The Problem with Librarians

You may noticed I have using the blog to work through some ideas about libraries, what libraries are for and what libraries need to do next. This whole series of post is not born from existential dread. Some of my colleagues across the profession are freaking out about the pace of change and the emerging service models that may be necessary to serve our patron-base well. I don’t feel that concern. I hope my recent posts don’t contribute a defensive tone to the conversation.

Libraries do not need to be defended. They do, however, need to be explained. This is the work librarians need to be doing. Librarians need to stop justifying the continued existence of our services and start finding ways to articulate what those services are about in ways that people actually understand.

Librarians are the problem. Many of us became librarians because we love to search. We had professional training that taught us how to search. We build every system and service around the idea of search and then, incredibly, when talking to our patrons we evangelize about the joys of search and forget that they are there for discovery.

I serve in a community college library. For the most part, my patrons are faculty and students. Most of my faculty don’t do research. It isn’t part of their professional program and it isn’t required for promotion. My faculty are there to teach. Most of my students have never done scholarly research, don’t know how to do scholarly research and will likely never have to do scholarly research in any professional capacity. Most courses don’t even require a research paper or project.

How strange then that, when I celebrate the value of their college library, I wax rhapsodic about the joys of research. I extoll the moral virtues of time spent prizing through the wealth of human knowledge using a panoply of tools and devices to find the absolute best sources for their particular need.

This is madness. Their needs, for the most part, are not particular. They don’t need to devote hours to exquisitely refined search strings and terms. They need to discover. They need to get curious. They need to explore.

Librarians worship the search process. We want to help our students focus and refine their search strategies. This may be madness too. Most of my students come to me with no clear sense of what their research project is about or why they are being asked to do the research. Asking them to find focus is a non-starter. We should spend more of our time helping them find connection to the work they are doing in class.

Students cannot meaningfully focus their research before they have connected to the purpose of that research. This is true of everyone. All professional or amateur researchers come to their search with a deep sense of connection. They are compelled by an urge to know or understand some specific thing.

Librarians are deeply connected to the experience of search. It is our professional joy. We need to stop forcing that joy onto others. They will never love it as much as we do. They shouldn’t need to. What we believe to be the joy of search is actually the joy of making connections. We should share that joy instead.

We live in a post-search world. Just a few years ago, a curious person needed to dig deep and develop complex search rituals to have their curiosity rewarded. That is no longer entirely true. Information now comes to us more than we go to it. Through news media, blog feeds, podcasts and automated search strings, we can bombard ourselves with highly-personalized streams of relevant, interesting information.

The trick is knowing what to do with that information. Students have a very hard time with this. They have a hard time connecting the literary analysis of “Young Goodman Brown” with their own lives. When asked to write about a major social issue, they struggle to decode the latest geopolitical buzzword while ignoring the question they actually care about, which is something like “why aren’t there more small businesses in my hometown”.

Librarians have the skill, knowledge and tools to help these students connect with their own learning but we must stop doing a few things first.

  • Stop worshiping search. Enjoy the process. Share that joy with others but don’t expect them to enjoy search as much as you do. Search is your fetish. People don’t need to share it.
  • Stop talking so much about research. It doesn’t mean what you think it means and it usually sounds like a painful obstacle to climb before discovery.
  • Stop organizing libraries and webpages around the tools of discovery. Normal people don’t know what to do with it. Organize those pages around the process of discovery. Make the tools available where they are needed. Don’t expect people to reach into a deep, dark toolbox and spend hours thinking up ways they can use each.
  • Stop using the word “database” so much. There has got to be a better word. If you figure out what that word is, let me know.
  • Promote curiosity. Our collections are fascinating. Make connections from those collections to real life.
  • Be specific. Don’t say that the library is a place to learn. Everybody gets that, but nobody really knows what that even means. Say instead, “the library is a place to learn about math or science or politics or health or…”
  • Don’t just say the library is a place to learn about x. Show them. Make connections visible.

Librarians needs to stop thinking and talking about libraries as primarily being places for information. The world is awash information. Our patrons are seeking relevance. That’s what libraries are really about. It is time to start talking about them that way.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with Librarians

  1. Great food for thought. I like what you are saying about organizing libraries and web pages around the process, not the tools. Good web pages need to use natural language because users don’t care about our internal names for things. “Databases” can sound boring and intimidating, but it’s also very ingrained in academic libraries…. Maybe an option to “find articles by subject”?

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    1. Thanks, Janell. Turns out this isn’t an easy thing to do. I get very tool-focused because I love the tools and find them interesting. I need to find ways to step back and remember that my job is to love the tools so that other people don’t have to.

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