The great librarian identity crisis of 2013

Recent events, such as the hiring of Dan “not a librarian” Cohen as Founding Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America and the elimination of faculty status for future librarians at the University of Virginia, have given new life to old debates about who gets to be called a librarian and just what a librarian is anyway. As someone who is on record as being a fan of “feral librarians” (being one myself), and not a fan of faculty status for librarians, some might expect me to be gloating right about now. By all accounts, Dan Cohen seems to be an excellent choice for the DPLA job, and I think the UVa decision is ultimately a good one. But rather than gloating or doing some sort of “I told you so” dance, I find myself earnestly trying to understand why some in the library profession find moves like these troubling.  And I mean that in a “trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes” kind of way, not in a “what are they thinking?” kind of way.

In Still further beyond the cave, Natalia Cecire writes about the seemingly endless conversations that attempt to define and therefore delimit the boundaries of digital humanities as “The Mistaken Conversation”, had at the expense of “The conversation we might have instead [that] could involve looking at great work that’s happening now and talking about what makes it interesting.”

I certainly think we could say the same about the conversations about librarian status — wouldn’t we be better off talking about the value of the work done by those who work in libraries, regardless of degrees, job titles, or faculty status? (Note that I am fully willing to implicate myself in perpetuating some of the mistaken conversations). And yet, we keep having those conversations; and I think Cecire is really on to something when she notes that “the gatekeeping impulse has a great deal to do with a desire to preserve the field …as a site of virtue.” She is talking about digital humanities when she notes that the discourse of the field has a heavy ethical tone, with emphasis on norms of democracy, collaboration, equality; but the notion really resonated with me with respect to policing the boundaries of librarianship. As I’ve noted earlier, much of the objection to “feral librarians” has to do with a fear that we have not been socialized properly into the norms and values of the profession. (Side note, if you wonder why some find the term “feral librarian” offensive, go read “Raised by wolves”, where James Neal, University Librarian at Columbia, coins the term … yowza!).

I haven’t thought it all through yet, but it does seem to me that the angst about librarianship is about defending the virtue and value of the profession and the professional credentials. Libraries of all kinds are under huge pressures (even from within) to defend their value, and I can certainly see where the hiring of outsiders for big library jobs and the loss of faculty status might feel like additional signs that the value of libraries and librarianship is in question. And I am definitely on board with defending the value of libraries and the work that we do, and I have been known to get defensive myself when people who aren’t members of my profession try to act like it.

But I wonder if there is a way to “change the narrative” (hat tip to Bess Sadler for the phrase). What if the story was that the work libraries do is so important and so cool that everyone wants a piece of it? Or that libraries are such logical places for a broad range of services and resources that of course we need to hire folks with a broader range of education and skills and talents? And in terms of faculty status, I love what Deborah Jakubs had to say on an earlier post:

…librarians are learned and talented and bring skills and attitudes and services to the university that most regular faculty both admire and need. So rather than constantly trying to compare ourselves to faculty, and often coming up short, let’s celebrate the differences and complementarity.

Kumbaya, my friends … and not in a bad way.

14 Responses to “The great librarian identity crisis of 2013”

  1. 1 Scott "Streamweaver" (@Streamweaver) April 1, 2013 at 4:45 am

    You hit on what I think to be going on in part “libraries are such logical places for a broad range of services and resources that of course we need to hire folks with a broader range of education and skills and talents”


  2. 2 Hank Roberts March 18, 2013 at 8:26 am

    As a mere worshipper of librarians, my concern is “librarian” has a meaning — someone who is trustworthy, trained, continuing to be educated, and competent to be helpful — that can profitably be degraded. Losing faculty status is one such loss of a distinction worth keeping up.

    You know the difference between science and “advocacy science” — right?

    Will we have a world in which people will all unawares end up being served* by “advocacy librarians”?
    It’s a cookbook!


    • 3 Chris Bourg March 18, 2013 at 9:25 am

      I’d really rather librarianship maintain its own meaning and respect on its own merits; rather than calling ourselves Faculty because we want the same status and respect they get.


  3. 4 Katherine Kott March 16, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Chris, This issue goes beyond being a mistaken conversation to being an unfortunate distraction from attending to fundamental changes in higher education–including the structure of power and decision-making. I blogged about the librarian faculty issue in context

    Larry Hirschhorn’s recent blog post shines a light on the level of anxiety faculty are feeling about the erosion of their power in research universities through the example of the faculty vote of no confidence in the NYU President.

    I am interested in learning where creative theorizing and practical experiments–not only in changing the way course content is delivered, or the way data sets are preserved and re-used–but in governance models for research universities are taking place. Those are the conversations I think we as librarians, feral or domesticated, should be joining.


  4. 7 steven bell March 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Not sure I see an identity crisis, but some members of the profession do have ongoing conflict about their identify in higher education (see . While I don’t necessary believe that faculty status is a necessity for our profession, I’m glad that those who believe it is important have the option to seek it out. I can understand that when an institution decides to remove it as an option it will be seen as a devaluing of the librarian’s status at that institution. It may be less important whether faculty perceive those who work at the library as their peers than as partners in education – but hopefully not as admin types.


    • 8 Chris Bourg March 12, 2013 at 11:31 am

      Steven, you are probably right that “Identity Crisis” may be a bit hyperbolic.
      I do understand how removing faculty status can be seen and felt as devaluing (although I don’t think it has to be). I’m not so sure about those who who believe it is important should have option to seek it out — unless you mean as individuals not as organizational policy.


  1. 1 Social technologies are transforming the professional identity of librarians | Emerging Technologies Trackback on March 15, 2015 at 2:21 am
  2. 2 Faculty-Librarian Collaborations (& Friendship) | your libarchivist Trackback on March 22, 2013 at 7:20 am
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