Do You Know What Librarians Know?
Librarians know things! This was brought home to me when I read The Oxford Guide to Library Research by Thomas Mann and the The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating by Steven Kerry Brown. Like private investigators, librarians have a body of tangible knowledge that is unique to us. For a private investigator, tracking people down starts with knowing which resources to use; certain databases are better for certain queries, while for some it’s best to deal with other people. Part of a PIs trade is knowing which is which. In seeing libraries as community centers and librarians as generalists, we often forget that a degree in library science (an MLS, or MLIS) is meant not simply as a path to a professional job, but as a symbol that librarians have specific knowledge, and that knowledge is real.
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It’s true that anyone can develop their research skills by reading Thomas Mann’s book, and yet most people don’t. Instead, they go to the library and ask questions. Because I took some useful courses in library school and have plenty of experience understanding the information landscape, I can determine what that person needs. Then I can use my knowledge of specific reference books, databases, organizations, and how to discover these resources, to point the person in the right direction.
Our proficiency with search is a skill (some would call it a superpower), our ability to recognize a search result is good and useful is also skill, so is our finesse in helping patrons understand their own needs — and this is just one area of tangible knowledge that is related to serving the public. And out of the public’s sight, a cataloger’s knowledge of bibliographic control, an IT person’s knowledge of online catalog systems and circulation software, an acquisition librarian’s knowledge of collection development principles are all unique to librarianship and vital to the functioning of a library.
People trust library workers to have the skills to help them with their research and other needs, often without thinking about what those skills are specifically. To help bridge that information gap, here are a few examples of what librarians do, and the knowledge that helps them get there:
What we do: Create booklists, subject guides, and resource sheets on specific topics, genre, or concepts.
What we know: How to find, evaluate, select, and present quality specialized sources in response to an identified community need.
What we do: Organize a video game tournament for local teens.
What we know: How to encourage healthy, competitive interaction in diverse adolescents. Also, as it were, that video games and literature are not mutually exclusive activities; both can be beneficial in building critical thinking and social skills.
What we do: Present a patron with government documents that contain information crucial to their research.
What we know: The scope of government publications, how they are organized, and where to access them. There are actually government documents librarians who are subject-matter experts in this area.
What we do: Teach a beginners computer class.
What we know: How to recognize a community need, plan learning outcomes, market to a specific demographic, deliver a presentation, assess student achievement, and adapt future classes.
What we do: Present a storytime.
What we know: What books, fingerplays, songs, felt-board stories, etc. are suitable for each age-group, methods to engage reluctant participants, how to model and explain healthy developmental activities to caregivers, and more.
It’s these sorts of things I think about when I hear talk of replacing library workers with volunteers (I’ve written about this before) or laying off library staff. Sure, most people could do basic clerical tasks like putting bar codes on books, checking them in and out, and shelving them in order when they return. And if those were the only requirements of running a full service library I would hang up my hat and find a different profession. But library work is a lot more than that, and that requires specialized knowledge and skills.
Reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, I not only found out how easy it is to get someone’s social security number, I also got a sense of the of the information landscape around personal information. It’s a visceral feeling to know how quickly someone can “have your number,” but in considering what a PI knows, that’s not the point.The relevant difference between private investigators and librarians is that no one is trying to replace them with volunteers; most members of the public aren’t going around telling private investigators that they can do the job better. Most people realize that they don’t have the right knowledge and skills.
The reason they don’t have the same feeling about librarianship is that they rarely think about what librarians know. And while talking about what we know may not be as exciting as promoting what we do it’s important because, when libraries are attacked by misguided politicians and anti-tax fundamentalists, we all want to be crystal clear about the irreplaceable expertise that will be lost should they succeed.