My Maverick Bar: A Search for Identity and the “Real Work” of Librarianship


Summer Interlude

Three years, twenty committees, twelve hundred instruction sessions, forty thousand monograph purchases, and half a million reference questions later, I’m at the point in this librarian job where I have enough experience to know how to get things done, and also enough to wonder, “What exactly am I doing?” The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, as they say.

I exaggerate the numbers, but the above four things do seem to encompass the majority of what I do from day to day. Of course there’s a wide variety of additional tasks that fill up my time in the office, from updating my library’s Facebook page to presenting at conferences. All these things combine into the work portion of my life. Is it a good job? Undoubtedly. Is it fulfilling? Usually. Fun? Sometimes. But I can’t help but wonder what it’s all for.

The danger of the summer lull, particularly for academic librarians — but perhaps for others, too — is that after the frenetic pace of the regular semesters, we suddenly have time to reflect. I call it a “danger” because it’s much easier to speed through life and work without asking too many questions. Questions can get you into trouble if you don’t like the answers. But then a little trouble isn’t always a bad thing.

My spring semester ended about a month ago. Immediately after finals I went on a lovely long vacation, and now I’m back at work, waking up early thanks to jet lag, and taking a little time to think and ask questions. After all, this year was my midpoint in moving towards tenure at my institution, a circumstance that required me to submit formal documents to my colleagues so that they could offer constructive feedback about my progress in this position. It seems fitting, now that I have been evaluated by others on my librarianness, that I do a little review of my own and decide what being a librarian means to me.

The Librarian Identity, or Lack Thereof

One of my favorite things about being a librarian, and an academic reference and instruction librarian in particular, is the variety: the variety of tasks and duties I’m responsible for, the variety of people I interact with, the variety of information and topics I deal with on a daily basis. The average day in the life of an academic librarian is notoriously difficult to pin down, since the list of potential tasks accomplished in a single day is seemingly endless. I enjoy knowing that every day I do something a little bit different and yet it all somehow fits under my job description.

On the other hand, it makes me wonder if my job description should be quite so broad. Not that mine is different from those of identical jobs in other places; it’s not. I greatly enjoy the many types of tasks that cross my desk on a daily basis, but I see a red flag, too, in the sheer yawning chasm of work before me. In the back of my mind is the nagging concern that my work might be oversized, unfocused, and possibly on the edge of unmanageable. Yet if I wanted to narrow it down to a few critical tasks, I’m not sure I could; too much else would be neglected or would get in the way. So I find myself asking, what’s at the core of it all? What is the real work of librarianship?

This last question brings to mind a poem by Gary Snyder, “I Went Into the Maverick Bar,” in which the main character of the poem adapts his appearance to fit in with the customers of a country bar in New Mexico. The real work of this poem, the work of coming to terms with place and identity, is far larger than any job, but if we shrink it down and tweak it slightly (with apologies to Mr. Snyder), the nature of the poem is still applicable.

Yes, I’m calling librarianship my “maverick bar.” Not literally of course, since our workplaces in no way resemble the bourbon-and-beer scene in the poem, but I have the sense sometimes that librarians are a little bit like those folks in the bar – a little displaced, not quite sure who they are or what they should be doing. Every culture has a life of its own beyond the individuals, and our library culture, too, is not quite native to where we now live. Libraries were built for a print-based culture of collecting and preserving, but that culture has shifted dramatically around us while we continue to dance, a little awkwardly, to the band.

Our search for identity is clear to me as the source of many younger librarians’ efforts over the past several decades to combat the “librarian stereotype.” Any culture that is so intent on making a sharp break from the recent past makes me suspicious.  I’m unable to accept that the inherent nature of librarianship has changed dramatically, even if it sports a nose ring and carries a smartphone. Then there are the varied, insistent, even desperate initiatives to redefine our buildings in ways that will continue to appeal to library users, campus administrations, trustees, and boards of directors. I’ll be first in line to admire these new buildings and renovations, with their polished work spaces and bright, airy environments, but these new buildings may simultaneously advance us even further on the path to identity crisis. They include less and less of any particular thing that one would identify as characteristic of a library. After all, what purpose does a bookless, wholly electronic library serve that distinguishes it from an overblown student center? In this article from the Mercury News, note the paragraph:

Libraries are the very heart of the research university, the center for scholarship. But the accumulation of information online is shifting their sense of identity.

Shifting their sense of identity to what, exactly? The article doesn’t say.

These days we’re better at knowing what we’re not (bun-wearing shushers) than putting our finger on what exactly we are and what we’re here for. Perhaps it’s this insecurity that causes librarians to try to do so many things all at once. We leap into social networks, digital repositories, and online services; we reconceive our collections; we become publishers as well as collectors; we reach out to our communities, campuses, and potential donors, stretching ourselves thin; we digitize; we redefine our jobs, and redefine them again; we rebuild, restructure, rearrange; we stand alert, ready for anything. And even when we are self-conscious enough to acknowledge our situation, we still don’t have any answers. In a blog post more than a year ago Bobbi Newman pointed to this problem, but rather than offering solutions she ends with the (admittedly potent) line, “We’ve got to change, and I mean really change.”

The urgency and the need for change is clear to all of us; what no one can seem to put their finger on is how to change. And that leads to more identity crisis and more desperate grabbing at the technologies, tools, and strategies that might work in the short-term. We’re running on the information hamster wheel; we simply can’t do everything. And rather than try to do it all, it might be better if we do, well, nothing for a while. You don’t tell someone hyperventilating in panic to run some sprints, do you? No, you give them a paper bag or some distraction, speak calmly, and encourage them to sit down, relax, and put their fear aside. Similarly, what libraries may need to do is stop, take a breather, release our fears of irrelevance and ask our patrons, campuses, administrations, donors — and yes, ourselves — what is our real work and what does it look like in 2010 and beyond?

If indeed libraries have become irrelevant in the age of the almighty Google — and I don’t think we have — wouldn’t you rather know than keep panting along on the hamster wheel, accomplishing nothing?

In Search of the Real Work

What librarians do have is a set of core values that serves as the backbone of our identity and draws together even those working in nontraditional positions. Increasing access to all types of information and all perspectives while protecting intellectual freedom and privacy; these are the values that unite us. I think every library student gets (or should get) a little rush upon first discovering the ALA Library Bill of Rights and realizing the larger issues that play a role in this field. If we boil it down, the major value expressed in this document is intellectual freedom, the full and equal access to all types of information for everyone. In my mind, this is one of the most critical roles a librarian can play. (Though I have heard some debate on this; for more, stay tuned for Ellie Collier’s post later this month).

The values that guide librarians don’t address the core tasks that cement these values to our daily lives in the field. While I would like to believe that my primary responsibilities reflect these values, I don’t knowingly achieve any goals related to intellectual freedom in my daily tasks. There is some gap between what I stand for as a librarian and what I do in practice, as all idealism shrivels a bit in the face of reality. I must please my boss, my tenure reviewers, my students, my campus administration. At a minimum, I hope my theory and practice don’t contradict each other.

I wonder, too, if there are common tasks across all librarians’ various job types, professional organizations, and institutions. I can’t think of any other career that has so many different manifestations of what work in that field might look like. I’m not sure whether to call it flexibility or lack of focus. Just think about the various titles that librarians work under: Emerging Technologies Librarian, Copyright Librarian, First-Year Services Librarian, Digital Initiatives Librarian, as well as all the ones that are more traditional and familiar. Not to mention librarians working in other information-related organizations that aren’t libraries.

A considered look backwards at the librarian’s primary roles throughout history is interesting in the effort to make meaning out of this. In “Tracing the Archetypal Academic Librarian,”  Stephen E. Bales compares academic librarian job duties during two periods of early history with those of today. After reviewing the activities that took place in libraries during the time of Assurbanipal (roughly 600s BCE) and Alexandria (200s BCE), Bales concludes that most of the primary roles of librarians have not changed over the course of several millennia: librarians from all periods of time have been involved in these tasks: identifying, selecting, acquiring, organizing, retrieving, conserving, and conducting some sort of scholarship. Bales is not the only one to note that librarianship, historically, has taken place largely behind the scenes, and this was still the case in the late eighteen hundreds.

No longer. Bales’ insights might be helpful if not for the fact that I do very few of these things as part of my daily work as an academic librarian in 2010. Not many librarians I know do much of this at all. In fact, the two things I spend a large proportion of my time on – outreach and teaching – didn’t even make the cut in Bales’ listing of major roles. Certainly in former millennia librarians had no interest in sharing their collections; documents were reserved for elite and wealthy scholars. Nor does Bales mention professional service outside of scholarship, which is a tremendous time commitment for many academic librarians. In my opinion, Bales’ historical assessment of librarian duties doesn’t really cut to the “real work” of the field today.

To gain a more modern perspective on the priorities of a librarian position, we can review evaluation documents from institutions that break out task areas into particular percentages. For instance, I happened upon a handbook from Florida International University Libraries (pdf) that prioritizes the work of an information services librarian in this manner:

35% Reference/Research Assistance
25% Information Literacy
15% Collection Development
5% Liaison
15% Non-Scheduled Activities (service, conferences, professional development)
5% Other Duties as Assigned by Department Head

While I don’t advocate trying to break down one’s work schedule according to this sort of math (think of all the grey areas), it does make it clear that answering questions and teaching are by far the top two responsibilities at this institution. That sounds about right to me. Of course, if we look closely at each of those categories we can see that they each encompass a wide range of more specific tasks. “Information Literacy,” for example, might include teaching (one-time workshops, for-credit courses, and perhaps additional sessions), assessment of current instruction, planning for future instruction, creating promotional and informational materials, etc. Although it’s just one priority area, I’m sure it could fill a full-time librarian’s work schedule all on its own.

It’s clear to most of us working in academic librarian positions – and probably all librarian positions – that the full array of responsibilities and duties our jobs encompass are simply not achievable in a regular work week. In case we thought it was just our imaginations, the University of California at Berkeley conducted a workload survey of their librarians and received 31 responses that indicated overwhelmingly that getting the work done is more than full-time commitment. It’s no surprise that Berkeley librarians largely felt obliged to work some evenings and weekends to keep up; even those in smaller institutions do the same. This makes it even more important to identify what our real work is, and to prioritize tasks in a way that empowers us to accomplish it.

Conclusions, Such as They Are

There’s not much discussion in the literature of librarianship, so far as I can tell, to answer my rather philosophical question about what our “real work” is. I have located books and articles about job duties and priorities, some of which I mentioned above, but little that attempts to dig to the core of our professional beings. Historically, I could argue that the real work revolved around collecting and preserving documents in the interests of greater knowledge. Today, although that is one piece of the work most librarians do, it has certainly been deemphasized.

The more I consider this question, too, the more I doubt that it could possibly have a rational, scientific answer. I relive that grad-school rush upon reading the Library Bill of Rights, which is about as real as anything I could point to in this field. I think about the deep, true gratification I enjoy when I manage to connect an interested, intellectual person with new information that contributes to their perspective on a topic. I think about my colleagues in academic libraries, and about my colleagues in public, school, and special libraries. Isn’t it true, in the end, that our real work is more about values than tasks?

And that greatest value of all, even beyond any document compiled by any professional association: Knowledge, with a capital “K.” I see no work in librarianship more real than the collection, protection, and dissemination of Knowledge, and the empowerment of others in means to acquire it. Although libraries historically were more about hoarding Knowledge than sharing it, our work has not otherwise changed much over the millennia. The internet, while making information more widely available, has simultaneously obscured true Knowledge and increased the importance of our real work.

This revelation doesn’t directly help me manage my workload and organize tasks, but it does help to keep me theoretically and emotionally grounded in my job. My real work is Knowledge. If I hold that goal in mind, the details of how I accomplish it on daily basis begin to fall into place. Some of my duties, like teaching, support Knowledge directly. Other tasks, like tracking reference questions, are not tied to that higher goal but are necessary for the reality of my workplace. If I want to continue in my job, I can’t just stop doing those less crucial tasks, but I can prioritize my efforts and save the best of my energy for the real work of librarianship.


Readers: I don’t speak for every librarian, just myself. What are your thoughts about the “real work” of librarianship? Your comments below are welcome.


Author’s Note, Or, A Confession and Suggestion for Further Reading: I’m embarrassed to say that I was unfamiliar with (or had forgotten) “The Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians” until after writing this post, but now that I have I strongly encourage anyone who is thinking about the real work of librarianship to read them. The document is an excellent, timeless vision of our field, and I nod to the wisdom of those who conceived it.


My thanks to the entire cast of ItLwtLP as well as Eric Frierson and Rachel Slough for their invaluable feedback on drafts of this post. I have never before had so many helpful and insightful responses to any single piece of writing, and I hope the results reflect it.

7 Responses

  1. Librarians tend to confuse means with ends. And while you’re close to identifying the core work, I’d phrase it as connecting people to knowledge. That is the point of what librarians do — connect people to the recorded knowledge that they need for a whole host of purposes — education, entertainment, community… In the print world, the best way to do this turned out to be to build big buildings, fill them full of stuff, organize the stuff well and preserve it. But over the course of a couple of centuries, we began to think that our core work was to collect, organize and preserve documents, and we lost sight of why we do that. Those tasks were never the point, they were just the means to a greater end.

    That end is just as important as ever, but as we move into the digital world, the means are radically different. Consider that all of the processes, procedures, systems, policies, staffing, etc., that underlie the daily work of the library in the print world are focused on tracking the movement of physical objects in and out of buildings. Now, we need to achieve the same greater good, but we’re no longer dealing with physical objects.

    Thus, it may well be that “libraries” as we have understood them, will become irrelevant as we move further into the 21st century. That may be a cause for a bit of nostalgic mourning among those of us who love the world of libraries that we grew up in, but in terms of the larger cultural and societal needs that librarians fill, there is no need for any gnashing of teeth. Librarians are more necessary than ever, because the information space has become so incredibly complex. I tell my staff that this is the best time in five centuries to be a librarian because we have the incredible opportunity to reinvent librarianship with a set of information tools that were literally unimaginable a generation ago.

    I wrote a post about this a couple of years ago that I think remains very relevant to this discussion: http://tscott.typepad.com/tsp/2008/08/libraries-or-li.html

    And I ended a presentation awhile back with this phrase: “It may be that the great age of libraries is ending; but the great age of librarians has just begun.”

  2. This is an extraordinarily insightful piece of writing and I thank you wholeheartedly for publishing it. Along with some 2 dozen others in (mostly downunder) libraryland I am currently engaged in a project called #blogeverydayofjune and while some of us are blogging on a personal level it is inevitable that the issue of professionalism and librianness has surfaced. Your piece will become a valuable part of that discussion (as I intend to bring it into said discussion post haste).

    I’ll also be looking up T Scotts reference as I found those comments equally inspiring.

    More than anything I’m grateful to be involved in a profession where I get to think about and act on these issues everyday: http://newgradlibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/getting-paid-to-have-fun/

  3. NAomi

    Real work begins when students start thinking and producing their own work! It’s the synthesis, evaluation, and reflection on the process that is our real work. The selecting and sorting and locating all gets the party started! I’m a new MLIS grad and I’m about to start a real job and discover the real world of librarianship!

  4. Melanie

    I don’t think you meant to do this, but at one point you seem to imply that all those primary roles that Bales mentions are no longer relevant, which is incorrect. I sit next to the people involved in identifying, selection, and acquiring; I myself am one of the organizing librarians, which is a big job all by itself; my cubicle is a few floors above the ones involved in retrieving and conserving. Scholarship happens based upon the choice of the individual librarian.

    Eventually this may change (I don’t really think so, but I admit the possibility), but at this point, all these duties continue to occur, regardless of whether the resource is physical or electronic. And you cannot do your job of sharing knowledge until all those other jobs have been done first. Thus my work is as fundamental to the purpose of sharing knowledge as the reference librarian who is actually engaged in conversation with the patron.

    There has been a major shift over the last few hundred years and more that has democratized access to information, which I think is a good thing, and has added to the work of the librarian. But that means that librarianship has added new roles, not that it has lost those historical ones.

    My identity as a cataloger is solid — to me, at least — because I know that regardless of format, information still needs to be organized and made accessible. (How can you use it if you cannot find it?) Computers still do not replace human beings, and until there is real artificial intelligence, they never will. The title may change, but the fundamental nature of what I do as a librarian has not changed.

    Maybe the difference in identity crisis is because you are in one of those “newer” roles for librarians. We’ve only been serving the general public for a few hundred years, and we are still figuring out what that means. In another few centuries, maybe we will understand ourselves better.

  5. Felix Chu

    This is something that I have also thought about over the years. I work primarily as a cataloger. My personal mission is: “I intend to be the best intermediary possible in connecting people and needed resources.” I was at a gathering recently where Nancy Foster, Director of Anthropological Research, River Campus Libraries of the University of Rochester said that perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking our users what they want, we need to understand how they do their work and help them do good work. What she said and what my personal mission says are the essence of what we do. As Kim said above, our roles (and technology) have changed and will continue to change, but we need to keep out focus on our values. Technology and our roles are the process of implementation.

  6. This is a wonderfully insightful post. I like what T Scott said about connecting knowledge to people: this is what drives me. Personally, I value knowledge, its preservation and access. Professionally, I value the role that knowledge plays in people’s lives and in the lives of society. And so, I see my primary role as bring people and knowledge together.

    Thank you, Kim, for sharing your thoughts and giving me something valuable to contemplate this morning as I travel across the country. =)

  7. I would add to what NAomi said on this excellent post: to me, what we do goes beyond connecting people and knowledge. Why do people seek information & knowledge? To create new knowledge. To me, our ultimate core function is facilitating the creation of new knowledge. If all we did was ensure people could find information, but they had no idea how to use that information effectively, I would argue that librarianship as a profession would have died off long ago.

    I would argue the various things librarians do, such as preserving and organizing and teaching how to effectively and ethically interact with existing information, are essential to the knowledge creation process, which in itself is essential to the functioning of any modern society. That core library value/function is not going away; it might even be argued that it’s importance (to knowledge creation, to facilitating societal improvements) might increase over time.

    Just my 3 cents…