Monday 30 June 2014

Librarian no more?

So, it's the final day of BlogJune, and it seems like a fitting time for me to announce a change in my career. Four weeks from today, I will be departing overseas, and embarking on a new role, working with a human rights NGO for eighteen months. It's a very exciting opportunity, one that's well-suited to my skills and knowledge, which requires my qualification, and one that I wouldn't have been successful in attaining, were I without my current range of experience.

However, it's not a librarian role, nor are there any libraries involved. My position title will be "Organisational Development Advisor" - which could be used to describe pretty much anybody who works in international development. It could best be described as a knowledge management and communications consultant position, based on the job description, but until I'm actually performing the role, it's hard to say, really.

So, whilst I am thrilled to accept this amazing opportunity, there is a part of me that feels that this might be the end of my career of "being a librarian" (as opposed to "doing things that librarians do"). My work here will certainly open doors in terms of getting experience with NGOs and working in International Development, but if my experience of the library industry is anything to go by, it will be difficult to get a look-in for a librarian position, after eighteen months of not-being-a-librarian.

And that's okay. Because it's about what I'm doing with my time. I know myself well enough to know that I'm happiest when I'm engaged in special projects, and performing roles that have a start and a finish. I love that sense of accomplishment. Having been a librarian has afforded me with the skills to do some really interesting work, and now with this next chapter in my life, who knows where it will lead me.

But for now, that's me,signing off - no longer bibliotheque bound!

Sunday 29 June 2014

Librarianship as a means or an end?

Well, this is my second-last BlogJune post for the month, so if you'll indulge me, I'm going to revert to one more exercise in navel-gazing.

Why did we become librarians? Did we see it as a means, or as an end? Allow me to elaborate:

Librarianship as an end.

As a child, we're always faced with the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And throughout our lives, we're confronted with this status anxiety of who we are, and how we fit into the society in which we live. I managed to avoid this question for a number of years by being an Arts student, and studying various humanities for their own sake - which, whilst being very noble and academic, and provided me with a strong knowledge of the world's cultural diversity, paired with strong critical thinking skills, did not afford me with any improved social standing. I found myself, in my early 20s, still faced with that question, "What do I want to be." I eventually made a list, and librarianship was in my top three choice professions, along with Teaching and Arts Administration. Yes, I was clearly destined for a career in one of the world's most undervalued professions, whatever my choice was.

Furthermore, whilst I pursued my graduate studies in information management, I found myself working in libraries, and it was at this point that I started to notice the status that having a librarianship qualification afforded - obviously, because they were the ones with all the authority.

And that's what's at the heart of the question, "What do you want to be?" It's about having a field in which you are an authority. Being a professional.

Which is why, when we see organisations making librarians redundant, or we see librarian roles replaced by generalist non-librarianship-qualified positions, or librarian roles are bogged down by menial duties that pretty much anybody could do, then this feels like an attack on our status as librarians. It takes away our ability to exist as a professional in our field. At this point, you start to hear librarians grumbling sentences starting with, "I didn't get a Masters in Information Science just so that..."

And even within the industry, there is such a focus on what kind of librarian you are - whether it's a school, public, TAFE, university, law, parliamentary, court, medical, or special librarian - and one's social standing within the industry is, to an extent, prescribed by the kind of librarian you are. There is certainly a pecking order, even if nobody wants to admit it!

Librarianship as a means.

Some might say that, instead of asking "What do you want to be when you grow up?", we should be asking, "What do you want to do?" Make a list, and then find you a job that allows you to do those things.

It might be something like:
- I want to assist academics with their research
- I want to fill a room with books that I think people will like, and then I get to share those books with those people.
- I want to help parents teach their pre-school children how to read.
- I want to help the disadvantaged and underprivileged people in the community have access to information and knowledge.
- I want to facilitate interesting public discussions on topics of literature, culture or social issues.
- I want to support professionals in a field that I find meaningful by being an information broker that serves their needs.
- I want to teach students the skills that they need in order to succeed with their academic pursuits.
- I want to develop innovative communication systems for the collection, curation and dissemination of knowledge.
- I want to review books and then ask other people what they thought of them.

And so on. Whenever I hear sentences starting with, "I didn't become a librarian just so that..." I wonder, "Well, what are you doing here, then? Why aren't you doing the things that you became a librarian for?"

So often, as New Graduates, we have it in our head that we need to get any librarian job - just to get the experience of being a librarian - when maybe what we need to be doing is focusing on getting a job where we get to do the things that we want to do with our lives. And maybe that means volunteering at a primary school library, rather than going for that entry level assistant law courts library job.

Librarianship as an end... to a means!

I remember when I was back at first year of uni, and there was this comedian who told a joke along the lines of, "Hey guys, welcome to university. Here's some advice that will save you three years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars. Find the thing you want to do most in your life... and just go and do it!" It's a philosophy that seems to have worked for some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs.

However, for the rest of us, we need a Bachelor degree and, let's be honest, probably a Masters degree or two, in order for certain doors to open. A qualification in librarianship does open these doors - and is generally a requirement for most job applications to avoid being thrown straight onto the slush pile.

But the thing is that it opens other doors as well. It gives you that status to be a professional, but what you choose to do with it is up to you. So, when you're looking at applying for that next librarian position, ask the question, "What would I be doing in this role? Is that why I became a librarian?"

And if not, then which job is?

Saturday 28 June 2014

Are print books holding libraries back?

So, here's a modest proposal: what if we just took all the print books out of the library?

Consider the following:

Space. Shelves of books take up a lot of floor space, especially if you hold a big collection. Space that could be used for furniture, or technology, or collaborative work spaces.

Labour. Print books are extremely labour-intensive. Every book that comes into the library is catalogued, stamped, labelled, and covered. Even if we calculated that at 5 mintes of labour for each book processed, multiply that by tens of thousands, and it's a huge labour expense.

Then consider the amount of labour involved in moving books around. 2-3 staff for an hour unpacking the interbranch transfers before opening the library, one and a half hours of shelving for a dozen staff every day. Circulation desk duties of issuing and returning books. Then for every book that a borrower claims to have returned but isn't on the shelf, there's an exhaustive process of talking with the borrower, checking the shelves, and making all the othet branches check their shelves, and then the follow-up if the book never resurfaces. 

Also, take into account collection maintenance. When books deteriorate, then they are either repaired, which may require any number of procedures, depending on the damage, or they are removed from the collection, involving deletion from the catalogue and physically recycled either through preparation for a book sale, or moved to a recycling centre.

Speaking of deletions, did you know that for every book that is put on a library shelf, a book needs to be removed from the collection (more or less)? Libraries buy a lot of books, and so they need to decide which books need to go. Many of these are made up of irrepairable books, but reports are also generated to identify books that aren't circulating. And then, yep, we need to go out and find themall and   remove them from the shelf.

Then there are other time-draining but necessary jobs like shelf-reading - where we literally spend hours every month reading the spine labels on the shelf to make sure that the books are in order.

Expense. Books are expensive. Libraries spend hundreds of thousands a year on books. Most of them won't be on the shelf in five years' time, having either fallen apart, been stolen / never returned, or removed because nobody read it.

Environmental sustainability. What does it say about our corporate social responsibility when we still insist on using so much freaking paper?!

Unpleasantness. There will be no more library fines, and no unpleasant conversations with the pub,ic about overdue, damaged or missing books.

Innovation. If all staff at the library spend the majority of their time processing or moving print books, then this comes at the cost of innovation. We have the technology to make much of our book collection accessible through digital means, and if staff weren't spending all of their time with print formats, then they could spend so much more time interacting with the community, and helping them connect with information through a more efficient and accessible means.

Community. Often it seems that the main reason we deal in so much print is because it's what the community demands. But the reality is that shifting to more digital collections means that we can reach so many more people in the community, and actively encourage them to embrace the benefits of new technology as an exercise in lifelong learning.

Don't get me wrong - I love print books. However, the current model of libraries are still ridiculously skewed to the management of print books that it is to the detriment of progressive services. People talk of the advent of the internet and ebooks as the death of the library, but maybe it's the best thing that could happen for them.

Friday 27 June 2014

Are librarians burning out or fading away?

So, this article has been doing the rounds lately, offering advice to librarians on how to avoid burning out. It suggests such pearls of wisdom as:

- Reduce your commitments to a manageable level
- Allow for some "me time" every day
- Have some "non-library social time" at least once or twice a month
- Remember to breathe
- Don't be afraid to say "no".

Whilst these are all excellent pieces of advice in themselves, these are all basic survival skills that we've learnt by the time we've become adults. I find this article at worst patronising, and at best quite ridiculous.

To a non-librarian reading the article, they must be wondering what it is about librarianship that is stressing their professionals to the point of "burning out". I mean it's not like they're performing life-threatening surgery, or preparing massive amounts of paperwork for parliamentary or court proceedings, or teaching overcrowded classrooms full of 15 year olds who don't want to be there.

I learnt a long time ago never to suggest to a non-librarian that I was stressed out by work. They tend to laugh.

Furthermore, this article reinforces an unfortunate stereotype of librarians - as overzealous, highly-strung workaholics who are stressed out by something as seemingly banal as working a library (I mean, gosh, all those books!), who don't have time to take a moment to themselves, but at the same time find it difficult to socialise outside the bubble of the library industry - even once or twice a month!

[edit: somebody's pointed out to me that most people don't actually think librarians are workaholics. Which indicates to me that it's possibly more a perception that I've noticed from within the industry that librarians are often obsessed with their work and libraries, to the detriment to their mental wellbeing and social life. My point is that it's an idea perpetuated by the original article that I don't necessarily agree with!]

Really, who are these people?

That said, I certainly think that there are plenty of people who are drawn to this profession, because they're intelligent and creative, and want a job that works to their strengths without necessarily having to do a lot of "hard work". I'll totally admit that I was one of them.

However, wherever you go, work is work. The work doesn't care if you've got a masters degree, and that you're overqualified to do X & Y when you'd rather be doing Z. The work needs to be done, and it's not about you. This can be a shock to some people, especially when they've done the hard yards at university to become a professional in their field.

One thing is true - librarians do burn out. There are plenty of bitter and burnt librarians out there, I don't believe it has anything to being too busy and overcommitted; it's something else. Librarians are wannabe change agents. They see the new ways that the world is changing, the innovations in technology, and the paradigm shifts in how people use information, and they want to be immersed in that world. Their library could be an embodiment of that information utopia.

But it isn't. There's an information glass ceiling in libraries. We see the future, but we can't grasp it, whether it's due to a shortage of funding and resources, or stagnant prevailing attitudes, or simply the lack of skills to effect sustainable change

And so, being a librarian becomes a sisyphean task that if, left unchecked, can burn us all out.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Librarianship as community capacity building.

It's been just over a year since I returned from my first foray into International Development, training library staff at a vocational school for nurses in regional Papua New Guinea. I then went on to complete another assignment in PNG, and one in Vietnam. At the heart of International Development work is the principle of capacity building, and it's a concept that's definitely influenced my attitude towards my work as a librarian since returning.

Traditionally, international development has been fraught with attitudes that could be described as somewhat colonialist in nature. Western countries initially went into developed countries, build roads and facilities, and say, "There you go! Now you can succeed, like us!" When that obviously failed, the model developed into one of "Let us show you how to build infrastructure, and then you can succeed, like us!". Of course, this never really took into account non-western knowledge systems and modes of decision-making in the future. 

Furthermore, there would sometimes be unintended consequences - e.g. building a road from a coastal village to the city would impact drastically on the local economy, and not necessarily in a good way. If people can sell produce for more money down this new road, then they're gping to sell it down there. Oh wait, who's going to find skills, resouces and knowhow to rebuild this road when it gets washed away in the next monsoon season?

The principle of capacity building, on the other hand, centres on guiding and empowering people to develop their understanding and skills within the context of their own culture, and allow them to take ownership. In my projects, I would consult with my counterparts on what they wanted to achieve, and then I would work alongside them in developing processes that were sustainable in the long term. Ideally, they would be able to take ownership of the work and develop it further independently, rather than perpetuate a dependent relationship between developing countries and their wealthy neighbours.

Of course, I have over-simplified the concept for the benefit of the uninitiated. However, as a librarian, this is also how I start to feel about my library's users and its community. Instead of simply doing, I'm spending more time guiding and showing. Instead of giving them the answers, I'm giving them the tools to find the answers themselves. Instead of telling them what they think they want to know, I'm helping them find the real questions that they need to ask. Furthermore, it's another way of breaking down the power-relationship between the librarian and the user. I'm not here to be a gate-keeper that you need to justify your existence to, nor am I somebody to serve your every whim. I'm here to help.
We're not about establishing a system that becomes a secret code for the well-educated and privileged. We need to find ways to communicate with our users on their terms, and train them to be informed and skilled with information, in ways that are relevant to their lives, and helps the community grow through inclusive and altruistic attitudes.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

C is for...

Yep, this post has been brought to you by the letter "C".

I've been thinking a bit more about the ways that libraries connect with the community, and the language that we use to describe the relationship that librarians have with those who walk through the library doors.

C is for... customer. This term implies a retail-like relationship, where our product is information - be it in the form of books, magazines, music, news, or online access. We provide this product to the customer who pay for it with their taxes. If they're not happy with the product, they're sometimes quick to remind us that they've paid for it up front with their rates.

C is for... client. This term implies a service-like relationship, where we work to find information for them. They've come to us with a job to do, and we'll be judged according to the quality and timeliness of our service.

The problem with seeing library users as customers or clients is that it implies a one-way relationship. They come to us, and we give them what they want. However, developing this kind of dependent relationship is counterproductive - especially in a digital age where people are equipped with the means to succeed in locating and accessing information. And one of the central principles to libraries is that of life-long learning - NOT life-long getting-somebody-else-to-do-it-for-me!

C is for... counterpart. This term implies a collaborative-like relationship, where we work alongside others in order to achieve a common goal, which is an information-literate society with the skills to access and critically assess information, and share it with the wider community. We are not the gatekeepers, nor are we the indentured servants. We are the teachers who introduce and guide others through the world of information, so that they have the confidence to navigate it independently.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Five years from now...

First, to get you in the mood for this topic, a blast from the past...

Personally, I regularly have mixed feelings when it comes to the future of the library. I've been working in libraries for 15 years now, and whilst the nature of our services have changed, there doesn't seem to have been a huge shift in the way that people see and use libraries. They're still seen by the public primarily as a source of materials for loan - be they print or, more recently, digital.

So, I was thinking, where will libraries be five years from now? Or, more importantly, where will people be, five years from now? Here are a few thoughts...

1. With mobile technology becoming faster and cheaper, there will be less of a need to visit the physical library to access collections. Especially when there's a scarcity in print materials, but an abundance of digital material at your fingertips.

2. With a substantial number of people in the community who are non-native English speakers, there is a need, not only for collections in LOTE and English learning, but also for multi-lingual access points for them to locate these resources.

3. With the changes in technology, there will be a growing demand in supporting the lifelong learning needs of those who need guidance in using new technology, and developing information literacy skills for the digital age.

4. Whilst people may be less reliant on access to print literature, they still value the opportunities to connect with literary culture in society, and engage in discussion with authors and commentators.

5. Regardless of trends in technology, there are still many people in the community who cannot afford to, or do not wish to, engage in new technology, and still connect most comfortably with print information.

This is of course, hardly a comprehensive cross-section of the information needs of people in the future. However, there is some apprehension in the industry whereby, as people become more connected and more time-poor, they will cease to use the library, since borrowing books take unnecessary time and effort.

However, the reality is that, in five - even ten - years from now, there will be plenty of people who will rely on libraries to maintain their connection with information and the community. The thing is that the majority of work performed by library staff involves the selection, cataloguing, processing and circulation of print material. In my experience, this has not changed in the past ten years. If there is a decreased demand on print materials, then this can only be a good thing, as it creates more scope to make meaningful connections with people in the communities, not primarily a source of collections, but first and foremost a provider of guidance in connecting information with people who need it, so that they can have the skills to help themselves in the future.

Monday 23 June 2014

The Last Five Years

So, a couple of other #blogjune participants have been reflecting on where they were, five years ago, so I thought I would to.

Almost exactly five years ago, in June, I took my first solo overseas trip, and visited fellow librarian Romany in Vanuatu. She spent most of the year working as an international development volunteer at a school library. Whilst it was inspiring to see and visit people working in these projects, I never really thought I'd end up doing it myself.

Whilst I was in Port Vila, I visited a number of libraries. Because that's what you do when you're a librarian. I was definitely struck by the clear need for professional development in this field, but also encouraged by the positive role that libraries were playing in the community, promoting reading and healthy lifestyles, and that they were well-used by students.

The reference section - where they discourage smoking, but not Bob Marley.

I also visited the National Library, and found some interesting books

It was very much time of change for me. Several months earlier, I made the decision to move back to Melbourne after living in Darwin for two and a half years. I was fortunate enough to find some project-based work at the State Library of Victoria, and it was during this time that I spent in Reader Development and the Centre for Youth Literature that I decided that I wanted to specialise in youth literature programs.

It was my experience at SLV that gave me the attitude and the confidence to work as a school library manager soon afterwards, developing reader-centered programs and creating a space that welcomed students and encouraged them to share and enjoy their experiences of reading. It also promoted to teachers the idea that libraries didn't just have to be a place for silent study.

And so, after five years of working in youth and education programs, I find myself moving again - this time to international development and human rights awareness. And I can't help but think that if it weren't for inspiring people like Romany, five years ago, I might never have stepped on that plane and explored the world outside Australia.

Sunday 22 June 2014

New directions.

So, I'm three weeks into #blogjune, and I'm starting to feel the pressure. The problem with exploring the "issues" in the industry, is it often comes down to looking at the challenges that we face. And I've definitely felt that my writing has lately been fuelled by negativity and frustration, rather than positivity and inspiration.

Looking back at my initial post, I can see that this is something that I had hoped wouldn't happen. It's one of the reasons I stopped blogging about the industry. Using such an outlet for these frustrations, they can ended up dwelling in one's mind, and slowly consume all of one's positive energy and inspired enthusiasm.

So, it's time for a change of pace. I'm staging a blog intervention, and setting a few new rules for myself for my final week.

1. No complaining without suggesting a workable solution.

2. Approach the issues from an optimistic viewpoint.

3. Don't bemoan pitfalls without also acknowledging wins.

4. Don't blog about what librarians and libraries are; blog about what they do.

5. Don't blog about the profession; blog about the communities they serve.

Feel free to suggest any others!

Saturday 21 June 2014

Taking myself too seriously.

There are times when librarians are guilty of taking themselves too seriously and, like most professions, get fired up about the importance of what they do, how they're not given the professional recognition they deserve, and how some in the field are letting the profession down by propagating negative stereotypes.

I'll be the first to admit that I do it from time to time. The library and information profession is what I've devoted my life to, and I work hard at it, so of course it's important to me. It's frustrating when I see barriers in the industry that impede progress and innovation. It makes me angry when I see professionals losing their jobs or having their roles downgraded because of a perceived redundancy of their skill set.

But really, if these are the things that make me angry, then maybe I need to check my privilege. If the worst thing that happens in my life is that I'm under-appreciated for my skills and knowledge, then perhaps I don't really have anything complain about.

Because I have job security.

Because I have a strong support network.

Because I'm independent and don't have children to feed, or a mortgage to pay.

Because I have locks on the door, food in the cupboard and a bed to sleep in.

Because I don't have a disability or a terminal illness.

Because I can walk down the street at night, without worrying about the threat of sexual assault.

Because I'm not from a persecuted minority, where I could be attacked, tortured or killed, purely based on the colour of my skin, or the family that I came from.

And what right do I have to complain about libraries being closed, when the alternative might be education programs or health services that are cut?

There are times when I have so much doubt about any real importance or meaning in what I do.

Am I really helping the community, or am I just reinforcing antiquated values and knowledge systems that mostly just serve to keep me in a job, and provide free reading material to educated people who can afford to buy them anyway?

I mean, I've spent the past three weeks moaning about the trials of career progression in the information profession, when the reality is that it's all just one big first world problem. Perhaps I'm just perpetuating the stereotype of the redundant clueless librarian who is too buried in information to understand anything of the real world of today.

I suspect this is what happens when you set out to blog every day about libraries for a month. You lose perspective.

Friday 20 June 2014

Maintaining standards.

In my previous post, I alluded to an inconsistency in professional standards across the industry. Part of this is naturally due to contextual differences in practice across the sectors. However, in an ever-changing information society, there is also the issue of continuing professional development. How do we keep up with the changes and ensure that our practicise live up to professional standards as times change?

Our professional qualifications are accredited by the Australian Library and Information Association, who regularly assess librarianship courses to ensure that they are up to date. Graduates are able to become Associate Members of ALIA; professionally endorsed to practice in the industry. However, it doesn't stop there. Members who continue to regularly engage in professional development activities can become Certified Professionals. This means that if somebody graduated as a librarian 20 years ago, their CP status can show that their skills and knowledge are valid industry.

Continuing PD Is not a new concept - we all know that chartered accountants, nurses and teachers need to do it - it's mandatory - and it's something that is essential to maintaining professional standards and knowledge in thise fields. And yet, it's still very much underrated in the library and information industry. The librarians I know who do it are very much in the minority.

Why? Allow me to speculate, in list form, on some of the common excuses:

1. Employers don't demand it. In fact, I have yet to see a job description that indicates any value attachment to an applicant who has undergone CPD.

2. It requires ALIA membership, which costs quite a bit of money. Whilst most employers require their librarians to be eligible for ALIA membership, i.e. they've done the accredited course, professional membership itself is not required. (The argument for membership is another post for another day...)

3. Many don't see the point in spending hours of their own time engaged in irrelevant PD when they already know how to do their job by doing their job

4. Getting involved in CPD just reminds them of the things they wished they'd be doing, if only hey had more resources / funding / permission from their boss.

5. There is skepticism as to whether CPD is actually necessary to maintain professional standards. I mean, it's all about upholding principles, right? Those don't change, and we can learn new technology on the job as the work necessitates it.

Of course, it really comes down to two questions:

1. Do I have to?

2. What's in it for me?

The government has legally mandated requirements for their teachers to maintain their registration with VIT (though not their librarians, who do not need to be accredited with ALIA either). They have to do it, and also pay their substantial VIT registration fees.

I know this is a controversial idea, but if our governments were to make ALIA CP membership compulsory for all practising library and information professionals, then this would work to raise the professional esteem and profile of librarians in the industry. It might even force the sticks-in-the-mud to shape up or find their cosy retirement job somewhere else.

This, of course will never happen.

It would be nice to see employers put CPD on their selection criteria, but it seems that whilst the job market is difficult, they still insist on casting a wide net, and wouldn't want to filter out potential quality by restricting the pool to the few who have actually done the CP scheme.

So, how about incentives? Perhaps if ALIA were to offer their certified professionals with a discount on their associate membership, or to conferences?

That said, my feeling at the end of the day is that continuing PD is its own reward, and it will only benefit those who actually want to do it - making it compulsory won't necessary improve the situation, and discount incentives such as those suggested will only be used by those who were already going to be members / attend conferences anyway.

So, what's the solution?

Thursday 19 June 2014

The problem with "Not All..."

In the wake of the Isla Vista tragedy last month, there was a surge of articles identifying the role that misogyny and rape culture played in influencing Eliot Rodger's motives. To which, there was the predictable response of, "Hey! Not all men are misogynist would-be murderers! This was just some crazy guy." The problem with the "not all men" argument, is that completely misses the point - that we live in a culture where women often experience fear of assault or discrimination. The "not all men" argument is designed to indemnify the person who speaks it of any responsibility for the issue, rather than actually address it, and dismisses these fears as being unfounded.

On the flip-side, in Bendigo, there have been a vocal minority opposing the establishment of a local mosque, with opponents resorting to a campaign of intimidation and racial stereotyping - implying that supporting the Islamic community equates to supporting terrorism, paedophilia and domestic violence. To argue that "Not all Muslims" are these things would, undoubtedly, fall on deaf ears, as it doesn't actually address the fears and concerns that these opponents have for their community.

And I'm sure that it would be no consolation to the Islamic community to tell them that "not all people in Bendigo" are culturally-intolerant xenophobes, if they aren't afforded the same basic freedom to practice their faith as every other person in the community.

Which brings me to a comparatively-trivial comparison, but one that impacts on many professionals in the library industry. Arguing that "not all librarians" are socially diminutive, conservative, shushing bookworms, but in fact highly-qualified tech-savvy information wizards, does nothing to help the plight of the profession. Because the fact is that there are elements in the industry who do fail to live up to its professional standards or meet modern expectations of information management practices.

And arguing "not all librarians" is not the solution.