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.

Canadian Culture at the Library

Lately, I’ve been reading Imagining Canadian Literature, the Selected Letters of Jack McClelland. Edited by Sam Solecki, the book is a fine collection of epistles, sometimes sweet, sometimes acerbic, written to friends and colleagues of the long-time president of McLelland and Stewart. (M&S was the dominant publisher of Canadian literature throughout the 20th century.  Solecki’s text reminds us that for over a half-century Jack McLelland played a vital role in the development of CanLit as a style, genre, and industry.)

Of particular interest to Canadian LIS professionals, aside from McClelland’s insight on the book trade, is his 1957 letter to Angus Mowat that expresses his displeasure about the establishment of a National Book Week by the Canadian Library Association in conjunction with the ALA.  Ever the patriot, McClelland was concerned that Canadian culture might be overwhelmed by a dominant American promotional campaign if a Canadian book week was to be celebrated at the same time as its American counterpart.  Although McLelland’s criticism is focused on the CLA, the cultural subtext is familiar to any Canadian who has ever discussed national (and cultural) identity:

I think the CLA should recognize that we are Canadian, that we want to continue being Canadian, and that if we want to continue to be Canadian for very long we can’t follow a course of passive acceptance of everything American and everything that seems easy.  Because of the proximity of the United States, Canada, I think, stands less chance of surviving as an independent entity, politically or culturally, than almost any nation in the world . . . I think the whole thing is appalling.  I hope those in the CLA that are responsible come to their senses, and I am prepared to be quoted in the strongest possible terms on the subject. (p. 30)

The passage of time allows us to reply that Canadian literature has become strong and vibrant, of course.  Although our publishing industry isn’t in the best shape it could be, the Canadian public is still discovering fine authors with incredible literary talent.  And our National Book Week has since morphed into a Canadian Library Month, with no one less that the Governor-General herself as its patron, so we should hardly fear an American dominance in our literary scene anymore.  Nonetheless, McLelland’s 52-year-old letter reminds us that Canadian identity, even though it is not as fragile as he thought it to be, remains something worth fighting for.  Although “Canadian Culture” (or just culture in the raw) is not something that most librarians think about in our day-to-day work lives, every now and again things occur –  an author’s reading for instance, or a Canada Council grant, or even just reading a few publisher’s letters as I am doing now – which remind us that our profession is in fact part of the culture industry.  Librarians don’t necessarily create Canadian Culture, but we definitely nurture it and promote it.  Libraries stopped being mere reading rooms decades ago and are now cultural hubs in the communities they serve. Like publishers, librarians are on the ground pushing and promoting Canadian culture to the wider public.

In short, what I’m drawing from McLelland’s letter are the concerns that still resonate in Canada about identity, culture, and nationhood, and how librarians affect and are affected by them.  We may spend the brunt of our day negotiating contracts, sitting in meetings, weeding materials or developing policies, but to our patrons we often stand as cultural agents, as the people who develop cultural collections that are representative of the community and then help these communitiy members locate themselves in it.

Are these platitudes?  Perhaps.  But on the other hand, CanLit and CanCon is as strong as ever, and Canadian public libraries play an active role in the development of a Canadian cultural identity.  Librarians should remain attuned to the cultural makeup of the communities they serve so that the collection and the institution reminds representative and vibrant.