Why Librarianship?

I was chatting recently with a friend and fellow librarian, and mentioned that my 16-year-old niece is considering librarianship as a career alternative. “Really?” my friend replied “I don’t know that I would encourage that –- in fact, I’m not sure I would go into it myself now. Is librarianship still relevant?”

That conversation, coupled with the invitation to contribute to SLAW, has given me a chance to really think about the relevance of librarianship. Is there a future for the profession?

According to the New York Times, librarians have never been cooler. Friends in the know at UWO and U of T report that enrolment in the library sciences is increasing. A quick e-mail to a newly graduated librarian elicited this response:

To begin with, I got to the point around my 3rd year of undergrad where I needed to consider this [career options]. I had one prof trying to groom me for a PhD program in the UK in a totally obscure historical field. It would have been fascinating, and probably fun, but would have left me no good to be anything else other than a university professor – and an incredibly marginal one at that. I thought about this and realized that I didn’t want to become that highly specialized and end up limiting my horizons so early into my 20s. Furthermore, the prospect of spending the next 20+ years fighting for tenure, research grants and with my colleagues just didn’t appeal to me. I thought about continuing with poli sci, but couldn’t really see the point – again fearing the clank of a large lock on an Ivory Tower.

So, I sat back and thought about what I liked and what I was good at. Conclusion: I was organizationally minded, enjoyed the challenge of research, was tech-savvy & generally just loved learning.

I realize that as data-gathering exercises go, this one is woefully unscientific. But I’m sure that the explanation given above has resonance with many of us -– “I don’t want to lock myself into a narrow specialty. I want to learn, and I want to work with information and ideas.”

As the pace of growth of information accelerates, we need people who are trained in gathering, assessing and redirecting it to users and to repositories. Who better than someone who is trained to be inquiring, obsessive about detail, and who keeps the long-term value of information foremost in mind? Having access to this mind-set frees those in other professions (law, medicine, IT, teaching, whatever) from having to worry about issues which may not be foremost in their minds, but which could pose a long-term risk for their organizations if not addressed.

Are we graduating the type of professionals we need? I’m not certain. An interesting conversation with our summer student indicates that “classic” books-and-research librarianship is the attraction, not the “Access databases-and-information-architecture” crowd that I was expecting.

Although Information Systems courses appear in the catalogues of Ontario’s “library schools” , there is no requirement to take them. Based on my own experience and career path, it’s essential for us to graduate librarians who embrace technology, have the insight to evaluate new technologies to assess their value and application in their organizations, and who can contribute to the design and delivery of technology-based services. According to several younger librarians I know, we’re not there yet.

The Nexgen library Usenet group recently hosted a similar discussion. Several students asked what technology they should learn in order to be credible candidates for library jobs. Some of the suggestions from the discussion included familiarity with HTML, XHTML, SQL, CSS. While I’m not certain that the average librarian needs to be expert in any of these languages (after all, that’s what third-party editing packages are for), I would argue that a minimum, the reader should at least know what all these acronyms stand for! (They should also live by the rule that you have to reboot a recalcitrant computer three times before calling the help desk, and be able to calmly describe the problem and corrective steps taken).

So, I guess I’ll continue the campaign to have my niece follow me into a profession which I have found to be endlessly engaging, confident that she will develop attitudes and abilities which will serve her well throughout her professional life. And perhaps I’ll encourage her to tilt her learning, where possible, toward learning how information systems work, to developing a comfort level with the IT vocabulary, and to understanding the machinery which powers the Information Age.


  1. I’m glad to see another excellent columnist added to the all-star SLAW cast.

  2. Cynthia Simpson

    Is it really true that Information Systems is not yet a required course at library school? Perhaps I shouldn’t comment without checking out some of the course calendars but it’s time to move our library schools out of the dark ages (and by that, I mean the 1980’s when I graduated!)

  3. According to Judy Dunn, at a KM session on May 2 there is now at UofT much more emphasis on information systems and the application of new technologies, and interestingly a requirement that a graduate must assemble an e-portfolio of work compiled through the courses.
    UofT is renaming its faculty the Faculty of Information.

  4. On June 27, the One Big Library Unconference will be hosted by York University. One of the sessions, proposed by Dave Pollard, is to examine the training of librarians. I really, really hope that the group decides to opt for this session.

    I think that there’s alot to discuss in this area. I know that programs are under constant evaluation and redevelopment. I think it would be fruitful to have a discussion about the skills we need to emphasize in our new grads.

    At a conference or workshop some years ago, I overheard someone remark that it might be time to increase the analytical skills (business literacy), so that librarians will be equipped right from graduation to add value to the information they’re retrieving. What other disciplines can we look to for insight? FIS has already drawn the archives/RM stream into the faculty, allowing students to “cross-pollenate” ideas and perspectives.

    The next question, of course, is: What drops off the table? No more cataloguing? (Don’t hold your breath, kids, metadata, taxonomy and ontology development are big business right now).


  5. tho it was a Ph.D. level course at western, i’d put in a plug for the ‘political economy of information’. the perspectives gleaned have been helpful to me in dealing with issues from copyright to determining the ROI of an information service within an organization (and hence being able to justify it to the powers-that-be).