Mea Culpa

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I successfully managed to step in a quagmire today with my Sunday Speculation post regarding a hypothetical case for librarian retirement. My post was the equivalent of fishing with dynamite: it was bound to catch a lot more than what I was looking for and managed to get me all wet in the process. I know all too well about ageism and the discrimination that can be accompanied by it; I’ve had a family member be the target of such actions, long before the laws and lawsuits that would come into play to reverse such practices. So, for the people who took offense at that particular aspect of my post, I offer my apologies.

Out of the ashes of that inflamed discussion, I would like to pull out the notion of competency in the profession. As it has been astutely pointed out, whether a person can fulfill the new demands of the profession is not limited by age but by ability. This poses a series of questions: what would be the criteria to measure a librarian as competent? What can be done to bring people up to those measurements? And, however unpleasant as it might be, what would be done about those who fail to measure up? (As to this last question, I do not believe in passing the buck.)

This reminds me of the current political debate going on in my state of New Jersey regarding the evaluation and tenure of teachers. Everyone agrees that good teachers should stay and be rewarded and that bad teachers should be given a chance to improve or be removed from teaching. But how that is accomplished is where the friction begins. But it doesn’t mean that the debate shouldn’t take place; it means that well intentioned people are going to disagree.

In going back to the questions posed, the basic competency criteria that I would propose revolves around good customer service practices, basic technology knowledge, automation program proficiency (in all aspects, including cataloging), and current library issue awareness (both local and national). This is not an exhaustive list, but one to give you an idea of my line of thought. Those who need help should be able to get it either from their place of work or their state library association. Support networks can be formed for this very purpose. As to those who don’t measure up, they should be let go. It’s sad, but there is just so much riding on the line these days that I’m not comfortable with simply letting people slide through.

What is professional competency to you? What are the skills and knowledge that should be emphasized? And how would you approach the question?

Sunday Speculation: The Case for Retirement

While one cannot make the case for librarians to retire simply because they have reached the age of retirement (as would almost be implied solution in various previous positions towards the libraryland unemployment problem), I think there is a better argument for the retirement of older librarians.

The basis? Negligence.

My reasoning is as follows: the librarians who have reached the age of retirement (for the purposes of this argument I will say that this age is 65) are well established in the field. They have accumulated institutional knowledge, the benefit of experience, and a vision that only comes to those who have stayed with a profession for a long period of time. And yet, they have not positioned the profession or the institution to handle the societal, technological, or community trends and changes that currently face libraries. In other cases, they have not built the necessary relationships with those who support the library whether it is the taxpayer or town council. But here we are, deep into a rapidly changing communication and computer age that has revolutionized information sharing around the globe, and rather than be positioned to capitalize on it, libraries around the country are simply fighting to retain funding or even stay open. It represents a failure to lead, a failure to recognize emerging trends, and a failure to act accordingly. That is negligence.

And for those who may balk at this argument, why? Corporations change their executive staff when those people fail to respond to the challenges and problems of the company. Governments changes administrative staff either through elections or appointments. When the senior staff fails, should they not be held accountable for their actions (or in this case, inaction)? This might not be the golden parachute of the former or the nature of politics of the latter, but retirement is certainly not the worst option in the world.

Shouldn’t there be some accountability from library leadership in general on this neglect? Why would the profession continue under people who have failed in such a spectacular manner? During an era of the largest information paradigm shift in the recorded history of mankind, libraries are not at the forefront of these issues. It’s a shame, really.

Before anyone sharpens their pitchfork or wraps another kerosene soaked rag around their torch (for me or the premise of this post), I am just putting forth an argument for the sake of a lively discussion and not suggesting a course of action. It is not meant as a litmus test for anyone to retire. This is also not meant as a blanket indictment of older librarians despite its tone. I just thought it was a better argument for librarians to retire than making it age based. I’m curious for people’s reactions, especially any counterarguments.

So, do you think there is negligence? Why or why not?

Update: Before you hit the reply button, please re-read that last full paragraph. I’d also like to highlight part of my reply to Stephen Abram:

The purpose of the Sunday Speculation posts are to throw out topics for people to toss around and debate. Perhaps it is a vestige of my brief time at law school, but I enjoy the arguments. I’ll argue a counter or unpopular viewpoint for the sake of furthering a conversation (as I am doing in this case). It’s a lab, an experiment, something to ruminate over, and tickle the mind. Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Is this my best piece of work? Certainly not. Do I believe in the point of view I’m touting in the post? No. But I do believe that the argument expressed was compelling enough to share and if I’m going to suggest it, I’m not going to toss it casually out there. I might as well make it a good show. This is not disingenuous, this is good debate. Perhaps it is not the best phrasing, but I think I would have gotten hit with ageism no matter how I framed it since I was asking about library leadership from pre-internet days to now.

I don’t have a problem admitting that it is a clumsy, ham-fisted premise that I have put forth. Is it ageism? Sure. Is it illegal? Yes, both here and in Canada. Does it still happen despite being illegal? Yes. Should those people be prosecuted and/or sued? Yes.

Would it have been better to ask, “Should librarians who have held leadership or administrative decisions since pre-internet days be asked to leave the profession?” Or “Was the action or inaction of library leadership of the last twenty years negligent?” Or even “Are the lack of community and political relationships the result of negligent action by library leadership?”

If you want to judge me for making a hypothetical argument even with the caveats I have attached in the post and afterwards, then I find that a bit unsettling. I find that to be a chilling effect on someone posing a question, albeit a distasteful one, and something that is at odds with the principles of intellectual freedom that are so highly regarded within the profession.

Update 2: Mea Culpa. But I will still continue the discussion below. I’m just opening up a new one from the replies that I have received.

QR as a Metaphor

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And now, I kindly ask that you please share your thoughts, whatever they might be.

Update: I think I might have to toss in the towel on this one. I thought it would allow for people to respond in kind, but I had forgotten about WordPress and its desire not to be cooperative with such things.

Basically, what I wrote is that I think QR is a good metaphor for the digital divide. Some people can get the meaning of what the codes represent and others cannot. The seperation of access to one technology piece instantly creates the two groups. Libraries are an important institution since they represent a way of the have-nots (when it comes to computers and internet access) can bridge the divide.

I thought it might drive the point home to use something like a QR code. We can debate whether I’m right or wrong as well.

Open Thread Thursday: Library School

I’m going to try something new and make an open thread. While it is generally an unguided discussion, I’d like to toss out a topic for people to gnaw on for this experiment. Just like the title suggests, I wanted to go with an easy one: library school.

So, what’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What topics do you wish they covered more? How do they handle the modern library issues?

Or you can just rant. Hey, it works for me.

For myself, it’s hard to have an opinion on library school after going to law school for a year. It bothers some people when I say it is easy, but after you’ve been reading five or six 1,500 page books at the same time, memorizing legal concepts and cases, and writing and researching legal briefs to exacting standards under a Paper Chase pressure cooker (and working full time as well), your perspective on what is academically hard is forever altered. I wouldn’t say it was a cakewalk, but it would be like a marathon runner that starts doing 5k races. In library school, I never had to study till I couldn’t feel my face. The only time such facial numbness occurred was after a bunch of beers at the local bar after class one night. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.

And on that note, have at it.

(For the moment, I’ve taken off the comment setting that requires prior approval before people can comment without moderation in the hopes of encouraging discussion. Yes, I do allow anonymous comments. Don’t make me regret it later.-A)

Reader Mail: Unemployment in Libraryland, Ctd.

Some of the respondents of the original post have gotten hung up on two things.

The “Boredom” Part

Some have taken offense to this particular word and interpreted it to mean that I am insensitive, uncaring, or otherwise flippant regarding librarian unemployment. That’s not the way I meant it. To me, the math behind the unemployment (supply versus demand) is, well, the math. I’m not going to sit here and polish a turd, spin the numbers, and say, “Oh, it’s going to be alright.” I’m going to treat my readers like they are adults and offer them an honest opinion. Too many applicants, too few jobs. That’s what it is.

As much as the survey ten years ago is cited as a contributing factor to the “greying profession” myth, the survey itself is provides an vastly incomplete picture. It doesn’t forecast one of the largest economic downturns in the last eighty years. It doesn’t predict state and local governments squeezing their budgets and make spending cuts that include libraries and their staff. It doesn’t account for the actual rise of communication and computer innovations, the genesis of ebooks, or the expansion of the internet to its current incarnation. Quite frankly, it is not a complete predictive model for anything other than saying that this percentage of librarians will be near retirement age in ten years. That’s it.

Every week, I help unemployed people look for work. I work with them to make resumes, cover letters, help refine old strategies, and find new places to look for employment. I show them the compassion and service they need during a very anxious part of their life. Everyone leaves with something in their hands, even if it is just my business card and a “call me if you need anything” offer. I’ve been unemployed a couple of times in my life. I know the feeling. I don’t take what I have for granted in the slightest. And I truly feel for librarians both old and young who are looking for work; I wish I could help find jobs for everyone.

The “Entrepreneurial” Part

Within this objection, there are two parts. One half is a snarky “Why don’t YOU become a librarian entrepreneur?” reply that reminds me more of a playground taunt than a serious counterargument. As if my suggestion to start a business is completely invalidated because I have not started my own. It’s a weak shot at saying that since I have never started a business that I don’t know what I’m talking about… from other people who have never started a business either. (With the exception of one commenter who has a non-librarian business.) It’s a position that is so baseless and unimaginative as to be completely illogical.

Then there is the "the degree has not prepared me for this” statement. That leads me to this question: if you were able to go to college, get a four year degree, then pass the GREs, successfully apply to the graduate program, and then get an MLS, how are you not intelligent enough to start a business? I want to know where the intellectual capability line is between “smart enough to get an MLS” and “smart enough to start a business”. I’ll give you a hint: such a comparison is nonsense. There are less academically endowed people that start businesses everyday. It’s a complete excuse masquerading around as a retort.

The other half is asking for examples or ideas for librarian entrepreneurship. That’s a fair question, certainly; what kinds of businesses could an MLS degree develop? But I think it misses the point. It doesn’t matter whether there are a million businesses or none; it does not preclude someone from starting one. If there are a million, then there is a market for such things. If there is none, then it means there is an untapped market. (The cynical can say that there are none because they have all failed, but that’s a lame excuse not to even try.) Mine is a call to innovate, to look at the market, to find a niche, and to exploit it. Also, examples are meaningless to individuals without the impetus or dedication to make it happen.

If you think I’m copping out of answering the question, that’s your opinion. You’re a librarian; you should be fully capable of doing the research. Prove me wrong. I have no qualms about admitting when I’ve made a mistake.

As for ideas, I would be happy to provide ideas if you are alright with cutting me a royalty check every month. I’ve given away enough ideas as it is (perhaps you’ve seen the ALA endangered species shirt?) that I might as well get paid for ones that I give away for someone to start a business. As I’m working to capitalize on my own ideas in bringing them to market, I’m a bit out of those kinds of ideas. (I would daresay that it would be akin to starting my own business, but I digress.)

 

Some might object to the tone of the last half of this post but, quite frankly, the time for handholding and kumbaya in libraryland is at a close. There is a very serious and very real need to “show up or get out” in terms of advocating worth, demonstrating value, and engaging our communities as well as our funding bodies to ensure the continued life of the institution. It’s not the time for people to sit on the sidelines and lament, but to get off the bench and into the game.

I’m in it to win it, as they say. “Can’t” or “won’t” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to libraries. And if you want to works towards keeping libraries vital and open, you’ll do the same.

Librarianship as a Journey

For me, librarianship is a journey into ignorance.

In walking past the rows of books, I’m reminded about how little I know about the breadth and depth of the universe. Hundreds of thousands of published works around me combined with numerous online databases and resources represents a daunting amount of information. I wouldn’t even dare say the percentage of my knowledge would reach a whole number; it might be one of those comical numbers where the first number at the end of an absurdly long line of zeros appears far far away to the right of the decimal point. It is a moment where you feel just how confined your awareness exists; it is most akin to thinking about just how tiny you are in comparison to the scale of the universe. The profession has made me painfully aware of the limits of my knowledge about the world, even when thinking just about the parts that someone bothered to write down in print or online and share.

It is a constant confrontation with my own ignorance. It is a reminder of how frail, limited, and symbolically mortal my knowledge is. It makes the difference between locating and knowing look like a chasm, for the superficial understanding of most subjects that I possess is generally just enough to do my job without missing a beat so I can move on to helping the next person, phone call, email, or IM. While I thank people for the compliment when they praise my intelligence for locating something or answering their question, it often belies my actual knowledge in the subject matter. I personally cannot explain the nuances of quantum mechanics, Impressionism as an art movement, or the cultural causes behind the Stonewall riots, but I know where to find that explanation or recounting.

But, little by little, in answering their questions, I am pushing back the borders of my own knowledge limitations. Each day brings a new fact, topic, or tidbit of information that I didn’t know the day before. I may not be putting a significant dent into the sum total of what could be learned in this universe, but I am pushing back the boundaries just a little bit each time. It is this tiny benefit that makes me appreciate the journey even more.

For me, librarianship is about being self aware of one’s own ignorance and embracing it as an impetus to stay curious, to seek answers, and to continue to grow. It is truly a journey into ignorance.

Sunday Speculation: Uncomfortable Literature

In writing the recap on the Bitch Magazine YA feminist literature list situation, I couldn’t help but think about how librarians are by default put into defensive positions about materials in their collections. Each added item has a potential for igniting some sort of objection; even if that chance is miniscule, someone can find something objectionable in it (and if they go hunting for it and have some creativity, they will find it). Often times, this sheds the light on the profession that librarians are smut peddlers, pornographers, politically and/or emotionally insensitive, and otherwise defenders of society’s deviance.

It is the price that is paid for a near absolutist stance. Only the most morally deplorable items (such as child pornography) gain no refuge. But when literature covers incest, suicide, bullying, homosexuality, cutting, eating disorders, racism, blasphemy, and rape, the profession defends the choices of inclusion of unpopular, controversial, and/or otherwise socially abhorrent topics. It is never a matter as to judging whether the topic is acceptable or not; it is a matter of allowing individuals to make their own decisions whether to read it or not. Generally, like the comments to the original YA list post revealed to me, there is a divided opinion. A divided opinion is not a rationale for exclusion, but an impetus for insuring that it remains. As Ricky Gervais said recently after the row over his jokes at the Golden Globes,

“I’m not sorry for anything I said… Nobody has the right not to be offended. And don’t forget: Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re in the right.”

Such is the model and cornerstone for free speech guarantees in countries like the United States.

In noting that the three books that were removed from the Bitch list all involved the topic of rape, I remembered the George Carlin bit, “Rape can be Funny” (very NSFW, as if you needed a warning). Some will find it funny, some will find it offensive, but it has a kernel of truth to it: just because the topic is uncomfortable to others should not preclude any discussion of it. One cannot have ask rape victims to speak out against their abusers and about their ordeals as a means of educating people on the topic while simultaneously demanding that any other discussion outside of this scope cease. It is when we as a society stop talking about a subject for fear of offense that the issue will continue to linger on in the shadowlands of conversation, present yet unresolved.