Am I a “librarian”?

I got an MLIS degree, received a bit over 9 years ago, because I wanted to be a librarian, although I wasn’t sure what kind. I love libraries for their 100+ year tradition of investigation and application of information organization and retrieval (a fascinating domain, increasingly central to our social organization); I love libraries for being one of the few information organizations in our increasingly information-centric society that (often) aren’t trying to make a profit off our users so can align organizational interests with user interests and act with no motive but our user’s benefit; and I love libraries for their mountains of books too (I love books).

Originally I didn’t plan on continuing as a software engineer, I wanted to be ‘a librarian’.  But through becoming familiar with the library environment, including but not limited to job prospects, I eventually realized that IT systems are integral to nearly every task staff and users perform at or with a librarian — and I could have a job using less-than-great tech knowing that I could make it better but having no opportunity to do so — or I could have job making it better.  The rest is history.

I still consider myself a librarian. I think what I do — design, build, and maintain internal and purchased systems by which our patrons interact with the library and our services over the web —  is part of being a librarian in the 21st century.

I’m not sure if all my colleagues consider me a ‘real librarian’ (and my position does not require an MLIS degree).  I’m also never sure, when strangers or aquaintances ask me what I do for work, whether to say ‘librarian’, since they assume a librarian does something different then what I spend my time doing.

But David Lee King in a blog post What’s the Most Visited Part of your Library? (thanks Bill Dueber for the pointer), reminds us, I think from a public library perspective:

Do you adequately staff the busiest parts of your library? For example, if you have a busy reference desk, you probably make sure there are staff to meet demand….

Here’s what I mean. Take a peek at some annual stats from my library:

  • Door count: 797,478 people
  • Meeting room use: 137,882 people
  • Library program attendance: 76,043 attendees
  • Art Gallery visitors: 25,231 visitors
  • Reference questions: 271,315 questions asked

How about website visits? We had 1,113,146 total visits to the website in 2014. The only larger number is is our circulation count (2,300,865 items)….

…So I’ll ask my question again: Do you adequately staff the busiest parts of your library?

I don’t have numbers in front of me from our academic library, but I’m confident that our ‘website’ — by which I mean to include our catalog, ILL system, link resolver, etc, all of the places users get library services over the web, the things me and my colleagues work on — is one of the most, if not the most, used ‘service points’ at our library.

I’m confident that the online services I work on reach more patrons, and are cumulatively used for more patron-hours, than our reference or circulation desks.

I’m confident the same as true at your library, and almost every library.

What would it mean for an organization to take account of this?  “adequate staffing”, as King says, absolutely. Where are staff positions allocated?  But also in general, how are non-staff resources allocated?  How is respect allocated? Who is considered a ‘real librarian’? (And I don’t really think it’s about MLIS degree either, even though I led with that). Are IT professionals (and their departments and managers) considered technicians to maintain ‘infrastructure’ as precisely specified by ‘real librarians’, or are they considered important professional partners collaborating in serving our users?  Who is consulted for important decisions? Is online service downtime taken as seriously (or more) than an unexpected closure to the physical building, and are resources allocated correspondingly? Is User Experience  (UX) research done in an actual serious way into how your online services are meeting user needs — are resources (including but not limited to staff positions) provided for such?

What would it look like for a library to take seriously that it’s online services are, by far, the most used service point in a library?  Does your library look like that?

In the 21st century, libraries are Information Technology organizations. Do those running them realize that? Are they run as if they were? What would it look like for them to be?

It would be nice to start with just some respect.

Although I realize that in many of our libraries respect may not be correlated with MLIS-holders or who’s considered a “real librarian” either.  There may be some perception that ‘real librarians’ are outdated. It’s time to update our notion of what librarians are in the 21st century, and to start running our libraries recognizing how central our IT systems, and the development of such in professional ways, are to our ability to serve users as they deserve.

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