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.