Are Librarians Researchers, or Service Providers?

As Jacob Berg discusses over at BeerBrarian, libraries often look for job applicants who are a good cultural ‘fit’ for their library — who will work at the same pace, share the same values, and yet bring some “diversity” to the existing group of librarians at that institution.

(There are obvious issues, which Angela Galvan covered well at ITLWTLP: do we all have to share the same library values? What “beliefs, values, behaviors, habits, and attitudes” are we enacting? What does obligatory middle-class whiteness do to people who don’t ‘fit’: people of color, poor people, ambitious or business-minded people? What if their resumes don’t look like ours?)

Fitter Happier by hatalmas, on Flickr

You just… need to smile more.

I’m thinking about library values again, as several (white) friends have approached me, Ph.D. nearly in-hand, to ask about moving into the academic library sector. 

Librarianship as Alt-Ac Career

As Andrew Asher writes over at Alt-Ac, academic librarianship is an alternate career path for many scholars in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. College and university librarians are expected to have an MLS in library science, as well as a “subject masters” in another discipline. (And yes, it’s often middle-class white folk who have the privilege to study for two graduate degrees in order to enter a low-paying career…)

The rationale for the dual degree requirement is that it both enculturates and trains us in the library skills of building and sharing collections… as well as makes us great ‘research coaches‘ for high-level students in particular subjects.  

Academic Book Stack by phonono, on Flickr

So much subject knowledge and language going on.

Yet there are definitely cultural differences between academia and its libraries, which I’ve sketched out here and Matt Thompson has uncovered over at Savage Minds

Coming out of a research track, I find I’m having to adjust to the “service orientation” of libraries. Faculty librarians may have publications, keynotes, and the benefits of tenure, sabbaticals, and faculty status — but they’re still librarians. Given the gendered history of librarians & women as servants in academia, it can be challenging to meet teaching + research + service expectations as an academic librarian. 

The implicit role of librarian-as-servant also impacts our literature, giving our scholarly publishing a functional feel: how do we improve services? How do we create level playing fields and improve access? What are library users doing, and what do they value?

Library researchers ask what people want from us, and how to survive in a market economy (Denning), but we don’t often research broadly into the information-linked worlds we inhabit, or into how information interacts with culture to impact human communities.

Functional vs. Connected Research

If you’re new to library and information science (LIS) careers, you’ll find that the broadest discussions fall to our neighbors in ‘information science’: What does information mean, and how we do use it? Is an antelope a document, a thing we can archive, store, and retrieve?

Antelope by DeusXFlorida

I feel like this has the makings of a good documentary… (lion, enter stage left).

I have mixed feelings on information research: I’ve been to the iConference and still don’t know what information is. (This would be strange, but then anthropology is still debating ‘culture,’ so…)

At this point, I’d love for librarians to take a broader stance on how people use information, the role it plays in their lives, how we circulate ideas through flash drives and conversation over a pint. We’ve started this research, asking: How do local communities circulate and control information in Romania? How does the history of Soviet information controls  affect libraries today? How does book banning in America shape the ideas our students absorb? And I hope that more social scientists moving into libraries will make this research even more effective.

But I also respect the role of service in libraries, and the things we do to directly impact our communities here and now.

As Galvan points out in her article on whiteness, moving into a new professional identity can “[create] a dissonant sense of self and belonging… when our identity does not conform to professional expectations.”

I can’t yet answer the questions I’ve raised, but I highlight these library values for my academic friends: leave your PhD and come join us in libraries! But know that the values of faculty librarians differ from our faculty peers. In the future, I hope we’ll develop broader ways of conceptualizing professional service and research in libraries — as well as a broader “fit” that welcomes more types of librarians into our institutions.


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