by Barbara Quint
Of course, you all remember Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy and Queen Hecuba. She was the one who wangled the gift of prophecy out of the god Apollo. But when Apollo found out that he was not going to wangle anything more out of Cassandra (ahem), his next curse insured that no one would ever believe her predictions. (“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” Rough translation: “Hey! I think I hear something moving around inside this big wooden horse.”)
Well, sometimes I know just how Cassandra must have felt. No one ever listens to me. All the good advice I’ve given over the years and what good does it do? Exactly! Humph! Grumble, grumble. Humph! Mutter, mutter. Humph and humph again.
Here we information professionals are in the Third Millennium with opportunities beckoning seductively on one side and doom and gloom threatening on the other. And yet the leading professional associations that represent our profession to the world and collect our dues money annually still do not refer to us in their titles. This is the June issue of Searcher, the issue that gets special distribution at the annual June conferences of the American Library Association and the Special Libraries Association. Last month, the Medical Library Association held its annual conference, and next month, the American Association of Law Libraries will hold its annual event.
Sigh. With all these libraries so busy conferring, it’s a shame that there never seems to be enough time on the schedule for LIBRARIANS to have a conference. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary [http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/library] defines the noun “library” as:
1 a : a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale b : a collection of such materials
2 a : a collection resembling or suggesting a library <a library of computer programs> <wine library> b : MORGUE 2
3 a : a series of related books issued by a publisher b : a collection of publications on the same subject
And that doesn’t even get into the more exotic uses of the word, e.g., in DNA research. On the other hand, the word “librarian” gets only a brief one-liner:
a specialist in the care or management of a library
We also ran.
A library is what is left over when a librarian goes home, like a coral reef is what’s left over when the coral shuffles off its skeletal remains. The library as a building or a group of shelves piled with bound volumes is real, but inanimate. The library as an institution is an abstraction. What is real is the librarian. What is real is the intelligence and energy and commitment and work of human librarians. And, last time I looked, it is these human beings who make up the membership of these professional associations, who pay the dues that support them, and who now — more than ever — need these associations to trumpet their talents, accomplishments, and potential for greater achievement to the world. So it would be kind of nice if the associations managed to mention the name of the people they represent instead of the name of the buildings in which they work.
Our professional associations must lead us to the path of glory, a path we will only reach by maintaining the highest standards of professional performance and professional ethics. The other day I read an “LJ/Backtalk” column in Library Journal written by one of the profession’s leading lights, the recently retired Herb White, distinguished professor emeritus of the Indiana University’s School of Library and Information Science. After 45 years in the profession and terms as national president for two of those professional associations, his “Ruminations on Retirement” exhorted librarians to “protect the boundaries of our field” by resisting the impulse to “teach our clients everything we know.” He considers the impulse “suicidal” and, apparently, has thought so since the earliest days of his professional career:
I only had the opportunity to work as a reference librarian for about ten years before I moved into full-time administration and teaching. But I still recall what I’d say when patrons would ask me how I had successfully answered their reference question. “Why would I want to tell you?” I would say. “I want you dependent on me whenever you have a question. That is my job security, isn’t it?” Everyone understood, nobody ever argued.
Looking back on my own career, which included 20 years as a reference librarian, I realize that it was just a lucky twirl of history that gave me a career as an intermediary searcher. Needy supplicants panting for knowledge would bow before my awesome power. Nobly, I would turn to my magical machines and evoke the knowledge they required, handing them their sacred printouts with an air of beneficent generosity: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
And then came end-user searching. Sigh.
So what would Professor White have me do now? Try to bring back the past. Maybe go on eBay to find antique phones with parts that fit in the acoustic modems I will buy for my 1200-baud (if I’m lucky, more likely 300-baud) connections. The genie’s out of the bottle. End-user searching now dominates the information world. One might be able to slow down its march, but I doubt it. And what would it require even to slow it down? One would have to sabotage its effectiveness, to hide its successes from patrons, to bad-mouth its performance across the board, instead of identifying specific weaknesses in specific situations. And if one tried to conduct this campaign of vilification, with, by the way, almost no chance of success, what would have become of one’s own professional standing? Basically, for the sake of ensuring one’s professional survival, one would have sacrificed the information welfare of clients.
The first and final standard of our profession, the alpha and the omega, is that we inform. We get the truth to people and people to the truth. That is what makes our profession great. That is what will give our profession a glorious future. The day we sacrifice our clients’ interests and needs to our own job security, that is the day we really will have committed professional suicide.
What we really need is for the world to let us do all that we can do. And one small step toward enabling that to happen might be to have our professional associations identify exactly who and what we are. Using our name might be a good start.
Is anybody listening?
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.