Bikes, Branding, and Bellyaching

The other day I read this post by Phil Davis on Scholarly Kitchen:

Libraries take scholarship seriously, and its profession ensures it. Most academic libraries in the United States require MLS degrees or some equivalent. Many librarians have second Master’s degrees, and a good number even have doctorates. The institutional culture of librarianship respects scholarly behavior, and most librarians are required to go through tenure or similar academic review process. While they may not have teaching or research responsibilities, librarians view themselves as academics.

But this is not what the patron sees.

Patrons generally are unable to distinguish information assistants (or paraprofessionals) from professional librarians. The person checking out your book, pointing you to the restroom, helping you with a reference question, pulling an espresso, and now checking out your bike lock and helmet is, from the perspective of the patron, a librarian. When you are 18 or 19 years old, anyone with graying temples and bifocals is a librarian. Experience and professional status is only something that colleagues see.

At first glance, it reminded me of the quagmire that was my post “The Master’s Degree Misperception” which elicited a very strong response both for and against the points I was making there. The lesson that I’ve learned from that post is the same one that I’ve learned from teaching basic computer classes: no one gives a damn so long as it works. And when it works, it might just be you and your staff that knows what is actually going on in terms of who has what duty and what title. From the outside, patrons might not know what is going on; from the inside, you know how the organization model shakes down. I’ve come to terms with it by looking at it that way and keeping on eye on the final product: customer service, materials, and a place for people to get help.

Does it really matter if people think that the library assistants are actually librarians? Absolutely not, in my mind. Their mistaken identity doesn’t cheapen what I do.

But I understand that Phil and I are in different library settings. While my overall brand is service to the public, his brand is academic scholarship. He pines for students to gush about the quality of the scholarly assistance they received at the college library rather than the quality of the coffee or gaming program or even bicycle borrowing. (I would surmise he might raise an eyebrow at the lending of a therapy dog as the Yale Law School library is doing.) From Phil’s post, anything that distracts or takes away from that brand is an issue that has be addressed.

Personally, I don’t see the issue with these extraneous activities and amenities. They will be the first to go with budget cuts as the library will rally around its core mission: providing academic support and materials to faculty and students. If there is a problem with how the provost or dean perceives the library, that’s a failure to inform those individuals about the big picture. Too often it seems (and this goes for all types of libraries) there is a mindset that one can simply prove their value through practice without taking meaningful steps to contact and educate decision makers about everything that the library brings to the table. A bike renting program or coffee bar or gaming program would be a footnote on a report containing statistics, testimonials, and other evidence of value that would show how the library is serving their academic community. It does not carry equal weight to the service and materials of the core mission; it’s a reasonable luxury that makes student life just a bit easier and fun.

My question to Phil would be this: what is it that you are doing now that doesn’t promote the academic and scholarly value of the library? The bike program is just a scapegoat if you’re not articulating these values in the first place. If you are having trouble competing against coffee as a reason to go to the library, it’s not something that getting rid of these kinds of amenities will solve either.

(And, for the record, this might be the first time I’ve read that someone has singled out comfortable seating as an unwelcome trend on the basis of how a minority of students use it. Really? That’s an issue? I’d say it’s a bit draconian, but only because I have Game of Thrones on the brain.) 

6 thoughts on “Bikes, Branding, and Bellyaching

  1. Perception is only a problem when it informs decision. So if people, whether it is patrons or administrators see us all as interchangeable, it can become increasingly difficult to justify having a more educated and higher paid staff. At the local county system they laid off many of the librarian 3’s, cutting from the top down (thought not necessarily management/admin positions). They saved money that way and many people were heard to say well the people who do the work are at the bottam.

    It may be a case of not doing a good job of marketing what various staff do and what the library offers, but beware of this arguement being used to support more cuts of professional staff. Even among staff there is a lot of confusion and worse about the differences between paraprofessionals and professional staff’s value.

    • When does perception not inform a decision?

      It is interesting how academic defensiveness, which is present in all departments and disciplines, plays out for academic LIS programs. The natural inferiority found in any non-LIS department, as the members are held in relation – production as competition and accomplishment granting status – seems to be greatly amplified in an academic LIS setting.

      The inferiority is almost generalized, in the sense of never really seeing or being able to locate the source, as the relation must include all other academically regarded disciplines and departments (leading logically to an impossibility, unless the future LIS scholars would like to know everything – polumathie noon ou didaskei). The culprit would seem to be the old practical standby of Service!, a concept at which a set of eyes looking down from the white tower could only scoff and hiss. Remedy? Down with Service!

  2. Ah, the cultures of various kinds of libraries! You mention that Phil might pine for students to care about research – but it helps to remember that academic librarians also must satisfy the perceptions of faculty, too – and that’s another whole world.

    • Very true. And there is not one service model that fits all when you toss in faculty. I wonder if it would be the same reaction if a faculty member had mentioned the good coffee.

  3. “what is it that you are doing now that doesn’t promote the academic and scholarly value of the library?”

    Or, even better, what *aren’t* you doing that you *should* be to promote the academic/scholarly value of the library? If you’re already maximizing that aspect, there’s no harm at all in putting energy into peripheral programs that are of use.

    • Excellent question, Colleen. If it’s meeting the core mission, than does the frivolous stuff really matter? That’s like lamenting the icing on the cake.

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