I have too much to do to write this post, but this post has to be written.
“I’ve also gotten a sense lately that some working librarians are getting frustrated with constant advocacy, and are starting to believe the hype that libraries/librarians are doomed. How can we change their minds?”
That was part of a comment left on my blog by Topher Lawton, a current (and excellent) student. I share his frustration. Every week I go into my introductory class for librarianship and talk about amazing librarians, big ideas, and the opportunities to shape the future. On a pretty regular basis mostly receptive students tell me “I love it, I get it, but when I go into some libraries, I don’t see it.” There are simply too many librarians that can’t see beyond what they do today to see a brighter tomorrow – or realize that what they do today will shape that future brighter or not.
I am getting tired of the “yeah, but…” questions that seek to ground new ideas and innovations in what those opposed to change call reality. Their reality is in fact their limited view of the world. I am tired of the hand wringing, and committees, and paranoia. I am tired of those who wait for the white knight, or the new app from Silicon Valley that will save us. I am tired of hearing about cataloging backlogs, government bureaucracy, conservative management, the Tea Party, and the other million excuses for resisting change. If your library won’t let you do something, start a blog. If your policy doesn’t allow it change the damn policy.
I am sorry if my frustration is leaking out here, but you have to understand my view. Take every preconceived notion of the library school student – second career woman who loves cats and quiet – and throw it out the window. I see the most amazing people becoming librarians. I see people fresh out of undergraduate degrees (the average age of this year’s class is 25), and lawyers looking to give back to society. I see technologists, and humanists, young and old who have a fever to be a librarian. They are no longer coming to library school to read, or because they are good at crosswords. They are coming into library school to change the world.
Then I see these amazing people run into a librarian who toss the student into the meat grinder of lowered expectations and mediocrity. To be sure not every student will hit this wall. There are a huge number of progressive and supportive library role models, but it only takes one librarian who is pissed off the world has changed to damper the enthusiasm of a new librarian.
Understand if you are a librarian today, these students revere you. They want to be you. You are a role model. I know it’s not your job description, but it’s true. So every snarky comment and your foreboding sense of doom, it has an effect. I am begging you to expand your sense of professional responsibility to mentorship.
I hear, from time to time, that library schools are not preparing graduates for the jobs available. I listen to these critiques closely, and do my best to act upon them. However, understand that you as a working librarian have an equal responsibility here. Are you looking for the skills of yesterday or today? Every conference presentation you give is a classroom. If you don’t get excited about your topic, the students know that – it has an effect. When a student shows up to interview you or look for an internship, you are the most powerful classroom there is. If you don’t think there is a future in the field, get the hell out of the way for those who do.
I have been called (and now wear the title proudly) a pragmatic utopian. I am someone who sees a brighter future, but understands we need to slough through the mud to get there. Here’s the thing, don’t be the mud. As librarians we can and should argue about the shape of the future. We can and should have honest and heated debates on where we want to go now. But if you are convinced that you are the last generation of librarians, that the field is going away, then get on with it and let the folks seeking a better tomorrow get to work.
I have seen glorious librarians. I have seen librarians work in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, and bravely support the revolutions of Egypt. I have seen librarians organize camel caravans to get learning to the remote villages of Africa. I have seen librarians help the homeless, give dignity to the unemployed, inspire students to learn, and save lives of abused women. I have little time for those that would say these librarians are exceptional. To be sure these librarians are brilliant and amazing, but to say that they are exceptional is to say that their work falls outside of the mainstream of our vocation –excepted from the norms. They are not exceptions – they are the yardstick that we must measure ourselves by.
Topher, I wish I had a good answer for you. I wish I had the ability to stop librarians from worrying about their future, but instead go about creating it. I wish I could change the minds of librarians waiting for the end. I can’t…but I will keep trying. And your job is to become a librarian that sees extraordinary as your job description.