Non-Library Librarian Jobs, and Dividing LIS Work

As the number of people enrolled in library school continues to increase, and as the amount of funding for libraries stagnates or shrinks, and as our culture of information and technology changes and evolves, more and more “library school” students are turning to non-library jobs.

Are these non-library librarian jobs inferior? Are they second class jobs?

Yes and no.

People go to library school because they want to work in libraries. When these people arrive at library school and begin to hear a push for non-traditional career paths, they are being given a bait and switch. It is tough to get a library job. If you’re a library school administrator, and you want people to persist at your library school, when they realize that the money they are shelling out is really very possibly not going to result in a full-time-with-benefits-and-decent-pay librarian job, you’ve get to sell them on some palatable alternative. If you want to keep your full-time-with-benefits-and-decent-pay library school administrator job, you’ve got to help your school keep the hope of employment alive. Because as much as learning theory is fun, library school is about getting a job. The ubiquitous “MLIS from an ALA accredited school required” ensures that people who want to work in libraries, as librarians, will continue to go to ALA accredited library schools. To get work. In libraries.

That being said, people who want to work outside of libraries also go to library school. Library school attendees include people who want to do data management or knowledge management or information architecture, etc. They want to build databases or write indexes or massage information tidbits with their bare hands. They think they’d enjoy working for library vendors or software developers or even making whole new careers and spaces for themselves, in some weird industry that doesn’t even know it needs library skills. And sometimes people who go to library school* intending to work in a library find a non-library librarian job that they fall in LOVE with, or just end up liking ok.

This is a manifestation of our current information shift. To use a phrase that’s trite at this point, “information doesn’t all live in libraries anymore”, if it ever did, and some people are more interested in information than in libraries. For those people, non-library jobs are not second class jobs, they are the whole point of the thing in and of themselves. When these people get a non-library librarian job, that’s an opportunity to rejoice.

But this focus on non-library librarian jobs is also a manifestation of our lack of library jobs. There are fewer opportunities to work in libraries while non-library opportunities are still growing**. It’s as though it’s easier to build a single new position, or to shift the path of an opportunity, than it is to rebuild depleted library staffing.

This second reason, is why I continue to make the distinction between non-library librarian jobs, and library librarian jobs.

Because we don’t want to obscure the loss of opportunities in libraries, pretending it’s ok.  It isn’t.

Abandoned Basement area

*It’s not really library school anymore either. A recent respondent to a Hiring Librarians survey took me to task for saying using this term – calling it old fashioned. And it is, I guess. Most of us more recent grads have an I for information secreted somewhere in there amongst our letters.

**At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “But what about that seven percent growth rate that we’re going to experience over the next ten years?  Slower than average, but still growing!”

Well, I’m skeptical.  Read the BLS’ page on job outlook for librarians, and you’ll find the sentences: “later in the decade, prospects should be better as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings” and “the increased availability of electronic information is also expected to increase the demand for librarians in research and special libraries, where they will be needed to help sort through the large amount of available information”, both sentiments which have moved into the “hollow promise” category.  You’ll also find:

Budget limitations, especially in local government and educational services, may slow demand for librarians. Some libraries may close, reduce the size of their staff, or focus on hiring library technicians and assistants, who can fulfill some librarian duties at a lower cost.

Call me a pessimist, but that last one rings true.

Photo: Abandoned Basement Area by Jessamyn West via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Who Owns the Librarians

I’m thinking about people who call themselves librarians, who are not working librarians.

On one hand, it bothers me that there are all these past, future, aspiring, and not-quite librarians who have such strong opinions about what librarians should be and do. I want to shout, “You don’t get it!” or whine “you just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnd.”  Particularly at people relying on out-of-date information from 15 or 20 year old experiences.  I’m increasingly bothered by the influence of consultants and library professors who are shaping policy and our theoretical foundations without a foothold in reality.

On the other hand, libraries belong to everybody, so maybe librarians do too.  Maybe everybody should get a say about librarianism.

On the third hand, I want people to get mad (madDER, maybe) that they aren’t librarians.  I think the idea that “we are all librarians” is to cover up the fact that there aren’t enough librarian jobs to go around.  I want past, present, future, aspiring, and not-quite librarians to demand more library jobs.  I want us to stop trying to make-do with being short staffed, and to start to create a workforce that can really meet community needs.

So that’s one thing you need to be a librarian, three hands. At least.

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Blogging is dead, Long live blogging

I had a mini blog-oriented convergence a while ago.

First I read this article:

Pomerantz, J. & Stutzman, F. (2006, May). Collaborative reference work in the blogosphere. Reference Services Review, 34(2), 200-212.

Pomerantz & Stutzman suggest that blogs might be of use in collaborative reference work, providing crowd-enriched transactions.

Then I read

this piece

at Confessions of a Science Librarian. Dupuis discusses the possibility of blogs replacing scholarly journals.

Had you heard that blogging is dead? I had. This Pew Internet report reported that fewer people were blogging, particularly among younger generations.  There’s some more talk about the death of blogging here.

Maybe blogging as a social platform is dying, but blogging for other purposes is still viable.  It’s still a way to push content out quickly, with not too much technical know-how required.  You can concentrate on the content, rather than creating the medium or following formalized processes.

You can create and disseminate data much more quickly and informally.  I use a blog format for Hiring Librarians; it lets me collect a number of librarian voices, and to share both individual insights and collective statistics.

These new uses for blogging are still alive and evolving.

Woman Working in a Mail Processing Center

**This was a draft in my drafts folder, which I’ve been cleaning out. The citation below was also part of this draft, but I’m not sure how I meant to work it in.

“Virtual reference services provide librarians with the opportunity to provide Information Literacy instruction to students while promoting the benefit of using proprietary databases versus the free Web”
1. Sachs, Diana. 2004. “Ask a Librarian: Florida’s Virtual Reference Service.” Community & Junior College Libraries 12, no. 4: 49-58

How to Help When You Don’t Want to Help

The other day I answered a reference question from an inmate on death row.  My sense is that it is not uncommon for prisoners to write to libraries  with requests for information. In thinking about writing this post I looked around a bit online and discovered that the NYPL even has a department dedicated to correctional services (although I believe they do outreach, in addition to answering letters).

 

In what was probably  a mistake, I Googled the prisoner’s name.  I found news articles which described his conviction in a pretty horrific crime of vengeance.  Now, everyone deserves library service; it doesn’t matter if you’re in prison or free, it doesn’t matter what crimes you may have committed, it doesn’t matter what your state of mind or your values are.  Creeps, crazies, and criminals are all entitled to use the library, just like the rest of us. And to get good service too.

 

As I talked about in my post on empowerment service, I come from a retail background.  Not only did I used to provide customer service, but I used to train people in service, and write policies which would promote the provision of good service. My skills are sharp, both in theory and practice.  But library customer service is different.  When I think about how I can be a better librarian, the bottom line is always the quality of my service to our patrons, and I think about how I need to adjust my theory and practice to the library environment.

 

I also think about self-preservation.

 

There are a lot of burned-out librarians in the world.  I’m sure a lot of the burn-out comes from being under-supported and overworked.  But I think a lot of it also comes from dealing with patrons.  Everybody deserves library service, including the unstable, the dangerous, the needy, the clingy, the grumpy, and the difficult.  That means librarians have to provide it.

 

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and not succeeding.  The posts about librarian time management and empowerment service were failed attempts to write this post.  It’s tough for me to admit that there are patrons I just do not want to help.  Or patrons I’m frightened of, or repulsed by.

 

When I think about self-preservation, I think about how I can continue to provide good service to these types of people, on and on into the future.  I think about how I can help the people that I don’t like, and not let the experience sour me on patrons in general.

 

Ultimately it means adjusting the way I provide service.  For example, I normally provide at least my first name when I answer reference questions.  With the prisoner on death row, I did not sign the letter.  We were unable to provide what he had requested, and I, probably wrongly, imagined he might seek retaliation.

 

When I reflect, I am learning to factor self-preservation into my evaluation.  I want to continue to provide good service, and that means examining how my needs interfere with patron needs, and to determine if I am still…I don’t know the word…fair?  Professional?  Good at my job?

 

Prisoners by the National Library of Scotland

What Time Management Means to Librarians

I’m a librarian because I wanted to do social work, but I didn’t want to be a social worker. Being a librarian gives you the ability to really help people, in all sorts of interesting ways.

Sometimes this is brief. You might spend ten seconds letting someone know the cost for printing, or where the bathroom is. Sometimes your interaction can take much longer, stretching over days as you contact other organizations to, for example, find out which Pasadena high school was the one attended by a tap dancer on the Lawrence Welk Show (more specifically tap dancer Arthur Duncan, the first African American to appear regularly on a tv variety program).

The length of time spent with someone doesn’t have a direct relationship with the importance of your answer. If a patron needs to know where the bathroom is, that is an immediate need with potentially dire and smelly repercussions. The answer to “Where is the bathroom?” is very important information, and it must be provided in a timely fashion.

The attrition of staff over decades of tight budgets (in California much of this can be traced back to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978) means that libraries are short staffed, and increasingly so. Librarian time must be rationed, in order to ensure that all patrons get at least some sort of assistance. One of the libraries I work at has a loose rule for reference staff: no more than ten minutes with each patron. But many times even ten minutes is too much, when there is a line of people clamoring for attention. One of the value judgments that I am learning to make, as a new professional, is how to best spend my time. When I decide how much time to spend with patrons, how to triage, when to give up, and when to really go the extra mile, I’m making a decision about the importance of my help.

I find the importance of answering idle curiosity very hard to quantify. Many people will say “oh it’s not important, I’m just curious.” But really these questions are very central to the library vision. Libraries exist to nurture the curious. It is this sort of engagement with our world that helps create literate, dynamic, healthy communities. Sharing someone’s intellectual interest is a very good way of building a relationship. The time spent helping someone who is “just curious” is also valued differently by patrons. It is often seen as excellent customer service, or kindness, or going the extra mile. It is a way of showing a patron she is important, and it can be very validating for her.

Another difficult decision is how much help to provide to individuals with very limited skills, particularly those who are not computer-literate. I’ll admit I was shocked, when I started working in libraries, by the level of illiteracy I saw (and continue to see). These are not just patrons who are not very fast typers, or don’t know how to sort a spreadsheet. These patrons don’t know how to use a mouse. You have to say things like, “press the button on the left side of the mouse twice, this rhythm: dah-dah.” “Double-click” is too much jargon. And often these patrons come in because they need to do something to fulfill a basic need; They need to print out a lease, or a medical bill. They might need to apply for something online, e.g. unemployment or a job. Even positions that don’t require computer skills, custodian jobs, for example, now have online applications. These patrons often need someone to sit with them for the duration of what they are trying to do, and it is very time consuming.  And where else can they go?  What other organization offers free computer time, and the possibility of free help?

Kids also present a special challenge. Many kids are actually better library users than adults, at least as far as the Dewey Decimal System is concerned.  It is more common for me to be able to hand a call number to a child, say “do you know how to find this?” and have them nod and scamper off.  Adults will often sheepishly grimace, and say they have no idea.  So, its not so much that kids need more library help.  The kids I’m considering here are the free-range kids, the ones who don’t get a lot of positive attention from adults.  Some of these kids lurk in packs with no desire for contact.  But some kids will sidle up next to the ref desk and latch on, asking question after question, and often increasingly bizarre ones as they search for ways to keep your attention.  Clingy adults are one thing, and difficult enough to disengage from.  Clingy children break my heart.

So where is my time best spent?  I make that decision hundreds of times a day.  I weigh the needs of patrons against each other, not to mention against the other tasks I do that benefit them – ordering new books, weeding, making displays and book lists, planning programs, trying to stay on top of my own professional development…

I’d have to make these decisions even if libraries had better funding.  But we are so short-staffed.  Some days it feels like I’m holding both hands over a leaking dam.

Dam

The Library is for Trying New Things.

Last week I wrote about Asanti’s Pick, a display gimmick where kid patrons can check out a wrapped book. They know from a sign that it is one of two titles, but not which of the two it is. These books circ! People take a chance on an unknown read. In the debate about whether or not to take the book, a lot of kids say something like “but what if I don’t like it?”

We then point to the fine print on the sign which says, “If you don’t like the book, you don’t have to finish it.”

This is often a revelation to an eight year old. “You mean I don’t have to read the whole thing?!” Nope. My boss says to kids, while recommending all kinds of books (not just wrapped up ones) “Take it home. Read the first chapter and the back cover, and if you’re not interested, bring it back. I don’t mind.” A long term co-worker of hers, another excellent children’s librarian, once finished a discussion with a child patron on the relative merits of two audiobooks by saying, “Take both. Test them out and just bring back the one you don’t like.”

Children’s librarians often talk about how libraries are often one of the first places that young people begin to practice autonomy. When they get their first card, they begin a process where they learn to choose, for themselves, what to read. They start to direct their own intellectual development. They can create an internal life that belongs solely to them. Due to privacy laws, here in California at least, their library records are their own – parents have no right to look at what their children are checking out, or when it is due. Their relationship with the library, and with reading, is their own private affair.

Trinidad and Tobago. 'A science master demonstartes primary distillation in the laboratory of the co-educational school for senior staff children at Pointe-a-Pierre'

In companionship to this self-direction, is the fact that the library makes it possible to conduct low-risk, low-commitment experiments in reading. If you don’t like a book, you’ve made no financial sacrifice (or no parent has made a financial sacrifice on your behalf), and you can just bring it back and try again.

You’ve got the freedom to experiment.

This is such an important library function, both to the development of children, and to the development of the kind of world I want to live in. In that world, people are open-minded. They are free to explore new interests, and to easily set them aside if they are not captivating. They are able to listen to different kinds of thinkers, without needing to invest in one particular school. They have choice.

They have intellectual options.

So there’s another reason why libraries are awesome; Libraries give you the freedom to try new things.

Mr Tulk and dog "Sausage" going fishing using flying fox he built onto other island - Solitary Island, c. 1935 / by Winifred Tulk

Why Don’t We Cut Services?

Here’s something I don’t get about administrator-think.  When budgets are tight, they often look for ways to shrink budgets without  cutting services.

But really, we should cut services.

If the taxpayers are paying less, they should get less.

New York Public Library Central InformationLibraries need funding in order to provide all the wonderful things we do.  If we try to make the loss of funding painless for patrons, then it looks like the lower amount is all that we need. It puts us in a downward spiral of trying to do more with less, and ultimately providing poor service, and looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.

In order to advocate for libraries, we need to do our jobs well.  We need to create satisfied patrons.  There’s more to advocacy than just that of course, but the foundation of an argument for libraries is a valuable, valued service.  We need enough money and enough staff to make that happen.

It seems likely to me that the slow attrition of library jobs is a result of this desire to not cut services.

Please note that if there are efficiencies that can be found that would save the system money,we shouldn’t need to wait for a budget crisis to find them.  We should enact them.  We should respect taxpayers enough to give them full value for the dollar.

We should respect taxpayers enough to be transparent about what they get for their money.