Open Thread Thursday: Third Rails

Since last week’s Open Thread had some great discussions, I’m doing it again this week. I liked having a theme, so this week will be the third rails of librarianship. (Sorry, unemployment has already been covered.)

So, what gets left unsaid? What gets pushed aside? What’s the buck that gets passed? What’s the elephant in the room that no one is talking about? What’s the topic that gets everyone up in arms?

Personally, I’d say intellectual freedom is a third rail for librarianship. We tout it as a principle, but when it comes to the practice it gets a bit muddled. For all the times that we seek to preserve different viewpoints within our collections, opposing viewpoints or perspectives that are not popular in professional discourse tend to get marginalized, ignored, or vilified. There is a difference between well meaning people disagreeing and personal indictments of differing viewpoints.

A reminder that anonymous comments are allowed in case you just want to point out the third rail and not grip it yourself.

35 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: Third Rails

  1. I absolutely agree that intellectual freedom is a third rail. When I was embroiled in a challenge of a book we owned in the Clifton Library (New Joy of Gay Sex), I was shocked by my colleagues who actually approached me privately to say to me “sometimes when I open a box of books that has been ordered and I see what a book looks like, I don’t put it on the shelf.” So shocked that, in most cases, I couldn’t even respond; I just look dumbfounded. (I’m not proud of that, but it’s true).
    Outsourcing/privitization is another third rail. Because we do outsource aspects of library functions (we use cataloging records from elsewhere, we buy books processed, we contract for janitorial or security services), we are embarrassingly hesitant about saying that libraries should not be privatized. More and more governing bodies and boards think that a company can manage a library AND save them money. While managing the business of a library is important, an effective library needs a leader.
    And, I think two things are enough – I don’t want to get started on developing true leaders!

    • Oh, outsourcing is a good one! There are times when it makes me think about how it can allow me to do other librarian things. But once you start dismantling some of the cogs in the machine, then people starting wondering what else can be done. I think there are some insecurities that arise from the idea of privatizing; especially when it comes to collection development. “We can’t privatize the library and put collection development into the hands of corporate america!” Well, keeping it in the hands of politicians isn’t exactly helpful either.

      Now I’m curious to hear more about your ‘true leaders’ comment…

      • I would say re outsourcing & freeing up time — well, it’s all well and good until what gets outsourced is the thing that the librarian likes to do, as well as something that does give greater benefit to the library community when not outsourced. Example: collection development.

  2. Oh my, I actually had a draft blog post along these lines (the ‘what is the third rail’ part) with three options lined up and a poll. In the end I deleted it because I didn’t have the energy for the fight…

    But for me, the third rail is the fact that so much of public and media perceptions of libraries rides on the customer service staff (or whatever you want to call library assistants). People think librarians are nice or not nice (leave aside our definition of what constitutes a ‘librarian’ as it doesn’t really matter) or libraries are friendly or unfriendly, based on the front-line staff. And the fact of the matter is, a lot of people who are really good on the front line – keen, engaged, enthusiastic, creative, advocates – are promoted to the back offices.

    In the organisations I’m familiar with, the pay-grade hierachy goes shelver > customer services assistant > everyone else. So if you’re ambitious, and not independtly wealthy or shacked up with someone rich, chances are you aren’t going to stay in the customer services role for that long. I was there for 10 months and I love libraries, I believe in libraries, but I got a job with more responsibility and better pay that took me away from the patrons.

    Now I know, I absolutely understand, that there are a LOT of amazing customer service staff in libraryland, who do the library industry’s reputation no end of good. But equally, there are many who *don’t*. There are many old-school librarians who are still in the same role, essentially, that they joined libraries with 30 years ago. Some of them are no longer motivated. There are many young recent Graduates who need a job and for whom the role is transitory. The third rail is, these people are not neccessarily the best people to give a good impression of librarians, but they are the people who most often represent the profession. This has big implications for advocacy, for marketing, for loads of stuff.

    You can do the most genius, innovative marketing campaign to get new patrons to your library, but if there first interaction when they get there is with a surly or disengaged member of staff, they won’t come back.

    I’m not trying to generalise, not saying this applies across the board – but it IS a problem.


    • Good post, Ned. It’s never an easy or popular statement to say, “Look, we need to push these people out because they are harming the profession as a whole by their continued employment here.” Despite their flaws, they are still people who need jobs, have families, friends, and so forth. But the crux of it is that they shouldn’t be working *here*; they should find something where they aren’t going to poison the public relations end of the business.

      I remember talking with a friend about hiring practices for circulation. We hire on the basis of ability, not pro-library attitude. As a result, we hire people who can do all the things that we ask but are not advocates for the library. I’d rather hire someone who is a library advocate and teach them the job than try to teach library advocacy to someone who doesn’t see it as part of their job.

      • If you’ve got the greatest marketing campaign in the world, and you haven’t sold frontline staff on it being the greatest, perhaps it is not.

        I know frontline staff who are grumpy, no smiles, etc.; I’m not saying it isn’t a problem.

        But sometimes the problem is idea people /back office folks who have made no attempt to get buy in from staff, at any level of the “great idea.” Or who haven’t talked to a real! live! patron! in to long. To show up and say “do this” isn’t going to result in employee buy in.

        A structure that only rewards management means too many people go into management, even when they know it’s not an area they want.

    • After all these wonderful posts, I feel a bit stupid about mine. Anyway. I do have to agree, though, about front-line staff…and other staff, too.

      I’m in library school right now, and last semester I had the assignment of visiting two libraries to compare and contrast. It was kind of ridiculous how unapproachable I felt these libraries were. Some directors don’t respond at all. One library knew for several weeks that I was coming, then all the staff had no idea when I got there. And the director treated me like a toddler who ought to go play instead of bothering her in her “busy schedule”. The worst part is that I was on the verge of crying during the interview because she really did make me feel like a baby. After several days of thinking, I cut that library out completely, and visited another, where I had the best library experience of my life. I think the biggest problem I have is that this library is brand new (new building, not new library) and award-winning…I hated it. If that’s how patrons are treated at award-winning libraries, there sure as heck must be a lot of awful libraries out there! I’ll never go there again.

      • Oh, Emily – as a “seasoned” director, your post made me cringe. I’d like to believe I would do better (at least I think I try), but I can see that behavior among my colleagues. And, I know you know it isn’t must about the physical building, but the culture of the library. Sigh.

  3. The intellectual rigor, or lack thereof, of most MLIS/MLS programs is a 3rd rail. Many, too many, don’t require the GREs. They require a pulse and a checkbook (or trust fund). They’re too easy to get into, and too easy to get out of, and that plays a role in how librarians are viewed in society. Too often they don’t teach what actually goes on in a library, aiming for width as opposed to depth. Some of this has been discussed on this blog before, and I suppose it’s related to unemployment, yet not the same.

    • I agree with Jake, I took a (required)management class that-at the last minute (due to other students complaints), removed the budget requirement from our Strategic Planning project. Fortunately, another class (an elective) covered budgets and included projects in order to expose us to something that I feel, is vital not only to those who aspire to directorship, but collection development as well.

    • I went to Clarion. I had a high enough undergrad GPA to opt out of taking the GREs. Personally, I liked my program and enjoyed the challenges of it since I felt it dealt with theory and big issues rather than strictly hands-on vocational style training (as I have heard other programs have done).

      Would you say this is a reformation of the ALA accreditation process? Or a call for programs to overhaul themselves? Or both?

      • I’d say both, if only because library schools aren’t going to move on their own. When’s the last time the ALA sat down and discussed standards. What makes a school accredited, what’s the baseline? Granted, that would be a very bloody battle (only metaphorically, I hope), but at the same time I think it’s one worth having.

        • Also-I think another problem stems from professors shaping curriculum to their own research projects, rather than imparting best-practices and standards.

        • I wonder if this couldn’t be sidestepped by offering certification programs for people who aren’t interested in management. This would cut down on the level of expensive advanced degrees in the field while still offering people newcomers with some level of training.

          More cynically: This would also allows schools to continue to generate income from admissions while allowing them to make MLIS and PhD programs more rigorous.

          • It could work- I’ve seen job descriptions that require a particular skill set rather than an MLS/MLIS-although learning what goes into budgetary planning/how to read financial documents is helpful for those making purchasing and collection development decisions, people who may not have management positions but deal with financial aspects in their work.

      • Both. For ALA Accreditation, re-evaluating necessary skill sets would be a top priority. For MLIS programs, renewed emphasis on and playing closer attention to applicants previous experience/coursework in critical thinking and demonstration of graduate level research skills is key.

        As someone who had a mix of archives and library (reference, collection development, management) courses I saw a discrepancy in what was required, research-wise. Some courses were research/paper intensive, while in my other courses, research papers weren’t seen as “practical” and the emphasis was on searching and evaluating databases.

        I think this is leading to problems in librarianship, especially when it comes to effectively communicating to people both within and outside libraries how we do our jobs, why libraries matter/libraries role in scholarly communication, and critically evaluating problem areas in librarianship. I went to school with some amazing students, whose interests ranged from YA to medical librarianship to corporate archives. These students researched and came up with creative solutions to problems in various issues (censorship, digital copyright, etc) and I was impressed by their work and was able to learn much from them. On the other hand, several students didn’t put much work into research projects, stating that their ideal position wouldn’t require that type of work.

        Both hands-on work and research need to be held as equally important and vital in order to effectively work in libraries.

    • I think I may have the opposite viewpoint to yours, Jake. I went to UMSI and when I left in 2009 they were severely cutting back traditional library skills in favor of technology. Now, I know as a younger librarian we’re supposed to be more tech-savvy than our predecessors but many of the courses they replaced weren’t a good equivalent. For example: my friends in the cohort after me were fighting to keep History of Book alive whereas the school wanted to replace it with History of the Network. Of course, that may not matter to most of their other students pursuing different information science specializations, but History of the Book is the foundation for most Special Collections work!

      And I know the dismantling of the traditional library program at UMSI has been going on for some time, but I strongly feel we should have had more practical training than high-level management discussion. Granted, there is a practicum/experience requirement at UM, so you are forced to get some field work, but if you choose the wrong internship you may not be able to find another opportunity to gain experience in a field you’d prefer before you graduate. I was also frequently told, when asking about some practical detail, “You don’t need to know that. You’re going to manage the people that will do that.” To which I often thought, “How am I going to be a good manager if I don’t know whether everyone is meeting their responsibilities?”

      Anyway, I don’t mean to dog my alma mater by any means. I just feel very strongly that the program has changed significantly in favor of programmers at the expense of the traditional library instruction.

      • Damn. There’s not enough history of the book being taught in the first place, so I’m sad to see another place cutting more of it out. I understand the frustration of new grads feeling they’re not being taught “what’s happening now” but the fact is it’s changing so fast, there’s no way that a curriculum committee can keep up with it. I’m an old guy — I’ve been a library director for over twenty years, so I’ve hired lots of sprouts. What I want is somebody who has an appreciation for the long history of our profession, who has a passionate commitment to sharing information and who has a personality that will make them reckless about getting out and about and engaging with the community. We can teach them the rest of what they need. I need people who are unafraid of failure.

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  5. Arrogance (egotism?) on behalf of the profession as a whole. The notion that there are “library people” and “non-library people;” either you’re one of “us” or you’re one of “them.” And if you’re “one of them” we don’t want to hear from you when it comes to library services, collections, funding, programming, marketing, image, etc., because we know better than you. The irony is that if we only listen to “library people” we will never make the fundamental changes necessary to appeal to “them”–potential patrons and benefactors.

    • Would you extend this to egos within the profession?

      Yeah, I can see where you coming from in terms of “we serve the people…. and we know better than the people”. It runs the sort of parent/friend gambit where people play equals but still have the superior edge in the transaction.

      Excellent point.

      • I decided that if I was going to make a generalization, I would make it about the profession and not about the individuals in the profession; however, yes, I would have to extend my theory to egos within the profession, too. But that certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.

      • Well-put, both Bonnie and Andy.

        On a more benign level, I can see this played out in LibraryLand on the Internet. Librarians are great at talking to each other about the profession and how important it is, but we often find ourselves lamenting how “non-library people” don’t “get” us and what we do. Occasionally someone forays into the “don’t be afraid to market” category, but it’s pretty rare that I see widespread campaigns (or attention drawn to said campaigns) to connect directly with patrons.

  6. Good stuff in here so far. I imagine there will be a lot more criticism coming in the way of challenging programs and overrecruitment.

    My longtime hot rail has me tip-toeing around a piece on tuition reimbursement for paraprofessional staff. No doubt these programs have produced many admirable info pros, but the negative contributions to the profession and to library communities are just too many and too great to ignore.

  7. That we spend so much energy worrying about libraries, rather than trying to figure out what we need to do as librarians. In the digital world, it is simply a fact that libraries are less relevant and less important. Librarians are needed more than ever. Analogy to Clay Shirky “Society doesn’t need newspapers, it needs journalism.” The digital world doesn’t need libraries. It needs librarians.

    • I do like that analogy at the end there. All libraries (should) have librarians, not not all librarians have libraries. The place is less relevant than the practice.

  8. MARC is not an impressive technical achievement. It may have been in the 1960s, but that does not make it one in the 2010s. Librarians have been completely leapfrogged when it comes to information-organizing technology, and very few of us even understand how the new kinds work. This severely undermines our claims to be experts at it

  9. What a great post, Andy. I think everyone has done a wonderful job outlining many of the issues within our profession, so I’ll only add a few thoughts that came to my while I read them.

    I, too am sad that any library school would opt to completely cut or change a course such as History of the Book. Even if (and I definitely don’t think this) such a course is considered “irrelevant” to the direction most information professionals will take in the future, there is something to understanding where it has been. This is why I believe that it is important to understand both the new/developing metadata schema as well as the “traditional” forms of cataloging. However, I also think that there should be much more “hands on” work required. A good intellectual foundation is not worth much if you have acquired no practical skills. Most LIS students opt to work in libraries, or already worked in them before pursuing advanced degrees, but a more structured experience for those that want or need them would be an improvement. In the teacher ed program I work for now, students are required to work in classrooms throughout their school career, not just at the end (student teaching being the equivalent to a library internship); requiring a similar range of experiences for LIS students would not only be useful in helping them determine the right career path for them, but would also contribute to “big tent librarianship.”

    I find it interesting that as I read about teachers, teacher education programs (a personal interest) and graduate level teaching degrees, there are many of the same complaints being made about them as there are about LIS programs. It seems that lack of rigor is not only found in our professional schools.

    Just some random thoughts…

    • As Steve Lawson pointed out on the Library Society of the World thread on this post, MLS programs are more like the weather: people talk about it but no one does anything. It’s less of a third rail than a common harping point. There is no lack of dialogue about MLS schools, it’s just a lack of action that is missing. Or the professional will to do it. I think the overgrowth of graduates will solve some of those issues, but otherwise, nothing is going to change.

  10. The third rail I’ve been struggling with the most lately is wondering how long I can afford to be a librarian.

    I knew what I was getting into when I chose librarianship as a career. I knew I’d earn a lot less than others with similar education and experience. But I also knew the work and the environment was right for me. As long as I could pay my bills, it was fine. So I never took much interest in debates over compensation for librarians.

    Now, after over a dozen years in the profession, I’m not only working in a notably underpaid profession, I’m working at an institution that pays considerably less than others in the same geographic area. I pay my bills, but have to juggle sometimes to do it. Saving is extremely hard. Dreams of travel are deferred indefinitely. Retirement in 30 or so years? I don’t really believe I’ll ever be able to afford it.

    But I love my job. I love my institution. I don’t want to leave it or librarianship, even though I have a skill set I could take elsewhere. But I do wonder how much longer I can do it. And how much longer I can spend so much of my own time and money on professional development before my well of resources (financial, physical, mental) dries up. Sure, professional development is its own reward in many ways. I became a librarian because I love to learn. But still…

    Apart from my personal worries, I wonder how long we can continue to expect to attract and retain “the right stuff” in libraries. We are asked to put a whole lot of ourselves into this profession. Money isn’t the only compensation for all that work, but it’s not entirely unimportant.

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