In my first column, I touched briefly on an idea that I would like to expand upon here, and then use as a foundational concept for my future columns. It’s the idea of “authentic librarianship.”
First of all, though, I have to confess to a mild knee-jerk reaction against the use of the word “authenticity” in the context of human psychology and behavior. To my mind, the word has always carried a faint whiff of self-indulgence—as a kid growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s, I gradually came to the conclusion that when grown-ups insisted on “authenticity” it usually meant that they thought people (specifically them) should do and say whatever they felt like at any given moment, because to do otherwise would be phony or hypocritical or otherwise “inauthentic.” As a youngster, and therefore someone who frequently depended on adults to do and say things that might not be entirely convenient for them, that kind of “authenticity” struck me as problematic. And in reality that probably wasn’t what most grownups really meant when they invoked the term, but hey, I was just a kid, and now that I’m a little older and see the world in a slightly more nuanced (and hopefully less egocentric) way, I can see the real value in the pursuit of personal and professional authenticity.
So here’s how I propose to use the idea in this column: to me, authentic librarianship is motivated primarily by concern for those we serve as librarians, rather than by concern for our own agendas or preferences. To be more specific, “authentic” would describe professional practice that is motivated by all of the following:
- Concern for the success of the library’s patrons in their particular tasks
- Concern for the long-term intellectual welfare of the library’s patrons
- Desire to further the goals of the library’s sponsoring institution
How can you know whether a librarian is acting in an authentic manner? Well, there’s the trick: you can’t, unless the librarian is yourself (and even then, it may not always be easy). In my first column I suggested, in passing, that in many cases inauthentic librarianship may look an awful lot like authentic librarianship—by which I meant that two librarians might carry out their tasks in exactly the same way, one of them motivated by selfishness or laziness or pedantry, and the other by a genuine desire to do what will serve the patron and institution best. Sometimes (OK, often) we have suspicions about what motivates our colleagues, but rarely (OK, maybe never) can we know for certain what their motivations really are. And it’s motivation that lies at the heart of authenticity: authentic librarianship does not consist in a set of specific strategies or practices, but in a set of desires and motivations.
This means that authenticity, while important, is insufficient. A library director might genuinely believe that the library’s patrons and sponsoring institution are best served by making sure the library’s workspaces are kept silent. Motivated by a genuine desire to be helpful, a reference librarian might offer to do the patron’s searching for him. Worried about recent research suggesting that readers retain information better after reading it in print, another librarian might steer a patron away from a more-relevant ebook and towards a less-relevant print book. In the interest of thoroughness and findability, a cataloger might add a fifth subject heading to a bibliographic record. Each of these actions might be completely appropriate in one situation, and dead wrong in another. So we must be more than just authentic; we also have to be effective, and our effectiveness will ultimately be judged by the real-world impact of our actions on the people and institutions we serve—regardless of our inner desires and motivations.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I left out of my authenticity criteria any reference to the scholarly communication environment as a whole. Shouldn’t authentic librarianship be informed by concern for the larger scholarly-communication environment that provides a context for the particular institution to which the librarian is attached? As a matter of fact, I typed that item in and then deleted it several times. I’m not sure, to be honest, why I keep hesitating over it. But I’m going to give it more thought, and I plan to revisit the question in a future column. At this point I’m prepared simply to say that I think the issue is important. I’m just not yet sure where I stand on the proposition that such big-picture, extramural concerns are essential to the authenticity of library practice.
So for now, I’ll leave it at this: while my future columns will mostly focus on specifics of practice and policy, in all cases I plan to make a special effort to discuss the why of what we do as well as the what. I like getting down to first principles, and I think our patrons and other stakeholders benefit when we ourselves are clear not only on what works best and why it works, but also on why we do it and why it matters.