Editorial: Our Philosophies of Librarianship
In brief: Members of the Lead Pipe Editorial Board reflect on their own personal philosophies of librarianship in response to Emily Ford’s recent article. What is your librarian philosophy? Let us know in the comments.
By Editorial Board and Brett Bonfield
In her August 2012 article, “What do we do and why do we do it?,” Emily Ford addressed the need for the library community to come up with a united, universal philosophy of librarianship, but acknowledged that “librarianship is so vast that one unified philosophy couldn’t possibly capture the enormity of impact we bring our communities.” This is certainly true, and her focus on cultivating a reflective practice in our daily work has led the Editorial Board to ask ourselves how we would answer, individually, the question posed in the title of her article. As a result, we would like to use this editorial to share our own personal philosophies of librarianship. As librarians at public libraries, universities, colleges, and community colleges, our philosophies are distinct yet overlapping in ways that may shed further light on what a single philosophy of librarianship might look like.
It is a common, often annual practice for teaching faculty to write individual teaching philosophies that encourage reflection and reconsideration of their perspectives on teaching and learning. As librarians, we can gain better understanding of our professional selves by writing and revisiting our philosophies of librarianship. We’re not the first to suggest this, as there are already wonderful philosophical statements out there from other thoughtful colleagues. For instance, here are a few highlights from librarians in three different library types:
- Academic librarian Rudy Leon reflects, “I believe the library is the beating heart of campus, by which I mean that at its most perfect, the library is the nexus of student learning and research, of faculty research for scholarship and teaching.”
- School librarian Ryn Lewis states, “More than any other facility or program in the school, the library functions as a place to extend student education beyond the required curriculum.”
- Public Librarian Chris “Six Foot” says, “my professional philosophy…is summed up in two words: intellectual freedom. For our nation to remain ‘wealthy’ it is imperative that our citizens have unfettered access to information.”
In reading statements of librarianship philosophy from librarians who serve in different capacities and work in different types of libraries, there are common themes that arise, most frequently instruction, access, and intellectual freedom. However, there is so much value and variety in the work librarians do on a daily basis, it can be challenging to boil it down and pinpoint exactly what, at its heart, gives our work meaning. Of course, Lead Pipe’s editors have never been ones to turn down a challenge!
When deciding to become a librarian there were several themes swirling in my head and also in the American consciousness. At the time, I was trying to save the world by serving as an Americorps*VISTA volunteer, running a book and reading program for elementary school students. But more importantly, my local public library, Multnomah County Library, was working with the ACLU, taking the federal government to court over the illegal aspects of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Being a fairly recent college graduate consumed by naive idealism, I became starry-eyed. What chutzpah! Librarians were after my heart. I knew it then: I was of their ilk.
I came to realize that libraries were the one institution in American society where people are treated as equals, where access to knowledge is open and welcoming, and where people are not afraid to call out and oppose injustice. While I am no longer as naive or as starry-eyed, I frequently bring myself back to this feeling: the idealism of positive change that benefits all.
Realizing that true change happens in measures of millimeters and inches, I’ve had to reign in it. My role as a librarian is to share with others my idealism; to educate people about our great need for information access, equity, and social justice; and to advocate for positive changes in my communities. This role spans from the daily minutiae of checking email to grander tasks such as strategic planning and futures thinking. I liken the work of advocating for change in scholarly communication and publishing processes to social justice. In fact, I explained open access to a faculty member as “social justice of the publishing world.” She immediately understood.
But it’s certainly not easy to maintain this idealism. I can and do get stuck in the daily grind. (I’ve even been known to lose my mojo.) In order to remain true to my idealism and belief in positive change, I maintain a practice of reflection and intention. For example, prior to teaching I set an intention for my class session. How will I be today? What do I want to work on and practice during this class? Following the class, I reflect. Was I true to my intention? Was I able to be who I wanted and how I wanted? If not, what happened and why? What can I do differently next time?
Bringing reflection and intention into collection development tasks or other library work is not as easy as with teaching and reference. Since I feel committed to equity and social justice, there is another concept that I use to help guide my work, one that complements intention and reflection: Love. I write and think specifically about the version of love presented and argued by feminist scholar and cultural critic, bell hooks. hooks approaches feminism and her daily work as a teacher and human as a work of love. She sees love as an equalizer.1 For me, love is a means to an end that allows me to be a partner in a community of equals.
The idea of approaching librarianship with love is abstract. Yet, when coupled with a daily practice of intention and reflection, I find that I am able to remain (mostly) true to my philosophy of love. Reflection and intention serve not only to keep me grounded in love, but also in my quest to further social equity. Love is my guiding philosophy, and reflection and intention are my practice. Together these three things allow me to work toward my goals: to foster and create information equity, access, and social justice; and to advocate for positive changes in my communities.
As librarians, our foremost responsibility is to increase well being as much as possible and for as many people as possible.
My standard answer about why I became a librarian applies to this situation: if I could help end deaths and suffering associated with HIV, if I thought I had the ability to further medical research or reduce harm, that’s what I would be doing. But medical research and harm reduction are not areas in which I am particularly talented. Assuming that librarians are capable of increasing well being in a meaningful way, then being a good librarian seems to be the way in which I am most likely to increase well being, both for the community that employs me and for everyone who could conceivably benefit from better libraries.
The definition of well being for HIV researchers is fairly clear: an increase in the number of people living longer, healthier, happier lives. By contrast, it’s difficult to define the elements of well being that can be increased by librarians, and to measure the increase in these elements that result from our work. What librarians can do is borrow from other fields of practice, and apply the literature within our discipline, to figure out how a library-inspired increase in well being might be sensibly identified and empirically measured. We can also use logic and precedent to identify activities that are unlikely to lead to a widespread increase in well being.
The Core Values of Librarianship, adopted by ALA in 2004, is a reasonable, comprehensive definition of librarians’ goals:
- Education and Lifelong Learning
- Intellectual Freedom
- The Public Good
- Social Responsibility
If librarians make decisions that fortify these values, it seems likely that we will increase well being significantly for many, and measurably for everyone, at least in the long term.
In the short term, there are people and firms that would benefit if we were to compromise our core values. For instance, a publisher might only agree to sell its books to libraries that are willing to ignore the precedents established by first sale and fair use. Or a professional society may demand that, in order for a university to maintain its accreditation for a given program, its library must spend so much of its budget on the society’s journals that the library can no longer afford to meet the scholarly needs of faculty and students who are not part of that program. In addition, this professional society may believe that its well being would be diminished if the library were to publicize the professional society’s refusal to offer a sustainable pricing model.
Echoing Immanuel Kant, libraries increase overall well being by asking, “what would happen if everyone acted this way?”
- Jenica Rogers increased overall well being not only by standing up to the American Chemical Society, but by doing so publicly;
- Cornell University Library increased overall well being by refusing to deal with vendors that require non-disclosure agreements;
- The MIT Libraries, working in partnership with MIT’s faculty, increased overall well being by helping to create a university-wide open access policy for all faculty research and by making “compliance with the policy as convenient for the faculty as possible”;
- The State Library of Kansas increased overall well being by exercising its right to maintain ownership of the ebooks it had purchased from OverDrive;
- The State Library of Georgia increased overall well being by creating a statewide integrated library system and releasing the code for that system with an open source license; Villanova University, which started VuFind, and the University of Virginia, which started Blacklight, made similar contributions;
- Douglas County Library and Ann Arbor District Library increased overall well being by creating and publicizing new ways for libraries to build their digital collections.
You don’t have to be a manager at a big library to increase well being for everyone. The small library where I work was one of the first to use Scriblio and one of the first to declare that HarperCollins titles are not worth purchasing as long as their ebooks self-destruct after 26 uses.
You don’t even have to employed by a library to make these commitments. Library school students started Hack Library School to increase well being for their fellow students; the Library As Incubator Project, which highlights the way artists and libraries can work together, was started by three students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison program. You can also do work on behalf of libraries that complements the work you’re employed to do. For example, Lauren Pressley published So You Want to Be a Librarian to help current and potential librarians, and now she and her publisher, Library Juice, are offering to release it with a Creative Commons license via Unglue.it.
Librarians help to educate people, we help them understand as much as possible about their own culture and others, and we help to redistribute opportunity by operating coops for relatively inexpensive, relatively infrequently needed, relatively durable physical and information objects. When, in the process of performing our duties, we consider what would happen if every other librarian followed our course of action, we increase the likelihood that our activities will increase overall well being, in the long term, for everyone.
Education is my great passion: I believe that the more we individually learn about the world and about those who share it with us, the more constructive and cooperative our society becomes. Research has reinforced this over and over again, from documenting the inverse correlation between educational level and criminal behavior to showing how higher levels of education increase political and social tolerance and lead to lower rates of unemployment and better-paying jobs. Education, in all its forms, allows us to grow and expand as individuals. Librarians are here to support that effort by providing access to varied materials, guidance in how to navigate and understand it, and an environment that cultivates learning. This is what drew me to librarianship, which I see as being defined — at its heart — by its educational role.
Speaking as an academic librarian and community college library director, you might suppose that I am biased based upon my own career path. That may be true. Still, I believe that all libraries are alike in this, regardless of user base or community. Of all the things we do, the most enduring, the most timeless, and the thing that will give us meaning and purpose long into the future — no matter what new technologies may come our way — is our teaching. In the provision and stewardship of information, we will always have competitors we can’t keep up with. Google, Wikipedia, our vendors, and their future counterparts will always provide information to our patrons in more constructive and creative ways than we will. Let’s face it: when it comes to providing access to information, they outpaced us at least a decade ago. It’s just too late to catch up. Instead, let’s focus on what we already do better than them.
I acknowledge that libraries as an institution have a broader purpose, but in every library, librarians exist to teach people how to access and use information. Our role as educators and teachers is what makes us unique. In short, I see the heart and soul of libraries in information literacy.
I also believe that librarianship is about people, both on the public services side and on the management side. I prioritize people over systems, reminding myself daily that computers are tools that serve us and not the other way around. If our systems don’t function as they should, if they freeze or break down, then we should set them aside and find other ways to accomplish our goals. When it comes to patrons, their needs are the most important of all, and I will shortcut processes and rules to answer those needs to the best of my ability. I encourage my team to do the same. When it comes to the internal environment at my library, I cultivate the positive. I treat people with respect; I don’t yell, criticize, or blame. I live by the “feedback sandwich.” If something goes wrong, we focus on how to fix it without worrying about who might be at fault. I want everyone who works with me to feel empowered and trusted to do their jobs with the greatest amount of freedom possible.
To accomplish our educational goals and support our internal and external communities, I believe it is critically important for librarians to be friendly, flexible, enthusiastic, accommodating, change-loving, and more than little technology-obsessed. The days of gatekeeping are gone; we have evolved from guards to guides and must adopt the demeanor to fit this new role. In my own teaching, I focus on the students: their needs, their assignment at-hand, and how I can point them in the right direction to get it done. When I’m in front of a class I will do what it takes to get and keep their attention: I’ll be energetic, conversational, and even silly. Above all, I will be human in the hopes that they will respond, in-kind, with their own humanity. Once that connection is made, they will not hesitate to come to me later — whether later in the semester or later in their educational career — when they need help.
People at my college frequently tell me that I’m not a typical librarian. My unwavering response is always “thank you.”
I became a librarian because there was nothing else to do. I had no undying love of “the book” or commitment to the ideals of access for all and the greater good of Knowledge. In fact, I will admit that I never really considered a career in librarianship as the end of my degree; it was merely a stepping stone toward the PhD that I swore I would go on to. Now as a brand new librarian, and the most junior member of the the Lead Pipe team, it would be easiest for me to reflect on a philosophy of librarianship that flows directly from my experiences in library school, but I don’t think that’d be very constructive either [see: Hack Library School]. How then would an unprincipled, pseudo-librarian, with barely a year of work experience express an answer to what I do, and why I do it?
I am still very much in process in my understanding of what it means to do this work. I know that it is important, and that access to information has incredible potential to affect society, culture, life-as-we-know-it, but I don’t know that I could say why I feel that way. Transitioning from a student to a professional, I have been very clear that everything that “the job” has entailed for me thus far (in a very new, non-traditional area of librarianship) has been uncomfortable and that I’ve constantly felt underprepared and less than competent. But, aside from my own insecurities, the one thing that makes the most sense to me when considering the question at hand is the very simple truth that you, my colleagues and peers, believe wholeheartedly that librarianship matters.
I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people I look up to for their conviction, professional ethics, and passionate spirit. The writers that worked with me to build and found Hack Library School are the bravest and proudest people I’ve had the honor to work with, and that makes me want to do what I do. The Editorial Team of the Lead Pipe, a group I revered early on for their wit, grit, and talent, still surprise me with the breadth of their understanding of this field that we share and how it fits in this wide world. Those who have been working in the areas of scholarly communications and open access for years — Ada Emmett, Kevin Smith, Peter Suber, Heather Joseph — are constant reminders that this work is good work, necessary work, useful work. Were I to construct a philosophy of librarianship now, as an early career librarian, it would be no more than a list of names, those that I respect and look up to who have welcomed me to the ranks and take the time to say hello and ask my opinions.
I’m a big fan of mentorship, and yet couldn’t say that I have a mentor to point to. I’d like to think that a lot of what I’ve done as a n00brarian is prompted by the fact that I want to inspire that mentee who hasn’t discovered a direct connection with a mentor either. The gladdest day of my professional life will be when a colleague says that they chose to be a librarian because my convictions and commitments to access and knowledge were utterly convincing. Ask me my philosophy of librarianship on that day, and I’d wager it’ll be more fully realized. Until then, I have a long list of names to explain what I do and why I do it. Your name is probably on that list, too.
- For a brief introduction to these ideas, this blog post from Ms. Magazine will help. Also, read bell hooks’s primer on feminism, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. [↩]
I think the point about the difference between a united, universal philosophy of librarianship and personal philosophies of librarianship needs to be explored a bit more. I know that the individual views presented here don’t preclude the idea of that universal philosophy that Emily originally sought. But it would be really great, maybe in a coming article, to place some of these individual ideas in dialogue. None of the authors really disagrees with any of the others, but in stopping with the personal, I feel like we aren’t getting any closer to the universal, and I remain very interested in that. And there are some really good points here that could easily apply to an overarching idea of librarianship. I especially like how Emily touches on the concept of love. She’s right that it’s an abstract concept. Nebulous too. (There’s a reason the Greeks had three words for love). But love is simultaneously a universal conception and also applicable to libraries. Just think about how the concept of conversations is currently applied in library literature and practice. Conversation leads me directly to relationships, and from there it’s not too far to love. That’s the kind of thing we could use as a foundation for this philosophy.
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I find Micah’s philosophy-in-progress to be really refreshing. When I was in library school, I found the incredibly idealistic champions of the library-types to be overwhelming, and honestly, I couldn’t help but feel badly about my lack of a well-formed philosophy sometimes. I’m a new librarian too, so it’s reassuring to hear that finding your philosophy is a work-in-progress.
Thanks for the support Sab. I’ve found that my ideas are evolving ever more quickly after being “on the job,” so I think its perfectly reasonable to expect our understandings of the work to grow as we do. We can be idealistic and high-achievers without necessarily having a library-centric worldview, and I think that it part of what makes this profession great – the vastness of experience that can be had.
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