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Librarians as __________: Shapeshifting at the periphery.

Posted By char booth On July 21, 2010 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled

When we first started introducing guest posts, Char Booth was a name mentioned by many of us at ItLwtLP. As a blogger over at info-mational, Char has introduced ideas that are uniquely critical and thoughtful. (A good example would be Char’s guest post at Tame the Web about The Library Student Bill of Rights.) You may also remember Ellie’s interview with Char published here on ItLwtLP. Ellie got Char to  publish a piece here on Lead Pipe, and we are all grateful to host another guest whose ideas are critical, timely, and, well, awesome!

I admit it: I wrestled with this post for weeks. In the beginning, all I set out to do was ask and (sort-of) answer the familiar question, how do we redefine ourselves and stay relevant in this so-called “information age?” from the vantage point of the academic liaison librarian. I was drawn to this topic because I stare it in the face five out of every seven days I pass on this planet. Moreover, I am far from alone: So epic is our shared struggle to build productive connections with students and faculty that the Association of Research Libraries devoted an entire special report to liaison librarian roles not long ago. The need to diversify (if not redefine) is obvious: even a passing glance at the 2009 Ithaka faculty perceptions report shows that our image is indeed changing, but not necessarily into the tech-involved pedagogical and research partners we might fancy ourselves. Instead, we are becoming pinned down as e-stuffbuyers.(1)

I am not the first person to ask the question in this particular way. Faithful readers have no doubt realized that I am the fourth academic librarian in the past two months of ITLWTLP alone to go navel-gazing out of a sense of bibliotic devotion: Kim Leeder asked, “what’s it all for?” in early June, Ellie Collier dug through the library history laundry a few weeks later, and Emily Ford has been searching for her mojo since at least July 7th. But before I lose all the non-university folks, let’s take a collective step back. The perennial identity/relevance issue is by no means unique to our corner of the building. Librarians in general are entangled in self-examination and redefinition, on a search for professional identity that gets to the core of our collective self-worth. And where, you might well ask, is this leading us?

Extreme Makeover

Across focus and specialization, I have observed a curious trend. No matter whence the identity question comes, inhabitants of libraryland tend to produce iterations of the same answer: our continued relevance depends on becoming more like something else entirely. Not one something in particular, mind you, but any number of somethings. A few of the professional makeover suggestions I found, in no particular order:

librarian as plumber
librarian as researcher
librarian as super hero
librarian as mediator
librarian as trainer
librarian as unifier
librarian as video game player
librarian as folklorist
librarian as social entrepreneur
librarian as astronaut
librarian as literary agent
librarian as teacher
librarian as publisher
librarian as green champion
librarian as cultural ambassador

Phew, librarian as exhausted. (Or, perhaps… librarian as dilettante?)

In my own writing I am terribly guilty of similizing the profession, and find that the “librarians as ______” trope is a rhetorically useful opener to any old “you should, you could” post. For instance, I once managed to almost smash “librarians as intellectual swiss army knife” and “librarians as pro bono nerds on retainer” into the same sentence. While writing the current post, I found myself so wrapped up in professional metaphors that I had started to elevate them to the far more dramatic analogy duel: Not just librarians as _______, but librarians as this, or that? Are we mediators, I chewed, or facilitators? Consultants, or colleagues? Sharks, or Jets?

sharksThe answer to each of these reductionist face-offs is (of course, by design) always going to be “neither, both, c, or all of the above,” based completely on the context in which they are considered. The more combative analogizing I engaged in, the more I started to realize that the way I was asking the perennial question intentionally deflected its answer. As individuals in unique organizations that contribute to specific user bases, all of us obviously take on different roles and use our own strategies. Just because being a librarian plumber works for you, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for me. In fact, if I walk into my classroom or department wearing an ill-fitting or poorly conceived costume, I might end up looking more like a librarian drainclot.

Shifting Our (Secret) Identities

Our dashing attempts to redefine actually illustrate something rather critical. The reason why librarians are so eminently analogizable is that so many of us are busy taking on one important role in particular: shapeshifter.  When we thrive, it is because we embed, participate, and transform in response to our environments, but never because we do everything just like all the other librarian… whatevers. In other words: The future lies not in our apellatives, but in our affordances. When you cast yourself as a librarian pilot, sherpa, or podiatrist, you are (hopefully) expressing a creative interpretation of your productive capacity that makes the most sense based on (and to) the people you support, if and when they need that particular kind of support.

This much is certain: whether innovative or traditional, the most successful strategies have everything to do with responsive specificity. Emily Drabinski, commenting on a draft of this post, called this kairos: “the ability to respond productively to the moment and its demands.” Being a librarian in this modern age is all about getting in where you fit in (also known as situating). Situating involves (a) becoming perceptive enough to tell astronaut from asinine based on where you stand, and (b) building targeted strategies that help you respond in a demonstrably useful way. This can happen organically, socosmonaut long as you stay engaged with skill-building and don’t knock yourself off course by constantly telling your constituents that you just went all astronaut on them. “I’m a librarian rockstar!” and “I’m a librarian entrepreneur!” are relatively indigestible to the layperson, and are pronouncements best kept to the in-crowd (or maybe to yourself, you be the judge). If you pull your splits and space-moves with enough under-the-radar grace, they are far more likely to be recognized, appreciated, and folded into the librarian-as-something-worth-keeping-around typology (which is really what our search is all about).

E-Whatting What, Now?

The ability to fit requires serious “getting” on both sides. To illustrate what I mean, bear with me as I digress into my own specifics. I’m the E-Learning Librarian at UC Berkeley. When a colleague of mine retired last November, I also took over as liaison and selector for the Cal School of Information, a graduate program that famously dropped its ALA accreditation many years ago, becoming among the first and few programs to formally eschew (as opposed to hyphenate)  “library” (at least to a semantic extent) in pursuit of the information studies paradigm. At the time, the departure of one of the oldest MLS-granters from the ranks added symbolic fuel to an already drawn-out library v. information disciplinary debate.(2) While this post is (mercifully) not about said debate nor its attending drama, both have implications for how I get and fit my disciplinary picture. Liaising to a program that de-libraried itself some years ago some years ago is, needless to say, a fascinating opportunity for identity-spelunking.

This is not my first foray into subject waters, mind you: As a bibliographer at Ohio University I focused on communications, which I knew next to nothing about when I began (causing me no small amount of anxiety). I eventually overcame, but it was difficult during the first year to feel that I had any kind of handle on the discipline. Now at Cal, I have the luck of subject familiarity, AND the luxury of abiding interest in my area. Despite the obvious potential for chirping crickets when I come around, I have been blown away by the welcome I have received from the I School, and have run the gamut from traditional liaising – instruction, reference, consultation, and materials acquisition – to less personally charted territory such as moderating a panel at the Next-Generation Teaching and Learning Symposium and working with a project team developing a browser extension for on-the-fly research in e-texts. Hands down, supporting the I School has fast become one of the things I value most about doing my job.

Librarians as Whack, or Legit?

Not that exploring the boundaries of the librarian/ department relationship always comes off perfectly, mind you. On my own blog, info-mational, I wrote one piece about the difficulty of balancing divergent vocabularies to achieve shared aims; and another on the challenge of pitching the sometimes obscure affordances of librarianship to the more technically focused (this is the one with the nerd/swiss army knife references). Inevitably, some of my moves have been hits, others misses. An example of each: In Spring semester of 2010 I visited the my school’s doctoral colloquium twice – the first time to lead a rather ill-attended yet nominally useful research methods seminar (miss), the second to participate in the aptly named ‘Castellathon’ – a group critique of writings spanning the career of foundational information theorist Manuel Castells, who first developed the “network society” concept (hit).(3)

The latter event took a pecha kucha-ish approach. Each participant was responsible for summarizing and critiquing key chapters of an Information Age volume or other Castells book in under six minutes. I attended at the invitation of the instructor, Paul Duguid, with whom I had arranged the in-class research methods session earlier in the semester. In addition to gaining insight for collection development and general credibility purposes, the Castellathon was an opportunity for me to try a different angle: instead of trying to interlope on their already expert community using the same research help pitch that fell flat the first time around, I would try joining in their reindeer games. The discussion was excellent, and I made good connections with a few students by showing an analytical chop or two.

As-Grabbing

Lave and Wenger’s situated learning theory posits that individuals build knowledge by participating actively in communities of practice, engaging in a process of collective identity formation that facilitates their ongoing definition within and in relation to other members of the community.(4) Expertise is gained through legitimate peripheral participation, the process of starting on the edge of a community and moving toward its center through insight and relationship building (i.e., situating). This negotiated continuum from beginner to novice to expert exists in organizations, disciplines, social groups, and skill areas almost without conceivable exception.(5) Librarians’ ability to productively self-similize (e.g., find our own ases) occurs when we gain access to our communities not only by learning about them, but by demonstrating our knowledge and personalities to them. My participation in the Castells event can be read as (and was in reality) a step away from tangential affiliation and towards a more legitimate form of participation. Aware of my relatively recent introduction to their community, I was also conscious to remain somewhat apart – I did not critique a chapter as each of the students did, but read as much of the material as time permitted in preparation and joined the discussion when I felt I could contribute productively.

In an interesting twist on the situating concept, I have discovered that part of my legitimacy as a liaison librarian depends on exactly this: remaining consciously peripheral as I participate. Existing on the edge of the academy – a widely acknowledged and consistent complaint of the research librarian – is actually one of our most valuable strengths. Let me explain: In academia, situated learning and collective identity formation are far from idyllic, and are subject to the same struggles and mitigating factors as any other social construct (particularly at the graduate level). Dialectic is intentionally combative, there are power dynamics in any classroom or department, and the journey from academic edge to center can induce frustration, cronyism, and idea-jockeying. Among those for whom knowledge is either leverage or capital (e.g., students and faculty), there may be significant vulnerability in admitting an insight gap of any kind, which can translate to plain old not seeking help when it is needed. Thanks in large part to our nosebleed-section proximity to the academic horizon, not only can librarians provide a source of strategic insight into everything from evidence-based practice to open access publishing to ease the legitimate participation of our users, we create neutral spaces and services that are functionally external to the intellectual scrums happening in their disciplines. (In other words, librarian as referee, or base coach?)

Librarians as Counselors, or Confidants?

My liaison experience underscores the importance of subject knowledge and situated participation, but expertise and authentic interest are only half of this picture. What, as a librarian, is the unique contribution I bring to my disciplinary learning community? I return to the idea of neutrality: much of why we fit in is because our ability to do so is limited by design. I have found no surer way to become a useful colleague and resource than to build human connections that demonstrate generalized expertise and critical objectivity. An historical affordance of librarianship is to remain central to the intellectual life of an institution or community while existing on its objective periphery. Becoming closer to the heart and operation of a community and its output is important, but it is at the same time crucial to recognise that by virtue of existing outside the monkeyhouse, we provide a safety zone for the venting and/or triaging of academic insecurities and/or exploring ideas in a space relatively unfettered by the positioning so central to scholarly communication – Professor Duguid and I discussed this particular liaison role after the Castellathon. This is not to say librarians cannot be radical, challenging, or intellectual, it simply highlights our unique position in the pedagogical and productivity picture of higher education.

confessionalSo often the challenge of being a librarian in the academy is being perceived as lacking expertise, yet so much of our worth lies in the informed generality and engaged neutrality we bring to it. I may not be expert in every topical nuance of what one of my graduate students is researching, but I have a broad disciplinary framework that recognizes subtle connections and semantic distinctions, and am aware of a host of tools, movements, and technologies that can supplement their work (and if I’m not, I know who is).  And here is where the librarian as ______ comes back into the narrative. When I am at my most successful in consultations and classes I am in part librarian as research therapist, someone to whom students, colleagues, and even faculty can let down their guard in order to expose the vulnerabilities in technology, methodology, or knowledge that can be addressed without judgment. Like psychologists, consultants, or social workers, librarians have the value structure and information resources that position us to provide informed counsel to a host of information scenarios, no matter our specialization, without imposing a particular bent.

Because we have the opposite of topical tunnel vision, librarians are extremely good at exploring angles, talking through research problems, and translating information into to one form of academic success or another. Our objectivity does not imply that we are non-critical, but we have to demonstrate that this is the case in order to remain viable. Part of fitting in a disciplinary framework is talking its talk, and I have learned that it is productive to participate in co-learning and discourse to the extent that it is possible while remaining a semi-detached confidant, collaborator, counselor, and/or confessor. Among my preternaturally technology-expert students and faculty (and despite my job title), this part of my work rarely involves leveraging very much “E”. In an almost ironic twist, it is the analog, informal, and invariably interdisciplinary conversations about technology and information that seem to have the most impact.

Another example: last semester I led a research methods session and a series of one-on-one consultations with students from a core class in the I School master’s track, INFO 203: Social and Organizational Issues of Information. Each was tasked to write a 30-odd page paper on an issue of their choosing, almost all of which covered emergent technology topics about which little hard research had yet been produced (e.g., driver distraction as a result of real-time traffic apps and consequent impact on highway safety). Every consultation/conversation was amazing, and all consisted of nothing more than two chairs, a web browser, and an enthusiastically open mind on my end. One of the most enjoyable of these exchanges fed into a masterful paper examining the concept of information overload from different subjective perspectives. In one of those it-makes-it-all-worth-it moments, the student in question forwarded his completed essay to me recently with this gem: “Again, thanks for your help. Apart from the tangible benefits on the outcome, our conversation also made the process itself a great deal more interesting and (dare I say it) fun.” (Librarian as stoked.)

As I read through his work I saw threads of our discussion emerge, ranging from educational theory to business to cognitive psychology. In this case, it was a mutual interest in exploring his topic in relation to its source bases that established the information need, and a shared willingness to humanize the interaction that built a more lasting connection. The author is in the process of submitting his paper for publication at my relentless urging [I will update this post with a link when it is available: this one will be required librarian reading].

Librarians as Don Quixote, or Sancho Panza?

Situating in increasingly specialized communities and contexts is what makes the new librarian “normal” so incessantlydon quixote flexible. Liaison librarians may venture down countless outreach inroads, but we reach higher ground based on our ability to add value legitimately, appropriately, and productively. This can at times feel utterly quixotic: tilting at information windmills. Some have argued in this time of consolidation and scarcity that the insight librarians bring into information organization is becoming more diffuse throughout the academy, and the intellectual connections we facilitate in our learning communities are  supplanted by social networking, digitization, and widespread technology adoption. This line of thinking has its supporters and detractors, but no matter your angle of examination the core issue is still one of perception and relevance. Are we interpreting external perceptions of our own relevance accurately? Is this struggle simply occurring inside of us about ourselves? How can we know if those we are trying to “save” from information peril see us as wielding an increasingly unnecessary (or ineffectual) lance?

Again, the answer is c: Each of us must answer this question for ourselves in our own contexts. When you are a liaison you affiliate with a defined community of practice with characteristics that provide you with potential productive and social ins. You simply have to find the best way to positively influence the construction of your perceived identity. At the I School, I perceive that administrators and faculty do a masterful job of supporting community by both highlighting the successes of its members (take a quick look at their website to see what I mean) while merging the social with the academic. They recognize that they should neither overwhelm learners with an overabundance of activities nor divorce said activities from the work that defines the community in the first place. Meg St. John, Director of Admission and Student Affairs, says that “The ‘problem’ with Berkeley is always that there is too much opportunity, too many draws on your most precious resource: your time as a student here. We look for ways to create community building activities in synergy with other activities that are already on the books.” In all of that social and intellectual activity, there are more and less natural times for me (or any other librarian) to participate.

Not recognising that last point can risk a situation of diminishing outreach returns. We engage in communities of practice by supporting specific expertise with strategic insight, but we neither operate in vacuums nor run the place. Institutional and individual legacies precede us, and a confluence of expertise, resources, and social character unique to each learning community dictates how (and if and when) a librarian will be perceived (and received) as a resource. “Embedding” is a process that takes as much arm’s-length framework as it does fieldwork and footwork. Sometimes – for reasons totally external to yourself – there might be little opportunity or reason to push past the arm’s length. Even though I am enthusiastically welcomed, in addition to making myself understood, available, and enjoyable to work with, at times I need to make myself scarce. The most legitimate form of participation I have is in perceiving from the periphery where I can be of the most use. I am busy, they are busy, and sometimes our busies overlap and entertwine. Assert myself too much or self-aggrandize my contribution, and I run the risk of becoming more nuisance than necessity.

Librarians as Polaroid, or Digital?

polaroidIn a world in which “library” threatens to become increasingly sepia-toned, “community” and “practice” are equally critical to our position in the digital picture. Another metaphorical exploitation opportunity: For years, Polaroid camera use declined precipitously. Yet, when the film threatened to disappear entirely, die-hards hollered so loud that the Impossible Project saved the last production plant in order to make the film available again for a comparably unbelievably expensive price, and the original corporation hired Lady Gaga to huckster them a completely different image. For my money, we should be shooting between these two extremes. Instead of (a) preserving a quaint legacy profession remembered wistfully by those old enough to have used a card catalog and/or fetishized by hipsters or (b) making ourselves into anything-but-librarians, we need to (c) keep doing what we’re doing, only at times a little more obviously: showing our patrons that we are, in fact, the strangers they can trust with whatever camera they happen to own to take their family picture without making a break for it. We know where the right button is, thank you very much, and we promise not to cut your head or legs off.

Users might care little about how librarians holistically self-define in order to appear more viable in the information age, but they care considerably if we make their working, producing, and learning lives easier. This is where librarian knowledge-sharing about local strategies that do and don’t work becomes extremely useful. When we adapt this collective insight into our own section of the academy (or wherever) and its internal machinations, external perceptions of libraries and librarians transform as a consequence of responsive service and real interpersonal connections, but not the other way around. The best way to bring this dynamic into productive focus in your own context is to literally (and please pardon my use of this tired idiom, it actually works in this case) think outside your institutional box: become interested and engaged in the work of the community with which you are associated, and find the most appropriate ways to support them based on a practical, critical, library-independent assessment of their productive and social output. In this and all things, avoid overzealousness or self-fixation: Instead of being that weird jerk who won’t move out of the frame, find out what your community is taking pictures of and suss out what kind of tripod, memory card, flashbulb, etc. you can hand over when the time seems right.

Librarians as Agent Cooper, or Log Lady?

I have stared into my own navel for so long that I have finally started to see light: enough with the manufactured duels. Disc 1 of season two of Twin Peaks arrived in the mail a few days ago, neatly providing me with the professional analogy draw to end them all: Librarians as Agent Cooper, or Log Lady? Both characters are instrumental, plot-driving sages, both arelog lady somewhat cryptic, both exist on the periphery of the Twin Peaks community, both are keen environmental observers and information discoverers, and both participate (albeit in very different ways) over their beverage of choice. In my own context, I might be just as librarian-amazing showing up out of the blue every once in a while with wood chips on my cardigan as you are constantly hanging around leaving messages for Diane on your handheld device. There is only one Log Lady, and there is only one Agent Cooper. As long as each of us materializes (virtually or literally) at opportune moments in our spectacles and/or g-men ties, we can remain true to what we always have been: modestly indispensable and precisely like no one else. Remove either of us, and Bob prevails.(6)

With Lynchian circuitousness I have arrived at the most important simile of all: librarians as librarians. We have always been professional chameleons, using different tools to play different roles for different patrons in different organizations in different states and so on, ad infinitum. The more we recommend to each other that we become the someone elses we see fit, the more we risk missing that the deceptively prescriptive identity/utility question is being answered descriptively. Our new reality is like our old reality, only a little more adaptive and a lot more self-reflexive (or vice versa, you tell me). Librarian as ________ analogies are useful in exploring our response to a critically transformative time in the trajectory of our profession, but their function as metaphor should not be overlooked lest we creep too far from our own (rather amazing) archetype. Despite the ways we might recast ourselves as individuals, our collective identity can and should still revolve around a solid practical and conceptual core of “humor, verve, and grace,” to borrow a phrase from Cory Doctorow. Under shifting shapes, librarians remain the singularly knowledgeable, radically neutral, and openly accessible mavens of the information world (bless our hearts).

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Tremendous thanks to my favorite librarians-as-inconceivably-talented-editors: Ellie Collier, Emily Drabinski, Susan Edwards, Emily Ford, Lia Friedman, and Jen Waller. You made this post so much better.

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Notes

(1) Not to imply that e-stuffbuying isn’t an essential and potentially powerful demonstration of relevancy among academic librarians. Note the recent UC Library/Nature Group journal pricing fight, in which faculty support and involvement has been extremely forthcoming.
(2) See Ostler, L. J. & Dahlin, T. C. (1995). Library education: Setting or rising sun? American Libraries, 26, (7), 683-685.; Saracevic, T. (1994). Closing of library schools in North America: What role accreditation? Libri, 44, (3), 190-200.; Stieg, M. F. (1992). Change and challenge in library and information science education. Chicago: American Library Association.; White, H. (1986). The future of library and information science education. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 26, (3), 174-182.; White, H. (1995). Library studies or information management – What’s in a name? Library Journal, 120, (7), 51-52.
(3) Information studies is interdisciplinary and young enough that it continues to define its core texts, and the search for canonical authors is a subject of ongoing interest among those identified with the field (not to mention a source of continual vexation for this developer of collections). Castells is tacitly accepted as the one theorist every information studies scholar/student has at least skimmed. His Information Age trilogy argues that the network society derived from the confluence of technical innovation, globalizing markets, social radicalization, and political restructuring over the waning decades of the twentieth century. More recently, the prolific Castells has has tackled the sociological implications of mobile connectivity and issues surrounding communication and power.
(4) Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Learning in doing. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
(5) I recommend Professor Duguid’s recent prologue to an Oxford volume on communities of practice to anyone interested in its theoretical development (Duguid, Paul. The Community of Practice Then and Now. In Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts, eds., Organizing for the Creative Economy: Community, Practice, and Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.) For more in a library context, my book coming out in Fall addresses the importance of communities of practice in library instructor education: our lack of formal pedagogical training makes social and situated learning essential to instructional literacy.
(6) For the as-yet Twin Peaks uninitiated, please take this opportunity to watch the series and find out what the hell I’m talking about.
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Image Credits

sharks: http://www.timessquarenyc.org/film/images/westsidestory01.jpg
astronaut: www.yunchtime.net/misc/astronaut.jpg
confessional: http://behlerblog.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/confessional.jpg
don quixote: zacsoomith.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/lyceum-don-quixote-print-c10029378.jpeg
polaroid: www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/polaroid.jpg
log lady: http://zembla.cementhorizon.com/archives/LogLady.jpg

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