Many librarians and information professionals must field this question. Actually, we are probably lucky when the quizzical look in a friend or relative’s eye is actually transferred to a verbal question, rather than remaining in the murky–and more often than not rather vague–conceptual territory of the mind. Honestly, after two years of graduate school, I still find the question a bit difficult to navigate. I don’t want to be overly-technical and abstruse, and at the same time I want to give enough detail to impart the import (and legitimacy) of the professional contributions of librarians and information professionals* to our cultural heritage.
So that is where I tried to begin the other day, when a co-worker (I work part-time in retail) asked me what it actually is that librarians do. Actually, the conversation began, when she asked if libraries ever housed photographic collections. She seemed surprised to find that they can and do, which is evidence of the preconceptions and stereotypes about what a library is, that abound. Many non-librarian friends of mine are so stuck on books as the sole domain of libraries, when of course, really any information object or resource type can be. And it seems to me that they often think librarians do nothing more than familiarize themselves with current publications–really that is just one aspect of the job of collection managers. Maybe a bit of bitter has rubbed off on me, though. Certainly, we are often specialized!
So, as I attempted to explain the role of stewardship as one of the many aspects of library and information science, I got excited when the response from my co-worker was, “That certainly is an interesting way to look at it.” I thought to myself, I sure am doing well, I’m showing her a new way to perceive of librarians and the job that we do! However, as we all have, I’m sure, experienced, “interesting” is such a loaded word, that can actually mean, “Oh! That sure is cool” or alternatively, “Hmmm, I’m not so sure about the legitimacy of that claim.” So as I started to continue, feeling really great about myself, and ready to move on to the other aspects of librarianship (preservation really is access, you know), she began to tell me a story. She described an assignment she had done for a college course, in which cultural heritage collections–I believe they had a choice of visiting a library, museum, or really any sort of special collection–were observed by students, and analyzed (and critiqued) as reflections of mainstream society, continuing to marginalize the marginal, etc., etc.
Now, as she continued to describe her experience, and the GLBT special collection that she visited, my heart was sinking, and I couldn’t hide this from her (I wear my heart on my sleeve). I found it hard to articulate both that she was right, that yes, libraries and other cultural heritage institutions reinforce a primarily Western-white-wealthy-straight male viewpoint, and that the profession is aware of this issue and that publications and professional associations have dedicated many pages and round table discussions to resolving (or at least to approaching) it.
I wish I had immediately agreed with her, and that I had then went on to describe the problems and subsequent changes to Dewey and other classification systems. But my brain kept ticking through another list of library realities: cut budgets, reduced library hours, hiring freezes, lost jobs, loss of expected grant revenue, and the proceeding general difficulty of actively engaging oneself to represent all of the underrepresented and marginalized.
Nevertheless, libraries, and others in the information industry such as publishing, do have a lot of power over just what is made available to the masses. The information life cycle is certainly not perfect. As a result, I would have to say that during these tough times, it is even more important for librarians to be vigilant, and avoid the easy and passive approach to our work. We must remember that human rights and democracy are an important aspect of the idea(l)s of our profession.
I recently read a chapter by Kathleen de la Pena McCook and Katharine Phenix, Human Rights, Democracy, and Librarians, where passive vs. active librarianship is explored among other aspects of the social responsibility issue. It took me back to my first semester at SJSU SLIS where in the course “Information and Society” I had the opportunity to look at this issue. I find that I am so glad that I have come back to it again.
*I will refer to all information professionals–librarians, archivists, consultants & the like–as librarians, for convenience sake. However, this may be part of the problem, as the word “librarian” is so evocative of “books” which may well reinforce stereotypes and further preconceptions.
de la Pena McCook, K. & Phenix, K. (2008). Human rights, democracy, and librarians. In Haycock, K. & Sheldon B. E. (Eds.), The portable MLIS: Insights from the experts. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.