A kind reader sent me this link to a blog post that’s mostly about the changing face of librarianship. It’s sort of about the Spectrum scholarship, the success of which is why the racial and gender makeup of librarianship has plummeted from its former 90% white women to the significantly more diverse 88% white women.
But then the post changes course, and that’s when it gets interesting, because instead of a library school student praising a scholarship (no big news there), we get a picture of what a student at a really good library school (or “I school” if you must) thinks library school is about these days.
Two passages near the end stuck out to me. Here’s the first:
Fewer and fewer LIS students will know what incunabula are. And that’s ok. Although the traditional formats of information are dying, the pulse of librarianship has never been more vibrant. The mediums through which people access knowledge are transforming, and it’s time our sensibilities and expectations transform with them.
If you didn’t read the post, the incunabula bit refers to the opening anecdote where a library patron (he actually wrote “patron” and not “customer,” so library school hasn’t corrupted him!) asks, “You’re not familiar with the Incunabula? Are you a librarian?” Apparently, he wasn’t familiar.
I doubt that fewer LIS students know what incunabula are than previously. All those students in the past who went to library school wanting to be public or school librarians probably had no idea what incunabula are. Only people who work with very old books would need to know.
On the other hand, if you’re a professional in the archives or special collections of a large research library and don’t know what incunabula are, then you’ve missed something somewhere.
I’m also not really sure the pulse of librarianship has never been more vibrant, even if I could figure out a way to measure that pulse. But if you’re measuring in terms of passion about, interest in, or controversies raging around, then the pulse of librarianship has always been pretty strong. Read through the 136 year history of the Library Journal to get an idea.
That part about the mediums and transforming sensibilities seems mostly right. The bad thing about adding new mediums of information to the library mix is that they don’t always replace old mediums. Incunabula are still around, and various historians still study them, which means some librarians or archivists still have to know about them. That dreaded microfilm is still pretty useful until someone finally digitizes it all. I’ve heard libraries are still buying print books, but maybe that’s just a baseless rumor.
Here’s another passage I wonder about:
There is no sine qua non subject matter that a librarian must possess; rather, the only sine qua non for today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) librarian is a willingness to assist people find and use information. In this way, libraries are not just book collectors; they’re life changers. And that’s truly changing the face of librarianship.
If librarians don’t know what incunabula are, they might not know what sine qua non means, either, so it might be best to write everything about libraries at the sixth grade level just to make sure people get it.
I have a couple of questions about this claim: first, is it true that there’s no required subject matter a librarian must possess, and second, if not, then was there ever?
Taking the second question first, I’d say no. If there really is no specific knowledge required to be a librarian now, then there wasn’t in the past. Even before they transformed into the amorphous schools of “information,” library school was still pretty random.
Some schools might require a few courses, but at others you could take any courses you wanted. You might take reference and cataloging and still not know what an incunable was.
What’s more, if there is any required knowledge for being a librarian, I’m not entirely sure what that would be. Any suggestions? At the minimum these days, I’d say if you don’t know how to search a database effectively, then you probably shouldn’t crow about your magnificent librarian skills. However, that’s true of the professionals in any field concerned with research, not just librarians.
If you really have no idea how information is produced, protected, and distributed in America, then you’re probably a poorly informed librarian.
If you’re planning to be a librarian, then it’s also probably necessary to know something about how libraries work.
All of that could be considered knowledge about the creation, distribution, and organization of information in a society. There’s probably even a course about that kind of thing. Don’t librarians have to know something about this?
Granted, lots of people graduate from library school who don’t know much, but I’m assuming they’ll be bad librarians until they do know something.
However, I’m pretty sure the claim that “the only sine qua non for today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) librarian is a willingness to assist people find and use information” isn’t true. Without a lot of other knowledge, this isn’t even very helpful for all those people librarians want to help.
The ability to “find information” alone requires quite a bit of knowledge, unless librarians are just there to type words into Google for people too dumb to figure out that task. Finding good information is a tough job, and anyone who’s ever seen a top-notch reference librarian at work knows a willingness to help isn’t enough.
If people are emerging from library school with only a willingness to help people find and use information, but without the knowledge required to find and use information, that can’t be enough. However, I don’t think that’s all that people coming out of library school have in common.
It’s odd that I’d be defending library schools, which I consider far too easy to get into and out of, but there’s got to be something they’re teaching that’s required knowledge for being a librarian, or at least a good librarian.
Is there anything librarians need to know to be librarians?