this year. The Map Reader, which I have also started tackling recently, just happens to cite Latour on the first page of the first chapter. In fact, both Victor and my Map Reader cite the same work:

So rather than read the items in order, I started on Bret Victor’s reading list with what I thought I would be most familiar with, which was this: “Why education is so difficult and contentious (2001)

I enjoyed this essay very much. I knew that education feels to me like its made out of a multitude of conflicting missions but Egan’s piece help clarify to me how they can be reduced to three elemental ones and, more importantly, that each one of these inherently conflicts with the others.

And this reading is timely because (as of today) there are a couple of conversations unfolding online that are similarly trying to tease apart the original mission of the library to find when and how the spectre of neoliberalism began to seep in.

On that note, I would like to suggest that the mission of the library is similarly bound to three ideas and just like Egan’s three missions of of education, the triad of missions within libraries both support and undermine each of the other.  

[To explain, I'm just going to use the context of *Canadian Academic Librarianship* and I apologize in advance for viewing the profession through such a narrow lens.  There are several examples that I thought of that would illustrate similar points in public librarianship or in a larger global context but I found switching contexts was difficult for me to without confusing things.]

  • The first mission of the library is to support a Plato's ideal of education through literacy
  • The second mission of the library is to support the Institution that funds it
  • The third mission of the library is service to the community's needs

I think that this perspective of this trellus of mission statements is useful because it can explain why some of us in our profession see a future that may end in five years while the rest of us can’t see any end of a need for a deeper and more critical understanding of knowledge creation within the scholarly sphere and the outside world for our students and the community at large.

The institutional need for having a library to provide the *supplemental* texts (mandatory texts being textbooks and on reading lists) that support student and faculty teaching and research seems less urgent *institutionally* with with every year that passes due to the growing ubiquity of internet access and the apparent ease of finding and acquiring material through Google (or through email or by other means if necessary) that satifices.

And with every year vendor-publishers continue to develop and grow their aggregations of turnkey collections of ebook, video, and digitized primary research materials and slice those collections into a variety of models to meet the ROI needs of each of segmented markets within the academic sector. Why spend millions of dollars on owning when you can rent?

(Amusingly, the triple mission statement can also be read to explain why in Canadian Academic Librarianship there are three national organizations to serve the profession. There’s the Canadian Library Association (the supports and promotes within the institutional), CAUT (which supports and promotes the individual within the wider societal aspects of the profession), and the fledgling organization of CAPAL - the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians - which is focused on the research needs of those who are employed in post-secondary institutions.)

I remember of one of my first job interviews for a librarian position in a chemistry library for a large multi-campus university.  When it became my turn to ask a question to my interview committee, I naively asked if I was to support to the work of the faculty of the researchers and students of the Chemistry department, or was I supposed to support the chemistry needs of the university as a whole.  Even though this was over a decade now, I remember quite clearly the Chemistry faculty member on the committee lean back, put his hands behind this head, smile and say ‘That’s a very good question’ and then not answer the question.

Now, over a decade later, all I have are more questions with no definitive answers. Now I wonder, if the institution's overwhelming and immediate concern is to cut costs and if you work in a library (which is what is charmingly referred to as a cost center in the business literature) well, then what is that library supposed to do?

The common response has been to spend more energy aligning the library's goals with the larger institution and to provide the larger institution with evidence and anecdote that describes how and how much the activities of the library actively contribute to the metrics that define success within the institution.

Perhaps this has always been the case but I think what has changed is that until recently, the concerns of balancing the library’s requirements within the institution has been primarily the responsibility of library administrators.  What seems to have changed is that there is an expectation that the profession as a whole should start to adopt institutional metrics. To these ends, Information Literacy standards were formed. Lists of official competencies were drafted.  But to what end? (Measuring an elephant is not the same as feeding an elephant).

There's a danger with using metrics, as well.  If you use reference desk statistics or item circulation numbers to demonstrate use and then those numbers start to plummet, you need to find new, more sophisticated metrics to demonstrate your value. And now, coincidently, there are new conferences created dedicated to the matter of ‘Assessment’ and there have been new positions created within academic libraries for ‘Assessment Librarians.’

I like to think there's another way forward.

If librarians are taking on more of the administrative work of justifying their labour in an institutional context, I think we should expect more library administrators to increase their efforts in championing our work towards the other wider missions that librarianship contains.

In the end, it is what will save us five years from now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas, thanks.

To be clear though, I think even those who "see a future of the profession that may end in 5 years" also agree there will continue to be the "need for a deeper and more critical understanding of knowledge creation within the scholarly sphere and the outside world for our students and the community at large."

-- they are just concerned that libraries as institutions and librarians as a profession will be decreasingly succesful at meeting this need -- or at least at convincing funders that they are or are capable of meeting this need in a cost-effective way as good stewards of funders funds.

Or at least I speak for myself there. The social need for what libraries and librarians could, at their best, be doing, isn't going to go away (the first mission you mention). But I see libraries and librarians success decreasing, and more importantly predict that their success at demonstrating value to their institutions and communities decreasing (2nd and 3rd missions). Which is tragic.