A Thursday Library Rant

by Elizabeth on February 24, 2011 · 8 comments

in librarians, libraries, library school, random ranting

Have you entered my “blog-a-versary” giveaway yet?  It ends on Friday!!
Note: I started this rant on today’s open thread at Agnostic, Maybe and I’m finishing it up here.
There has been SO. MUCH. TALK. about technology training in library school, and while that is so great and wonderful and necessary for some jobs, it is not necessary for mine.
I’m a solo hospital librarian working at a not-for-profit, community-based, teaching hospital.  My main users are residents and attending physicians, but I also work with nurses, pharmacists, and administration.  I spend my days doing literature searches, finding and sending articles, maintaining my collection, helping out with research and grant writing, and teaching instruction classes.  I do classic library work.  My job description and my actual duties (as they sometimes – er, always – differ) have nothing to do with programming, web design (in fact I’m not even allowed to touch the website), or anything tech related past putting paper in the copier and turning on and off my computer.
If I had been required to take a lot of technology classes for my MLIS, I would have of course done so and probably been a more well-rounded librarian, but at this point in my career it would have been a complete waste of time.  I may need it for a future job, but let’s face it, by the time I move on, things will have already changed so much that what I learned in school would be useless.
The skills I need for my job are good reference skills, cataloging/indexing (although most of what I do is copy cataloging, knowing how NLM indexes articles for PubMed is so helpful), and customer service skills.
Which actually brings me a really great point.  Customer service skills and how incredibly important they are.
I’ve said before that my job is 1/3 library skills and 2/3 people skills.  I can teach anyone (well, anyone with a good head on their shoulders and a desire to learn) how to do library work.  But I can’t teach anyone how to be a librarian.  Because being a librarian isn’t about doing library work.  Being a librarian is about being a service professional.  You are providing a service to your users/patrons/customers/whatever you call them.  And your users/patrons/customers/whatever are people.  And if you don’t like people then why do you want to be a librarian?
People use libraries and librarians help these people.  So it would make sense that librarians should actually like and be good with people, right?
Apparently that’s not always the case.
I was reading a blog post the other day (now I can’t remember where so if you know, please put the link in the comments) about how shocked someone was when people were sharing, on that first day of library school (you know where you have to stand up and say why you’re there), that they went to library school because they like to read and/or because they like books.
Getting back to my original point (I had one someone), these are the kind of people we should be concerned about going to library school.  Not people who are technologically-illiterate, but people who don’t know what it means to be a librarian.  (Side note: read this comment for a great idea on how to fix this problem.) Because being a librarian is not about liking books or programming or being great at twitter.  Those are all great qualities, but what makes a good librarian is someone who is helpful, who is genuinely interesting in assisting and teaching users how best to access their information, and who actually likes working with people.
Unless you are a cataloger or in IT; then you can sit in your office and do whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, because, let’s face it, we need you desperately.
That’s the end of my rant.  Thoughts?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jtfburgess February 24, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Well, if it would make you a well-rounded librarian, then it wouldn't be a total waste, right? 😉 If technologies are means of solving problems, then the more tools we can use, the wider a range of problems we can solve, right? Library schools should emphasize tool use theory (philosophy of technology), instead of just pouring specific skill knowledge into people heads and leaving them to think that they are well prepared for their future jobs.

That said, I agree with you that technology education is grossly over-emphasized. Librarians serve individuals and society, not information and books. It would be useful to offer (require?) a course in from the clinical psych department- say empathic listening and therapeutic conversation– for anyone interested in public services. My background is in pastoral care and counseling, and I find it frequently helpful with reference interviews, especially with people who find it difficult to express what they are looking for. It's helps me to remember that they are people to help, instead of problems to solve.


2 alcarpenter February 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm

It is so ironic that you posted this today because just yesterday I had to do an interview with a college student for her career explorations class. She is thinking about being a librarian and had a list of questions for me to answer. By the end of the interview, she kept saying, "I hadn't thought about people skills being so important for this job." I had emphasized that my very favorite part of the job is being able to provide a service to people and helping them get the information they need. I went home wondering if I really gave her an accurate view of working in a public library because she left with so much concern about the people skills. But I think you are so right! Customer service is key and makes an impression on people, ultimately forcing our patrons to decide if they really want to come back to the library or not, based on how they were treated. We are here to serve others and I think that is the main goal in any type of library.

-Abby (Couch) Carpenter


3 James February 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Well, I just had a very nice comment typed out, and Blogspot ate it. I'll try to rewrite it now.

A service orientation is vital to our profession, both to adequately serve our patrons and defend our institutions. When parts of the budget face the chop, it seems that library funding quite often is targeted (as seen in the recently withdrawn amendment to H.R. 1 to defund IMLS). By providing both good information support and customer service, we build allies within the community. Thus, when a vote against funding us looms, our community allies can call, email, and write elected officials in support of us. Of course, anyone who reads this will already know that, but I think it's a point worth stating.

Also, I think it is difficult to strike the perfect balance between technology training and classical library training. My technology skills are vital to my current part-time job as data manager in a clinical setting, but I really wish cataloging had been required, as most job postings now seem to require at least some skill in cataloging. I can arrange and describe manuscripts until the sun burns out, but it's not quite the same thing.


4 andria February 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Another point that I kind of folded in when I was writing my blog post (that may not have shone through as much as the "learn to use a computer" part), was this woman's unwillingness to open her mind to the fact that she might not know what she needs to learn. I tried to communicate that with her (I was sitting at the reference desk at the time too), and she was downright hostile.

Customer service is crucial, but so is willingness to embrace technology and learn as you go. The woman that I spoke to was not very respectful or open-minded, and I felt like rather than conduct a reference interview, she would just tell the patron what he or she wants and then abandon that person.

I don't use CSS Pearl or other scary-sounding programs in my day-to-day, but I do use html and a CMS, which I had to be willing to teach myself to use.


5 Girl in the Moon February 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I've met too many librarians (i.e. more than none) who seem to have little interest in meeting the readers' needs. I'm not sure what to do about it, though.

@andria – I don't think I saw the post you mention in your comment. Do you have a link for it?



6 Elizabeth February 25, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Katie, here is the link to Andria's post on Closed Stacks: http://closedstacks.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/how-to-dissuade/


7 Girl in the Moon February 25, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Thanks Elizabeth!


8 Melanie March 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm

I think that how many library schools group their students is not beneficial, and that is where the problem comes in. I am in my last semester right now, and on the Academic library track. I could have chosen the Special Libraries or the Public library tracks. Breaking up the recommended courses into the type of library doesn't make much sense when the position in that library could be anything from public service to system administrator.

I think many library schools need to change their focus to what job the person actually wants to do, rather than where they want to do it. That way all those technology courses? Could be required for people interested in technology. Of course, there would still be the basics (basic reference, cataloging, management, etc).

As for the "I want to be a librarian because I like books!" – yeah, I had about 15 people in my 40 people orientation that started their introduction with that. It's kinda scary.


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