Librarianship: How to solve our existential crisis

Why is it that librarians spend so much time trying to figure out who they are and what they do?   I’ve read several thought-provoking blog posts over the past couple weeks about how librarians should define themselves and whether or not librarianship is a true profession, and after reading each post I wonder why we’re allowing ourselves to get caught up in this debate in such a way, again and again, and again.

This is not to suggest that these issues don’t have merit.  Ryan Deschamps’ post on professionalism and librarianship stirred up a hornet’s nest, and it was the right thing to do: it’s good when we stake our individual positions on this matter from time to time.  Ryan has shown it from all sides, allowed others to come out for or against, and even staked his own ground, which we should all consider, too.  Mark and Deborah‘s posts over at Re:Generations, meanwhile, have demonstrated some of the reasons why we wonder what we are or what we may like to perceived as professionally.

But I’m still bothered by this entire debate.  It’s not that I think it’s pedantic – it is a necessary debate. However, this debate requires not just commentary but other facts and arguments, and

Reference is cool, but what else do we do for society?

also different voices.  I would like to see this considered, en masse, outside of the LIS blogosphere.  I think some of the answers librarians are looking for when we try to figure out who we are might be found if we didn’t limit these question to just our peer group.  We usually end up talking in circles (as has been seen time and again) if we keep this conversation to ourselves.   If you asked your friend, neighbour, spouse, city councilor, and postal carrier what a librarian is and what a librarian does, what answers would you expect to hear?  I think we, Librarians, should stop asking ourselves what our place is in the world and actually talk to the world at large to see where we stand and where we can go from here.

For what it’s worth, I believe that many people in LIS have skills and expertise that can be used – and ought to be used – in the communities we serve.  Meghan Ecclestone pretty much took the words from my mouth when she asked why CBC’s Q didn’t invite a librarian on to talk about possible revisions to a racist Tin-Tin and its censorship/collections/cultural implications even though Jian Ghomeshi opened up the programme by asking all of Canada, “What’s a librarian to do?”.

Our expertise lends itself to large social concerns

LIS professionals have expertise in copyright, policy, information ethics, data generation and preservation, IT and IS, just to name a few.  Do our friends, neighbours, and culture players understand this?  Probably not.  If we’re going to ask ourselves if we’re a profession or if we’re professional, I think we should ask ourselves if the communities we live in and serve understand our expertise and if we offer it well enough to society at large.

Cheney and the archive.

Confirming to a degree, or at least highlighting my thoughts from earlier this weekend that archives are focal points and physical storehouses of a culture and its memory is the recent CBC news article reporting that a US Federal court has ordered Dick Cheney to preserve records from his time serving in the office of the vice-president of the United States.  Although certain questions arise regarding the levels of privacy within a public office (i.e. is every scrap of paper ever written on in the office part of the public record?  what is its public value?  how does it affect the nation’s interests and security?), we find in the news-piece a common opinion that archives exist to safeguard records.    The fact that the plaintiffs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has demanded that Cheney’s personal papers be preserved for the public record betrays the significance of the archive’s ability to create remembrances from its records.  CREW understands that we remember, discuss, write, and publish on that which is in the archive; demanding that a wide range of Cheney’s papers be included in the public record can potentially affect the manner in which future societies will reconstruct Cheney’s actions as VP.

This is nothing new, of course.  We turn to archives for historical, social and cultural context – that is the very reason why archives exist.  The recent push toward digitization, however, a push toward a new and all-encompassing storage method and format, asks us to reevaluate our points of access and to reconsider their meaning.  Digitization can bring Cheney’s papers to so many more people, but only if the people has access to the proper technology.  One doesn’t need a post office or a library card to access our cultural memory anymore.  Now, one needs the latest software and newest technological platform to transfer and decode the remembrance..