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If Striking Librarians Fell in the Forest…

I’m glad the tenth anniversary of 9/11 fell on a weekend, so I didn’t have to write something about it. If people found references to tornadoes offensive, I can only imagine the apoplectic whining a post on 9/11 would draw out of some people, no matter what I said.

A drinking companion suggested I declare this Banned Bloggers Week, the motto being “Intellectual Freedom is Our Greatest Asset (Except When It Is Offensive).” If we start banning blogs, the terrorists have already won!

What new can anyone really say about 9/11, anyway. The death and destruction, the waste of lives and money cause worldwide by 19 terrorists and the U.S. response to their actions is mind-boggling. It’s depressing if you think about it, so I suggest you don’t think about it.

Instead, think about something much less serious: striking librarians! Last week librarians and archivists at the University of Western Ontario went on strike. They were even marching in picket lines and blocking traffic, because nothing gets people on the side of strikers like having to sit in a traffic jam caused by a picket line. And here I thought Canadians were supposed to be so nice.

The dispute is over pay equity, as explained a couple of weeks ago in an LJ article about the then-impending strike. It seems that the UWO librarians and archivists make 12-15% less on average than comparative positions in other libraries throughout Ontario, the number of librarians has been shrinking, and positions are being filled with limited term staff.

For you public librarians, this kind of thing is not at all atypical in academic libraries these days.

From the news article: “During the strike, all campus libraries will remain open. However, some reference services may not be available, the university said.” And from the LJ article we learn that while the library will remain open, “some subject-specific reference services may be unavailable.”

Considering that one of the problems, according to the union, is “the reassignment of librarians into fields in which they are not specialized—for example, assigning a science librarian to the humanities library,” then the lack of availability of subject-specific reference might not be a bad thing.

As an aside, if the library is really assigning science specialists to humanities jobs, that would have to be a first. Normally, it’s the other way around, as the scientifically illiterate English and History majors who become librarians end up having to do science reference.

But leaving aside that problem, let’s look at the strike from another perspective. Take a look at this article on What Students Don’t Know, which made the rounds of academic library news a couple of weeks ago.

It reports on a two year, five campus study of colleges in Illinois. Basically, the study found that in general college students are terrible information searchers and that they have no idea what librarians do or how librarians could help them. That’s the kind of thing lots of librarians already knew, but now academic librarians have a study to cite, which always makes them feel better.

Which brings us to the question, what if librarians went on strike, and no one noticed (I mean, aside from the annoying picket line)? It could be that the students at the University of Western Ontario are much better informed than the students in Illinois, and it’s definitely true that librarians draw more attention to themselves on some campuses than on others.

However, it could also be the case that most of the students at UWO don’t use the librarians, like most of the students on every other college campus. Academic librarians have long complained that they are an untapped source of research help for students, and most of the academic librarians I’ve known really, really, really want to help the students. Yet somehow most students seem to get by okay without their help.

Librarians always play second, or even third fiddle to professors, but the last few decades have shown that professors are expendable. Up to a certain level of instruction, they can be swapped like widgets for cheaper substitutes.

Librarians, it would seem, might be even more expendable, not because they don’t do good work, but because nobody knows what work they do. An administration dedicated strictly to the bottom line might not want to come to terms with librarians. It might be able to point out that students are still doing the same sort of bad research they were when the librarians were around.

If striking librarians fell in the forest, they might not make a sound. If you’re a striking librarian, it’s something to think about. Maybe even if you’re not.

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Comments

  1. According to the UWO website (http://goo.gl/YS8jk) “All campus libraries remain open and most library services will be available, including borrowing and accessing physical materials, accessing electronic materials, directional services and reference source assistance. However, highly subject specific, in-depth reference services may not be available.”

    It will be a serious blow to the profession if this strike reveals the materials management functions of the library, rather than librarian-provided services, are what students and faculty find most valuable.

  2. farkto says:

    I was a student at UWO, and completed my MLIS there. I’ve got a lot of friends who work as UWO librarians, and are now on strike, and I’ve got to say: even as a librarian, I’m finding sympathy hard to come by.

    They’re out there striking, yet the library remains open, and, perhaps most importantly for most undergrads, the website remains operational. In my experience as a student, most undergrads (a.k.a. the bulk of UWO’s student body) will use the website, and only set foot in the library in circumstances where materials (or group meetings) are absolutely required.

    Of course, I do agree that their value should be recognized in comparison to their professional counterparts elsewhere in Ontario’s academic world, but it may turn out that they’re hauling everyone else’s value down if they can’t find a way to convince the university, or the public as a whole, that librarian-provided services are valuable.

  3. Elena says:

    i am so getting out of this profession.

  4. spencer says:

    Please don’t let them expose the secret of the profession! If this cat gets out of the bag, how will I ever get a good paying gig that’s easy work?

  5. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    But if the librarians go on strike and e-resource bills go unpaid, what will the students plagiarize from? They’ll just be left with wikipedia. Think of the children!

  6. Mr. West says:

    Trust me….no one will notice!!

  7. Randal Powell says:

    My firm belief is that library use, and reference service use, would increase if average people had broad and deep research skills. Are people going to go to a reference librarian if they don’t even know enough to know what to ask for, how to frame their question, and what resources that particular library is likely to have or not have? According to this study, and the experience of many working librarians, No. And when people go to a reference librarian and the librarian is useless or rude…forget about it, they will never ask again.

    There is a lot of needed, authoritative information that is not available for free on the internet, and will not be any time soon. Even with increased digitization, good research skills are still needed, as indicated by this study’s assessment that students aren’t even good at using Google or library databases. If we are to live in a vibrant, capitalistic democracy, then everyone needs to be able to find and validate information and data of all kinds.

    Teaching everyone broad and deep research skills should be the job of School Media. However, I question whether School Media, as a group, even realizes this or values broad and deep research skills themselves. Even if they do, the structure and character of public education in this country, sadly, does not seem to value the direct, clear communication of fundamentals. I suppose the best thing for a parent to do right now, if they want their child to have broad and deep research skills (which they should), is to learn these skills and teach their child at a public or academic library.

    Are librarians and school media coordinators not doing their best to teach these skills because they don’t want average people to have professional research skills, or are they just incompetent, or are average people just too dumb? I don’t know the answer. But what I do know is that everyone does need these skills, whether they realize it or not. Democracy and capitalism are both predicated on average people making informed decisions. How can that happen when the average person has such poor research and analytical skills?

  8. Techserving You says:

    I second what Jean Costello said. I think going on strike is a bit dangerous, as it will (almost definitely) drive home the point that the professional librarians are not needed.

    Randal Powell wrote:

    “My firm belief is that library use, and reference service use, would increase if average people had broad and deep research skills. Are people going to go to a reference librarian if they don’t even know enough to know what to ask for, how to frame their question, and what resources that particular library is likely to have or not have? According to this study, and the experience of many working librarians, No. And when people go to a reference librarian and the librarian is useless or rude…forget about it, they will never ask again.”

    Yes, true to some extent. But I think that you’re assuming something which is not true in most cases – that “the average person” (or student) has research NEEDS which are broad and deep.. They just don’t, unless they’re working on a senior honors project or a dissertation, in which case much of the data and analysis in many subjects is self-generated. The typical term paper, even at a rigorous and highly selective college can usually be written by doing a bunch of database searches (not always to find full-text articles, but to find citations for relevant books and print articles, etc..) Even to a serious student, a term paper in, say, Psych 211, is really inconsequential. Yes, they want to learn, but they also have assignments in 3 or 4 other classes. They don’t have to scour the ends of the earth to get enough information to write a decent paper.

    I think to answer your question about librarians, and why they do not teach “broad and deep research skills” – aside from the lack of such needs on the part of the student – the average reference librarian simply does not possess such skills. Most librarians are not scholars, as much as they would like to pretend they are. Most librarians, even at top schools, do not hold other advanced degrees. How can a librarian REALLY teach about research if he or she does not have first-hand experience in the research process, in his or her own academic life? Learning about sources and the reference interview and the “research process” is not the same as actually following the research process.

    I remember sitting around with my MLIS classmates at, ahem, the top Canadian university, and joking about how the claim is that librarians are supposed to have superior research skills, but most of us did not feel that that was true of us. Yes, in our reference class (in the mid-2000s), we learned about the most esoteric print reference sources… which the university promptly either completely discarded or relegated to off-site storage. We also very quickly forgot about those sources. And besides, for all of our reference assignments which asked questions which required us to find answers using those sources, many of us still didn’t feel all that proficient with them. We weren’t using them in the same way real researchers would.

    Sure, in the end, some of us were slightly above-average in our understanding of controlled vocabulary or how to frame the best search string in a database, but that was about it. Some of us had other advanced degrees, but most had only undergraduate degrees, and not in fields which were particularly research-oriented. (And not everyone even went to a strong undergraduate program.)

    I think (and this is based on experience utilizing the services of reference librarians, as well as performing reference, plus it is common sense) that for a reference librarian to truly teach “broad and deep” research skills… to be able to tease out exactly what the student needs, when the student can’t articulate it… the librarian MUST have more than a cursory background in the relevant academic field. I don’t know how prevalent the practice of moving librarians who are already specializing in one area to another area is, but I DO know how prevalent it is for libraries to hire people with ZERO knowledge of one subject to work in that subject. Case in point, the numerous English majors working as medical librarians (I know two personally.) I would challenge any one of them to succeed in even a basic anatomy and physiology course.

    There is the rare librarian who is a scholar in his or her own right, or the librarian who has been working for so long that they know their own collection through and through, they helped students with research before the internet came into existence, and they know about all the obscure sources, and they have worked in the field long enough to have learned a lot about an academic subject, even if they didn’t study it. But those librarians are RARE.

    I remember working at a top institution, and a professor brought a class in for a library instruction class. The librarian who was supposed to lead it was late getting to work. The professor suggested that he could lead it. This story got passed all around the library – outraged librarians believed it was utterly ridiculous that anyone but a librarian could teach bibliographic instruction. Sure, they know their SUBJECT, but they don’t understand the most effective way to search databases! And surely they don’t know how to teach students those skills! But the professor (who by the way was young and would have used plenty of the new-fangled things (databases) librarians imagine regular people can’t effectively use) had undertaken extensive research while completing his PhD. He continued to perform real research. WHY should the professor not be BETTER at teaching the kids the sources, and how to use them? Professors I have overheard interacting with students engage them much more effectively than most librarians do.

    I could go on all day about this….

  9. John Farrier says:

    I’ve never felt inclined to argue for the value of librarians. If my work product isn’t self-evidently good, then I’m wasting my time in an argument that I’ve effectively already lost.

    My time is better spent creating a product that is valued by the market.

  10. NorCalLibGal says:

    …and here I thought I wanted to go to library school! Never mind.

  11. DangItAll says:

    I’m $50k in the hole for a degree, graduating in December, with no jobs to be had (except I see a lot for Directors, which takes lots of years of experience before you can even begin to think about applying)Do these people in Canada have that much better an economy than we do that they can risk having their jobs cut?

    If only I had taken seriously all the calls in this column to not bother getting the degree. You’re smart, NorCalLibGal – I was a sucker.

    (I’ve also found poor hiring practices run rampant at many libraries- I’m currently just a front-staff substitute, no benefits, no respect given because of my lowly position, yet I could out-perform so many branch managers & directors simply because I’m a hell of a lot smarter than they are. Incompetence seems to be greatly rewarded at public libraries, and if you are intelligent enough to make those already there look pathetic by comparison, you’ll never get hired. I know – I see it firsthand all the time. I have no fantasy the library I work for will hire me, even though I’d be an amazing employee.)

  12. Least Most Wanted says:

    You follks who are saying that Librarians are not needed must be public service Librarians. These things are true and require a well traned professional; material still needs to be cataloged, manuscripts need to be organized and finding aids need to be written, websites and electronic resources need constant updating and organizing. I could go on, don’t be so short sighted. Sure almost anyone can use a libraries resourses to answer basic reference questions but what about really complex subjects and special collections, you need librarians in those areas, as a matter of fact more are needed.

  13. Techserving You says:

    I’m not saying librarians aren’t needed… I’m responding to the issue of librarians and their ability to (and need to) answer in-depth research questions. The point is that virtually NO ONE asks questions about “complex subjects,” and not because they don’t know what to ask. There’s little need. And if they did ask, almost no librarian would be able to answer the question.

    And… vendors can do the cataloging. I know… in addition to working at two Ivy League universities and a top liberal arts college, I worked at the top vendor in North America. I’m well-versed in what they are able to do. They can do custom original cataloging. I also know what *I* was able to do before I got my MLIS. I did complex (non-copy) cataloging.

    We need SOME librarians, but not as many as people like to pretend we need.

  14. Techserving You says:

    DangItAll – I’m actually American though I went to library school in Canada. They actually DO have a much better job market for librarians. The federal gov’t and provincial goverments hire T O N S of librarians. Virtually every Canadian in my class got a government job.

  15. academictech says:

    It is time academic public service librarians go through the same elimination of positions and deprofessionalization that has already happened to tech services.

    The small state university library I work for had 5 reference librarians in 2008. 2 librarians left and their positions were frozen. The head of reference is completely incompetent. The other 2 competent librarians are able to get all of the work done with plenty of free time. There is no reason to believe those 2 vacant positions will ever be filled.