Many of you are probably familiar with the TV movie The Librarian: Quest for the Spear or its sequels. For those who aren’t, the lead character, Flynn Carsen, is a man in his thirties who has never left college. He obtains 22 degrees before he’s finally kicked out. He’s then recruited to be “The Librarian,” the head of a secret, enormous museum of strange and magical artifacts. The IMDb page quotes a scene from the movie that shows The Librarian is different from mere librarians:
Charlene: What makes you think you could be the Librarian?
Flynn Carsen: Well, I’ve read a lot of books.
Charlene: Don’t try to be funny. I don’t do funny.
Flynn Carsen: I’m sorry.
Charlene: [after a pause] What makes you think you could be the Librarian?
Flynn Carsen: I know the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, research paper orthodoxy, web searching. I can set up an RSS feed…
Charlene: Everybody knows that. They’re librarians. What makes you think you are the Librarian?
The distinction is important. Carsen isn’t becoming a librarian. He becomes The Librarian, and he works for The Library.
Recently I was engaged in an online discussion about whether there are or can be a basic set of skills that all librarians should master. I have yet to see a persuasive argument for any particular library-specific skill that absolutely every librarian or library school graduate must have, and I’m pretty sure that’s because no such argument can be made. Most claims about what all librarians need to know or do or think rest on the assumption that there is a mythical creature—The Librarian. However, The Librarian doesn’t exist.
The arguments against a unified skills theory of librarianship are so many it hardly seems worth going through them, but since we’re sometimes told that all librarians need to be such-and-such or know so-and-so, maybe they are worth repeating. The most obvious one is that not all librarians do the same job, and there are some librarian jobs that have almost nothing in common with other librarian jobs. I think a lot of prophetic or dictatorial librarians forget about this when they try to define other librarians out of the profession. They know what they do, what they’re colleagues do, maybe what some of their friends who are librarians do, but they’ve hardly experienced or mastered every job in every library done by a librarian.
The contrast I usually make is between the public library in the small town my grandmother is from (population 500) and the large research library I work in (serving about 7,500 students and 1,100 faculty). The small town librarian is far closer to being The Librarian than anyone where I work. If you’re the only librarian in a small library, you need to know a little bit of everything necessary to make your library work, from standard library skills like cataloging, reference, and collection development to other less specific library skills like dealing with a board of directors and promoting library services in the community. The breadth of skills is enormous, but the depth probably isn’t, while still being completely appropriate to the situation.
My library, on the other hand, has about eighty professional librarians, plus many dozens of high level support staff, many of which have specialized skills or knowledge, especially in foreign languages. The total depth and breadth of experience is overwhelmingly vast compared to the single small-town librarian, while the small-town librarian might be at least competent in more library-related things than any given librarian here. Nevertheless, different libraries need different librarians with different skills.
Or consider various types of librarian jobs. Does the director of a huge research library have or need the same skills as a suburban children’s librarian? Does the law firm librarian need the same skills as a rare books librarian? Does the systems librarian need the same skills as the subject bibliographer? If so, what skills do they all need and why? I’d say none. As Lane Wilkinson put it in a post that was part of the online discussion, “Show me a skill you think is strongly essential for librarianship, anything from coding to cataloging, and I’ll show you a great librarian who nonetheless lacks that skill.”
Instead of reveling in the diversity of the profession or within an organization, some librarians would prefer to impose more order on that chaos. They argue that all librarians should be able to do X thing, and it’s usually something that they do themselves. Making that claim implies that librarians who don’t do X thing aren’t good librarians, or perhaps not even librarians at all.
They probably don’t think they’re doing this. In fact, they probably think they’re acting for the best to persuade their recalcitrant colleagues to step in line and do what good librarians do. But what they’re also doing is trying to define what a librarian is and what librarians do to include what they happen to do or believe, but to exclude what they don’t do or believe.
Perhaps the controversy is inevitable. Librarianship has always been a problematic profession to define. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, what lawyers and doctors and therapists do, but I’ve rarely met anyone who isn’t already familiar with academic libraries who has any idea what I do in my job. If I just say “librarian,” they think I shelve books and shush people, or sit around reading books all day.
The Librarian doesn’t exist. The Library doesn’t exist. What we have are tens of thousands of people working in thousands of different workplaces called libraries, some of which are similar to each other but dissimilar to the rest. Because of that, there can be no one definition of what librarians are or one set of skills they should all have.
Instead, think of librarians like a family, with family resemblances. Mom and Junior have the same soulful eyes, but Junior has Dad’s floppy ears. Put all the traits that the extended family shares together, and you get the set of family resemblances. Put all the skills that libraries in total need people to be able to do, and you get The Library. Combine all those skills together and you get The Librarian. If you can find that single person, please let me know, and I’ll change my mind about the whole issue.