April 15, 2014

Defining “Authentic Librarianship” | Peer to Peer Review

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.


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Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. His book, Buying and Contracting for Resources and Services: A How-to-Do-It Manual for Librarians, was published in 2004 by Neal-Schuman.



  1. Dick Swain says:

    Where is preserving the intellectual and artistic record?
    There needs to be a hierachy of concerns which does not begin with patron and end with a local institution. Without acknowledging the role of scholarly communication and the preservation of the artistic and intellectual record authenticity is reduced to the perceived needs of local patrons and institutions. To my mind real authenticity must go far beyond such local considerations.

  2. Rick Anderson says:

    Dick, I think you’re confusing my list of authenticity criteria with a comprehensive list of library goals and purposes. Goals such as “preserving the scholarly record” aren’t included because some libraries (like those serving large research institutions, for example) might be very concerned with that goal whereas for others (such as community college libraries) such a goal may be of much less concern, or perhaps even no concern at all. In all cases, the degree to which a library is concerned with preserving the scholarly record will depend on the mission of its institution and the expectations the institution has for the library. This brings us back to my third authenticity criterion: a desire to further the goals of the sponsoring institution. If the institution wants its library to focus on things other than preservation of the scholarly record, then I would argue that choosing to adopt that focus against the institution’s wishes would not constitute authentic librarianship.

  3. Hi Rick. I think authenticity is certainly an important quality we need to have in our personal and professional lives, and I will look forward to see where you go with this theme. I just wonder if this is making it more complicated then it has to be. As I read your interpretation of what it means to be authentic, based on your three points (“concern for those we serve”),it strikes me more as altruism than authenticity. If I’m selfless in my motivation and I am driven by wanting to serve others, that’s all admirable and it makes me an altruist – I put others before myself and my own desires. That’s what Jim Collins would have said is a key trait of the leaders of great companies. They have humility. They put the company and its employees before themselves. It’s not about them.

    Now, if you believe that’s the kind of person you are, and your actions and words consistently reinforce it – then, for me, that’s being authentic. You truly believe in what you say and your actions consistently back it up. So if you’re a library administrator and you tell your colleagues that your decision making is always student centered, and then you close the library early on Fridays so the rugs can be vacuumed – that’s not particularly student centered – so there goes your credibility and your authenticity.

    It’s all about earning trust. If you’re not authentic, and you constantly give mixed messages, students and staff aren’t going to trust you. If I religiously deliver on those three points – that will certainly help me to build trust, but one of the big problems we have right now, as I see it, is that we haven’t really earned the trust of our students because they really don’t know who we are or why we are there. That’s why I focus in my writing and talks about the importance of building relationships in the community – and if you’re authentic the trust will follow.

    Take a look at Simon Sinek’s video presentation “If you don’t understand people you don’t understand business” – he has a good riff about authenticity in there. You can get a taste of it in this short interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-60R0rC7GU4 (skip the ad) If you’re planning to talk more about the WHY of what we do, I suspect you may already be following Sinek’s work.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Steven, I really like your comments about trust, and I agree completely–if our approach to librarianship isn’t authentic, then not only will our patrons not trust us, but they shouldn’t trust us.

      However, I think your equation of authenticity with altruism fails to account for an important component of what I’m calling “authenticity,” and that’s professionalism. To my mind, a librarian who is operating authentically is not working from a position of altruistic selflessness as much as from one of professional dedication. The difference between the two is subtle but very real, and it involves money. An altruistic librarian would presumably do the work, and do it the same way, regardless of whether he is paid for it. But what I’m calling “authenticity” assumes that the librarian is a professional, not a volunteer. (And by “professional,” I don’t necessarily mean that the person has a library degree — I mean in it a broader sense that has to do with the way one approaches his or her work.)

      Anyway, this whole concept obviously does require further refinement, and I appreciate you helping me do that.

  4. Carol Perryman says:

    “Handsome is as handsome does”

    To me, ‘authentic’ implies ‘genuine’– a thoroughly positivist perspective that there is an external standard for comparison – but you attach it a quality of motivation, which may not be measurable. Our decision making in libraries (or in any setting) is contextual. I understand your distinction of authenticity as a sort of ‘rightly-aligned’ mission statement: service- and user-orientation. But this is a problematic construct, because it can be interpreted in various ways (‘greater good,’ ‘end justifies means,’ ‘sustainability’) that could all be argued to authentically hold user service quality as the motivation for decision making.

    You’ve rightly said that we must be both authentic (in motivation) and evidence-based, but only the second is measurable, visible, and trackable. Forgotten here, perhaps, is an additional element that has been called ‘the learning organization,’ where from the beginning, planning incorporates assessment and improvement.
    Your example of the reference librarian’s action is of a single person acting on a single study, but this is not generalizable evidence, and shouldn’t rightly be what supports our practice, if we hope to operate in an increasingly outcomes-based environment.

    Finally, you’ve ended by saying, “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.” To do this, the model for evidence-based practice calls for transparency, consideration of user needs, and of best evidence – interpreted for local use and documented for future assessment and dissemination. Authenticity, in this proposed model, finds a role in our consistency, willing ears and eyes, and honest learning stance within the communities we serve.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Carol, you’re right that authenticity (as I’m defining it) fits poorly within any positivistic framework, because it is in fact not measurable–actually, in my piece I go further than that and suggest that it’s not even truly detectable, at least not externally. I believe that with adequate honesty and reflection we can learn to discern it (or its lack) in ourselves, but since it’s a function of internal values and motivation it isn’t something we can detect and measure in others in any objective way. First of all, as you point out, there’s no “external standard for comparison”; second, even if such a standard existed, there would be no reliable way for a person to test someone else’s motivations against it.

      “Evidence-based” librarianship is not a topic addressed in my piece. I did talk about effectiveness, but that’s not the same thing — a practice may be highly effective and yet yield little in the way of objective or externally measurable evidence. I’ve got nothing against evidence-based approaches to policy and practice–in principle, I tend to be in favor. But they’ve got nothing to do with what I’m calling “authentic librarianship.”

  5. HI, I’m a librarian from Indonesia. I think the concept and reality of authentic librarianship is in out there. In Indonesia, we still have to pursuit it. In my opinion, the mindset of the librarianship should be strengthened. We still have to learn…