Library Weeks (4-8 Jan 2010)

This past week, the first week in the winter term, had me digging for clues to a puzzle. Some faculty members at the university have a unique criminology research question and are pulling out all the stops to collect data and analysis. To help them locate literature on the subject, I had to consult abstracts that our library holds only in bound volumes.  For a number of reasons (most of which are financial), we still subscribe to Criminal Justice Abstracts in print only; it is only one of a few bound indexes which the library still holds, and it remains vital to the school’s scholarship in criminology and sociology.  Although the beginning of my work was psychologically draining – the thought of looking up CJA‘s cumulative subject index volume-by-volume was not good for the soul – I eventually caught on to a rhythm and was breezing through the years in no time at all.  I may be a big proponent for electronic resources in the library, but for a moment I appreciated being able to physically handle the volumes again: there was almost a meditative quality to flipping the pages to find what I was looking for.

What made this work so poignant wasn’t the physical work of moving from one volume to another, however, but the fact that I was forced to rely on abstracts to determine an article’s value to the subject matter.  Although I always emphasize to students the convenience and effectiveness of abstracts when working with electronic resources, like so many others I’ll sooner or later open a PDF and hope that an article’s full-text will help me quickly consider its worth to the subject.  But more often than not this slows us down and can lead us away from literature useful to the subject.  Perhaps when we’re at the reference desk and we’re helping a student, a part of us feels compelled to open the file and find a potential reward, as if the article contained in that PDF will speak to the student’s specific subject.  But speed and gratification can’t be our main concern when helping our patrons. I’m not suggesting that we ignore these issues entirely, because gratification is part of the human condition so we must be prepared to deal with people who want results if not soon, then immediately.  But we need to remember (if not reinforce the fact) that opening every single PDF we find can send a patron down many different rabbit holes, most of which would be peripheral to their work.  Locating scholarly literature by considering abstracts, making value-judgments and marking items, and then moving toward analysis and synthesis (i.e. first search, then read), is likely a more efficient and effective way to research a topic.

Part of me wonders if we should keep bound volumes of CJA close by the reference desk, or bring them along in our information literacy training sessions just to help students understand not only the massive amount of information available on the internet, but also the massive amount of organization that has been lost (or is regularly side-stepped) with the move to electronic access.  Yes, the internet can make data location and retrieval a fairly simply and routine task – I am not suggesting at all that we return to the days of print volumes, I promise.  But by putting all of eggs into one basket, or at least making it look that way to the end-user, we’re making it appear that the information is now easier to not only find, but also evaluate when it necessarily isn’t so.  Too often our students see abstracts in Academic Search Premier or in JSTOR as one extra screen to click through to get to the goods – the article’s full-text.  We need to spend more time helping students understand that the abstract screens aren’t an impediment to the end result but rather a useful tool to improve their searches by helping them separate what’s useful from what’s not in a timely manner.

Understanding librarianship

When I first enrolled in library school (or into a school of library and information science – you can choose for yourself), I thought that I was getting myself into a profession that would help me, namely, to facilitate learning.  I strongly believe in education and advancement, both inside and outside the rigors of an academic environment, and I thought that being  librarian would enable me to help people help themselves.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was very much an advocate for information literacy; I still am.  Librarians, I believe, have a strong desire, if not professional duty, to help people learn how to learn, to understand the mechanics of knowledge; we’re here to teach others them how to use information to achieve their goals.

But what else is there to being a librarian?  At the end of my second-last term in the degree, I’ve come to realize that information literacy is not the only focus of librarianship.  We are all teachers in this profession, that much is true, but teaching is not our main duty (if there is one!).  If there were a few things that had to be instilled in the proto-librarian, the librarian in training, what would they be?   Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Information Literacy. Teaching may not be our main focus, but instructing individuals on how to use information systems and how to find, locate, and manipulate information and data to achieve their goals remains vital to the profession.  We’re here to help others, and we can do that best by teaching others the knowledge we have learned ourselves
  2. Information Organization. I’m a late convert to the cause, I must admit, but I now truly preach the faith of data and information organization.  This ought to be our specialty since we have the skills, knowledge, and training to efficiently organize information and create effective knowledge systems.  Information organization is far more than MARC records and “space colon space”.  Information organization is a knowledge and skill set that allows us to understand the consequences of arranging our data and files in a particular manner, or of understanding the ramifications of declaring X to actually by Y in an authority record, thereby reacting to or affecting our cultural sensibilities.
  3. Information Ethics. Our profession needs to work on the side of good and affect positive change.  Sure, we must be apolitical and unbiased when we are creating records, but even that action declares our progressive nature.  Let the information speak for itself, and help others speak for themselves by protecting access to information.  The public library is a public good, as is the written word, and it’s our duty to ensure it remains thus.

Would these be the tenets of a library school I’d run?  Perhaps, but I don’t have that much of an ego to think that way.  These three items, rather, ought to be the broad themes we talk about when we talk librarianship.  If some one is looking for career advice and is considering an MLIS/MLS, or if I find myself in a conversation about our line of work, I try to touch on these areas.  It’s a quick list that helps me explain what I do and why I do it, and how it affects the world on a regular basis.

How do you explain librarianship to others?  What does it mean to be a librarian to you?