by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
I am a librarian. If you don’t believe me, just reach back through the mists of time (actually to the Gale/Cengage Trade and Industry database) to an editorial I wrote 20 years ago in a now defunct publication, DatabaseSearcher, in the September 1990 issue. Appropriately enough, the editorial is entitled, “I Am a Librarian.”
One occasion for the proclamation was the arrival of a census form asking me to identify my occupation. While then, as now, my primary work for many years had been editing a periodical, I still stated my occupation as librarian. Somehow answering this question as accurately as possible for the decennial census seemed more serious than it ever had been giving it annually to the Internal Revenue Service. Serious enough to warrant a little soul searching and lead to an editorial proclamation anyway. I guess I always figured that the only data elements of real interest to the IRS always started with dollar signs.
I remember thinking about how members of other professions might answer the same question. How would the editor-in-chief of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association fill out his or her census form? I’d bet money it wouldn’t be “editor,” but “physician.” Me and the doc belong to professions; we don’t just have occupations. We may practice our professions in atypical environments, in a manner not usual to most practitioners, but we do so with the same service goals as all members of our professions.
So what identity crisis has caused me to re-examine these issues 2 decades after my first eruption on the topic? Sigh. Almost as long as I have been a librarian, I have also been a member of SLA, the Special Libraries Association. By the way, I’ve never been a fan — check some other past editorials — of the habit our profession has of naming its professional associations without naming us as the professionals. Why “library” associations, instead of “librarian” associations? Well, SLA tried to get a new name, one that named us instead of our buildings, but that failed. An electronic vote by the membership strongly disapproved of the Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals, aka AskPRO. Probably a good thing, actually. Somehow the “strategic knowledge” we claimed did not extend to making sure we had the dot-org in place for AskPRO, only an inappropriate dot-net.
But that’s just a nomenclature problem. What drove me into severing my long membership with SLA was its decision to launch its second century by joining the opposition to Google Books. And again, I refer to my previous remarks on the subject. But what would it take to get me back home? What would it take to make SLA and maybe other professional associations more successful, more dynamic, more right-minded directionally speaking? Frankly, the answer to that question is the same as it has always been — serve the needs of current and future members better. What changes is how to achieve that goal, even how to assess what that goal involves in these difficult times and in the difficult times to come for our profession.
Librarians need to become more independent in many ways. Librarians laboring within institutions should not only be providing data to experts on staff as clients, they should be acquiring that expertise through enhancing their own skills and through hiring experts who report to them. In most organizations, specialists report to generalists.
The higher up the org chart you go, the broader the view. In the information game, librarians are the ultimate generalists — all questions all the time for all the clients. If the content or data collected needs some processing, let’s do the processing ourselves or hire people who can.
Librarians who now operate outside institutions, such as those in the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP; an organization to which I still belong and which has always identified itself by its people), have greater independence in their selection of services to offer clients — though often, in these tough times, that independence, like Shakespeare’s “greatness,” may be “thrust upon them” somewhat unwillingly. But all of us should be looking for ways to define ourselves and our services with professional authority.
And let’s stretch our notions of independence even broader. We are a profession with a lofty and demanding service ethic — We Inform. Whenever concepts or technologies arise that can expand our ability to inform, that can reach deeper into content to extract more useful truth or broader into service to more and more extended user communities, we should be setting up shop with those concepts and technologies. If we can persuade our employer to sell our services as a product line to reach outside clients, that’s great! If we can get a job with a Net Newbie that lets us guide him or her to the light, that’s probably greater! If we can start the Net Newbie ourselves and employ colleagues, that’s the greatest outcome of all!
In these tough times — and for members of our profession, times were tough even before the economic meltdown — bringing your own money is not only the warmest security blanket, it is also the way to bring needed information to more and more users, to serve the defining ethic
So please, SLA, dump that Open Book Alliance support and let me come home. Exile is a lonely fate, even when self-inflicted.
of our profession. Wherever we work, for whomever and in whatever environment, We Inform. We stand by the expansion of information services and the provision of service to as many users as possible.