Anxious Anger – or: why does my profession want to become a closed club

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I’m in the Austin, Texas, airport – having just left the closing session of the Re-Think It conference – and I’m wondering what the heck is happening to my chosen profession. When did we turn into an exclusive member’s only club with unrealistic demands on professionalism and a secret handshake?

The closing keynote featured current president of the American Library Association (ALA) Jim Neal and past president Julie Todaro on the topic Library Leadership in a Period of Transformation. The pair were to address questions like “What trends are provoking new thinking about the 21st century library?” and “Do 20th century visions and skills still matter?” I expected to be uplifted and inspired. Instead, I came away feeling anxious and angry about their view of the library profession and the premier library association, ALA.

To start with a bit of imposter syndrome exposure: I’ve been working in and around libraries for 25 years, but I don’t follow the internal workings and the politics of the principal librarian professional organization(s) in the United States. I read about the profession — enough to know that primary school librarians are under constant threat of elimination in many school districts and that usage of public libraries, particularly public libraries that are taking an expansive view of their role in the community, is through the roof. I hear the grumbles about how library schools are not preparing graduates of masters programs for “real world” librarianship, but in my own personal experience, I am indebted to the faculty at Simmons College for the education I received there. The pay inequity sucks. The appointment of a professional African American librarian to head the Library of Congress is to be celebrated, and the general lack of diversity in the professional ranks is a point to be worked on. My impression of ALA is of an unnecessarily large and bureaucratic organization with some seriously important bright spots (the ALA Washington Office for example), and that the governance of ALA is plodding and cliquish, but for which some close colleagues find professional satisfaction for their extra energies. I’m pretty much hands off ALA, particularly in the last 15 years, and view it (in the words of Douglas Adams) as Mostly Harmless.

So anxious and angry are unexpected feelings for this closing keynote. I don’t think there is a recording of Jim’s and Julie’s remarks, so here in the airport, the only thing I have to go on are my notes. I started taking notes at the beginning of their talks expecting there would be uplifting ideas and quotes that I could attribute to them as I talk with others about the aspirations of the FOLIO project (a crucial part of my day job). Instead, Julie kicked things off by saying the key task that she works on at her day job is maintaining faculty status for librarians. She emphasized the importance of credentialing and using the usefulness of skills to a library’s broader organization as a measure of value. Jim spoke of the role of library schools and library education to define classes of people: librarians, paraprofessionals, students, and the like, and that the ALA should be at the heart of minting credentials to be used (I think) as gatekeepers into “professional” jobs.

Hogwash. If I were to identify my school of thought, I’d say I come from the big melting pot of professional librarianship. I started in libraries just out of college with a degree in systems analysis working for my alma mater as they were bringing up their first automation system. In the first decade of my career, I worked in three academic libraries — each of whom did a fantastic job of instilling in me the raw knowledge and the embedded ethos of the library profession — before choosing to get a library degree. Some of the best librarians I know are not classically trained librarians, and in quiet voices will timidly offer that they do not have a degree. I met one such person during the Re-Think It conference, in fact, that I hope becomes a close colleague. They are drawn to the profession from other disciplines and bring of a wealth of skills and insights that make the library profession stronger. I’ve hired too many people using the phrase “or equivalent experience” to know that a library degree is not the only gateway to a successful team member. The value of the people I hired came from the skills they earned through experience and their outlook to grow as the library itself wanted to grow.

Julie closed her initial remarks by saying that “success — world domination — begins with attention to detail.” Jim spoke wistfully at the lack of an uber-OCLC that would be at the heart of all library technical services work. Such statements make me think that raving megalomania is a prerequisite for ALA president. I’m not sure this is the profession I want to be in.

Julie and Jim both had statements that I wholeheartedly agree with…at least in content if not delivery. As a profession “we’re going to be more unseen as things go digital” (Julie) and that is a challenge to take on. “Stop strategic planning; it is a waste of time” (Jim) and that our organizations need to be a loosely coupled structure of maverick units to move at a pace demanded by our users. Cooperation between libraries and removing duplicate effort is a key sustainability strategy and one that I take to heart in the FOLIO project. (I’m just not convinced that a national strategy of technical centers is desired, if even possible.)

I had no idea that such a panel could stir up such feelings, but there you go. In many ways, I hope that I misinterpreted the intent of Jim’s and Julie’s remarks, but the forcefulness with which they spoke them and the bodily reaction I had to hearing them leaves little room.