Monday, 19 March 2012

Defining the modern librarian

What is a librarian? 

On Friday, at a Big Meeting of all the library and museums staff in the university, I was separated from the people I know at Main Library. The seating was arranged alphabetically and so, in a manner reminiscent of being called upon first at school, I was seated at the very front of the room on a table comprised of special collections librarians, exhibitions librarians, museum curators… and me, the sole electronic resources librarian (1). 

As we discussed library issues, five year plans, and what we’d change about where we work, I was struck by how different our jobs are – even though we work for the same organisation in the same ‘librarianship’ profession. I have a mind of computers and software, LMS and OPAC, Shibboleth and OpenURL; their concerns are exhibitions and research, handling and preservation of delicate materials, classification of Asian materials, and the stewardship of their collections and galleries. My e-resources will last as long the technology lasts, floating in a distributed network between the university servers and the publisher’s platforms; their collections need dedicated preservation, need to be handled and cared for. I interact with users through email; they see them every day wandering their galleries. My problems can be solved by better computers and improved software; theirs require more people, more expertise, more knowledge. We live in very different worlds which are ostensibly part of the same world – librarianship.
The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Since librarianship is a “world made of many worlds” (2), what is a librarian? Can there be one single definition? We were asked the question ‘what is a librarian?’ during my Masters in librarianship (3) and now that I’ve had more time in the profession, I know that the answer is far from simple. The people I meet at conferences and campaigning events and talk to on Twitter have completely different jobs to me – completely different modes of being. From librarians in public libraries corralling children and dressing as the BookStart bear to librarians in law firms researching for solicitors and dressing up in suits; from archivists working with ancient tomes to military librarians teaching information literacy to soldiers. We have different concerns, different methods, different audiences, different lives. 

Philosophical interlude

In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein uses the word ‘game’ as an example of the ambiguity of language. What is a game? What is common to all games? Football is very different from chess which is very different from geocaching which is very different from Mass Effect 3 which is very different from Scrabble. Solitaire is played on one’s own, rugby is played in teams. Some games are played for fun, others for challenge, money, renown. You can read §66 of the Investigations here for the full discussion. The point is that there is no one shared characteristic that all games share – imagine a Venn diagram with no overlap – but we use the same word to refer to them all: “…we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.” 

Wittgenstein refers to this as ‘family resemblance’: in the same way that family members look similar due to a pool of shared characteristics, games share similar but different features between them. 

This ‘family resemblances’ argument also applies to librarians. We share various characteristics – various elements of our work – but it’s harder to pin-point any single shared overarching quality that defines ‘a librarian’. A lot of librarians look after books… but then so do booksellers and publishers and there are those librarians who don’t eg. serials librarians or liaison librarians. A lot of librarians work with people… but then there are some archivists, systems librarians, private librarians who don’t. A lot of librarians preserve materials – physical or digital – for the future… but then there are those who make the tough decisions to dispose of materials. 

At the risk of being sentimental rather than rigorously analytical, I think there are a couple of characteristics which are shared between librarians. Authority and duty. 

Authority (4)

Answers to the question ‘what is a librarian?’ often appeal to authority: ‘someone with a professional accredited qualification’; ‘someone with the word ‘Librarian’ in their job title’; ‘someone who CILIP / ALA / [insert body here] says is a librarian’. These answers all say essentially the same thing which is ‘a librarian is whoever [authority] says is a librarian’. But these answers are prosaic, exclusionary, and rely on an outdated idea of autocratic authority. 

Nowadays traditional hierarchies are breaking down as networked thinking becomes more prevalent. As people have become exposed to digital networks, to the Internet, and as various leaderless organisations have emerged, there has been a flattening of traditional hierarchical structures. We no longer need strict hierarchies of authority to tell us what to do: through networked organisational structures, we can reach consensus, vote, and democratise organisations. Today’s workplace is more horizontal than in the past: the big boss isn’t a tyrannical authority – she’s just someone to whom responsibility happens to be deferred. And with the decline of hierarchies, traditional autocratic authority is dying out. People recognise that no-one has a right to rule. The point of which is that it’s increasingly difficult to define a profession through appeal to an authoritative body. Why appeal to someone at the top of the tree if the tree itself is collapsing? (5) 

Authority is increasingly technocratic. Military officers, politicians, and monarchs have autocratic authority: doctors and lawyers have technocratic authority. We don’t follow a doctor’s orders because the law compels us to; we do it because we recognise her to be an expert in medicine who therefore knows what’s best for us. 

A librarian’s authority is (or should be) technocratic: “One whose opinion on or upon a subject is entitled to be accepted; an expert in any question.” (6) Like doctors or lawyers, it is knowledge that gives librarians their authority. A librarian knows her collections intimately; a librarian knows how to help her users; a librarian knows how to navigate the hidden pathways of the information universe. The shared characteristic of librarians in various contexts is that their power comes from their knowledge, whether that knowledge is of archival practice, electronic resources, their users’ needs, how to appeal to children, or the intricacies of Oriental collections. 


A few weeks ago, the BBC showed a documentary on the Gazi Husrev-Bey Library and how it was rescued from destruction during the siege of Sarajevo. The full documentary is available on YouTube here (7) and it is well worth watching. 

Dr. Jahić and some of his books
Between 1992 and 1995, when the artillery began to rain down on Sarajevo and ground infantry poured into the city, Dr. Mustafa Jahić, director of the Gazi Husrev-Bey Library, realised that his collections could be in danger. The National Library of Bosnia was destroyed in the siege and Dr. Jahić feared the same for his library. He and his staff began to transport the books – disguised in banana boxes – to caches across the city. Box by box, they moved the 500,000 books through areas watched by enemy snipers. Despite the cost and the danger, Dr. Jahić and his staff also went to the trouble of microfilming as many books as possible as a back-up. Finally, when the conflict ended, the books were restored to the library building. 

Dr. Jahić considered himself the steward of that unique collection. He considered it his duty to protect and preserve it and so, when the bombs began to fall, Dr. Jahić saved his books. This is an extreme example – there are few people who would do what Dr. Jahić did – but a sense of duty and stewardship is a characteristic that many librarians share and it’s a quality that distinguishes them from other book people. Would an employee of Waterstones save the books in their shop? Would a volunteer working in a community library? When I spoke with the university’s special collections librarians, I could hear their dedication to their collections and I hope they could hear the pride I take in my electronic resource collection. We discussed possible improvements to the library and we all wanted the best for our collections and our users: for them, that means better preservation technology and people with more knowledge in their subject area; for me, that means better software, more servers, etc. 

Librarians – for the most part – believe in what they do. They believe in things like intellectual freedom, digital freedom, the power of the written word, the absolute right to educate oneself, and the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage.

In the UK, members of CILIP sign up to the Code of Professional Practice to underline their commitment to informational-ethical principles and their responsibility to their collections and their users. Librarians have duties to their users, to their collections, and to their profession. 

And so… 

There must be other shared characteristics between librarians in the pool of family resemblances. But with such different surface existences, I had to drill right down to the philosophical marrow to discover these two. They appeal to very deep and ethical principles and thus get right to the heart of what the profession means. Since what we do every day is so different and so diverse, we have to look at what we believe to discover what is shared between us. Rather than the simple possession of a qualification or a job title, modern librarianship is defined by a state of mind.

EDIT: Jo Alcock has written something very similar this morning: 'Am I a librarian?' It would seem another shared characteristic is thinking about similar issues at the same time.

A whole mess of librarians. Photo courtesy of Dave 'daveyp' Pattern.

(1) Brief explanatory note: Technically I’m a Library Assistant / E-resources Co-ordinator. Since this post is based on the ambiguity of the term ‘librarian’, it seems self-defeating to try to define what I mean by it. For the sake of debate, assume a broad definition of the word: people working in libraries; people conducting research in information science; librarianship students; etc. 

(2) Reference: Paul Kingsnorth, One no, many yeses

(3) Biographical aside: As part of this, we were asked to draw a perfect librarian. It’s quite telling that most of us drew either a robot or a cyborg.

(4) Meta-textual note (4a): This bit on authority is the seed from which the whole blog post grew. It occurred to me when I read David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘Authority and American Usage’ a few weeks ago but it seemed too insubstantial for an entire post. So I buried it like a squirrel burying nuts for winter. Wallace fans will also notice the conscious echo of the master’s signature style in these footnotes.

(4a) To what extent are all these whimsical footnotes meta-textual? Discuss.

(5) Meta-textual note: Me again. I’m sorry for this bit on networks vs. hierarchies which seems, at best, tangential to the whole authority point. But I’m currently sort of applying for a PhD on networked epistemology and information systems and whatnot so it’s on my mind. Pure expression of ideas is always tarnished by the worldly preoccupations of the author.

(6) Reference: Definition 8b of ‘authority’ from the Oxford English Dictionary.

(7) Disclaimer: Of questionable legality.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The spirit of activism

In 1997, a movement called the Zapatistas held an Encuentro - an 'encounter' - in Chiapas, Mexico. The Zapatistas opposed globalisation, neoliberalism, the relentless march of capitalism, and are a good example of proto-Occupy movements. 

This is their declaration issued after the Chiapas Encuentro, apt today for anyone fighting for what they believe in:

There are those who resign themselves to being one more number in the huge exchange of power... But there are those who do not resign themselves... In any place in the world, anytime, any man or woman rebels to the point of tearing off the clothes resignation has woven for them and cynicism has dyed grey. Any man or woman, of whatever colour, in whatever tongue, speaks and says to himself or to herself: Enough is enough! Ya basta!

A world made of many worlds found itself these days in the mountains of the Mexican southeast... Let it be an echo of our own smallness, of the local and the particular, which reverberates in an echo of our own greatness... an echo that recognises the existence of the other and does not overpower or attempt to silence it. An echo that takes its place and speaks its own voice, yet speaks the voice of the other... Let it be a network of voices that resist the war Power wages on them.

I discovered that quote in the book One no, many yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement by Paul Kingsnorth: a brilliant book charting the rise of anti-globalisation movements in the early Noughties. He also writes the following about People's Global Action (PGA). It's as good a description of organisations like Voices for the Library and the Speak Up For Libraries coalition as I have ever come across.

Like the rest of the movement it helped spawn, PGA has an almost fanatical devotion to the concept of 'horizontal organising' - working in networks, not hierarchies, with no appointed leaders. The whole conference, the whole network, is run along these lines - no one representing anyone else, or PGA as a whole. Decisions are taken by consensus, with majority votes, and no person or organisation is obliged to do, or agree to, anything they don't like. It was the same set of principles I saw in Genoa, and in Chiapas, and understanding them is crucial to understanding the global movement as a whole.

What characterises PGA, I am to discover, is what characterises the global movement: diversity. Diversity of aims, of tactics, of race, of language, of nationality, of ideas. There is no manifesto, no line to follow, no leader to rally behind. This diversity is what leads critics outside the movement to assume that it doesn't have any ideas. After all, if it did, surely it would write them down, publish them, form a party, get a charismatic leader and march forward to take power? That's how politics is supposed to work. This, on the other hand, is gloriously anarchic, in the best sense of the word. This is a politics in which means matters as much as ends.

Sometimes it's hard to come to terms with this, even for activists . You might be standing in the middle of some mass action or conference or spontaneous uprising, thinking, Who started this? Who organised it? Who's in charge here? Police officers and politicians, imbued instinctively with a 'take me to your leader' mentality, have never believed the movement when it answers 'Nobody and everybody.' How can events as stunning as Seattle and Genoa have no centralised organisation, no leader who decides and declaims, whom people follow, and who we can arrest to neuter everybody else?

But they don't, and this in itself is a revolutionary idea - not a new one, but one that's rarely been put into practice. So much so, that even as part of it, it's a leap to give that question - 'Who's in charge here?' - the answer it deserves: Everyone. No one. Oh yeah: Me!