Thursday, July 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/8: Theory and Practice

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” — attributed to Yogi Berra
One day, while working in the library during graduate school, I had a minor run-in with one of the staff, a subject bibliographer (thankfully not my boss). I don’t remember any of the specifics of the incident except that it had something to do with a suggestion I made about connecting my work in the library with what I was learning in library school. This practitioner of the craft (or art) of librarianship wanted nothing to do with my proposal or the faculty connected with the school. She was rather heated in her remarks and I was taken aback by the ferocity of her response. It was clear to me that she had no interest—at least in this case—of mingling theory with practice, a position I felt unjustified on her part. Perhaps she was just having a bad day. But then who was I, a wet-behind-the-ears librarian wannabe, to suggest such a thing to an exalted professional. It was a mildly numbing experience. The fact that I still remember the occasion means it made an impression; it is not how I would want to treat a budding professional. I still think she was wrong (in any number of ways). It would have been (and is) a good thing, perhaps a great thing, to connect the classroom with the workplace.

At the same time I realize the limits of such desire, of a classroom confined by resources, facilities, or curricular direction. As an example: for the past six years I’ve taught a course on preservation and conservation at St. Catherine University as an adjunct faculty member in their graduate library and information science program. The absence of an onsite conservation lab combined with my own inexperience in actual “bench work” forces me to construct the syllabus in such a way as to emphasize managerial or planning aspects of preservation as opposed to actual hands-on experience. If my students want to learn how to rebind a book then they’re in the wrong class. However, they will be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with a conservator and know what a well-provisioned conservation lab or bindery looks like.

Part of this relates to styles of learning and what makes something “stick” in one’s mind. I’ve rarely read an instruction manual for computer software (which perhaps dates me to a time when software actually came with printed manuals). Remember such word-processing gems as MultiMate or WordStar, or my favorite flat file database program PC-File by Buttonware? It made more sense to me to dive in, see how the software operated, what it did, and then ask questions at the point of need (and receive useful answers from whatever “help” functions were attached to the program). For a few of these programs I became the “expert user” at work because I knew (and had experienced) all the little nuances the software could offer (or throw at me); it was my version of a computer game. As a result, I was sometimes targeted by others to assist them when problems arose (occasionally resulting in late night phone calls from harried colleagues, something that gave me an appreciation for those who work in “technical support”).

Some things make more sense when you can see or touch them. It was fine to discuss archival theory in class but what made it really “click” was when, as part of a 120 hour practicum, I was face to face with boxes of material and told to create a finding aid for the collection. One of my most treasured professional possessions is a copy of a memo written by my practicum supervisor to my archives administration professor (in order to change a grade from “Incomplete” to “A”). Writing about me the supervisor said: “His ability to communicate the required information within our format was as natural as any intern I’ve handled. I seldom had to change a word on the inventories he prepared.” My supervisor gave me a copy of the memo years later when we become colleagues. How’s that for a collegial way of rolling theory and practice together?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

30th Year Reflections/7: A Balkanized Smörgåsbord?

"It is not enough to offer a smorgasbord of courses. We must insure that students are not just eating at one end of the table."
A. Bartlett Giamatti
I’ll admit to becoming jaded when it comes to much of what passes for “library lit.” One of the benefits, therefore, in writing these reflections comes in the push (or dare I say shove) back into the professional literature—including blogs—looking for something fresh and meaningful. I stumbled across one such blog—“Sense and Reference: a philosophical library blog” by Lane Wilkinson—while scanning American Libraries Direct, a useful newsletter that arrives weekly via email compliments of my American Library Association membership. In a recent post Wilkinson remarks: “One of the things that bugs me most about librarianship is the endless fragmentation and cordoning-off of various librarian ‘types’….I could list off the various combinations all damned day but, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a librarian and you probably already know that the profession suffers from some pretty severe Balkanization….” He goes on to offer an alternative mode of professional identity: “In contrast, I think that by defining librarians as experts on the social transcript, we can create a more inclusive environment.”
I think Wilkinson is on to something in the notions of a social transcript and inclusivity, but for now I want to focus on the first part of his argument: the fragmentation of the profession. The process starts in library (or “information”) schools through the inevitability of choice and class electives following whatever core courses are required in the curriculum. The electives, tracks, or specializations present an academic smörgåsbord more plentiful than in my day, a table groaning with new and exotic delicacies. For example, were I looking at the University of Michigan’s program today the following specializations would be spread before me: archives and records management; community informatics; human computer interaction; information analysis and retrieval; information economics for management; information policy; library and information science; preservation of information; school library media; and social computing. On the curricular front we seem to be adding more dishes to the table and wanting the meal to last a bit longer. One member scanning the buffet put it this way: “What is needed by the typically disparate body of library school students is the completion of a rigorous and intellectually challenging two year MLS program that covers, broadly as well as in depth, many aspects of library and information science and provides adequate time for sound specialization.” In the process of adding more specializations, more tasty offerings, we may be dividing the meal and preventing those seated near it from enjoying the whole feast; we seem content at our end of the table. The meal gets even more interesting (and perhaps more querulous) when “feral professionals” come to the table.  “The new professional groups [i.e. those not trained and socialized in the library profession] have been ‘raised’ in other environments and bring to the academic library a ‘feral’ set of values, outlooks, styles, and expectations. What is the impact of these staffing strategies in such areas as employee relations, training, management, and leadership?” Under such conditions what are the prospects for a happy meal, a joyous feast?
When I came to the table long ago and mulled over the menu (i.e. future career possibilities) the offerings from the kitchen were the professional equivalent of the four basic food groups: school, public, academic, or special. (Now even the food groups have changed; there are more than four.) In a simpler day, my taste was for academic libraries; I liked the ebb and flow of the year, the collegiate environment, the type of people I would encounter and work with, and the materials I would steward. Such was my choice. It has been my bread and butter ever since. But the question remains: what other parts of the table should I visit, what other dishes enjoy?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

30th Year Reflections/6: Priorities

“It’s what our fathers taught us.” — Leo McGarry, “The West Wing”
I’m still laying the foundation to my reflections by recounting early days in library school. But let me jump ahead to the present and pin a note to the board, one lesson that took a long time to learn, and which shouldn’t be left for a later time.
A month ago the annual Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) pre-conference kicked off in San Diego and I wasn’t there. The RBMS meeting is my premier annual professional development and networking event. It has been for nine of the past fourteen years. So I grimaced a bit at the answer a colleague gave when I asked him about the conference: it was one of the best he had ever attended. (I saw similar comments in Twitter feeds as I followed the proceedings from a distance.) I was not a happy camper. But I made my choice in not attending, one that I didn’t regret, and will live to attend another RBMS gathering. (We’re the host for next year’s event, so it shouldn’t be an issue.) The decision not to attend is one of many made over the last three decades. Some decisions were easy to make, or were taken completely out of my hands by factors such as lack of funds, time, or competing—and relatively more important—events. The remaining decisions meant weighing priorities and options. Perhaps it has taken thirty years to realize this (I can be slow at times), but most of those priorities and options fall into one of these categories: community, faith, family, health, or vocation. These are my categories; you may (and should) have your own. I urge you to construct such a list. Life is more satisfying when the categories are clear and the priorities in order.
It was not always the case with me. It was easy, for instance, when I lived two blocks from work to come home after a full day, wolf down some supper, engage in some quick conversation with my spouse (and later my family), and then head back to the office for another three or four hours of work. And it was easy to work at home, sequestered at my desk (or dining room table) on an urgent project, oblivious to all around me. (The examples could go on—I’m not going to beat myself up—but you get the idea.) At some point in my career work was everything. It was how I defined myself and my relationship to the profession. But I was wrong; my priorities were out of order.
One of my favorite television shows of all time is “The West Wing.” In a first season episode entitled “Five Votes Down” there is a scene between Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and his wife, Jenny. Leo, forgetting his wedding anniversary, tries to make amends by arranging a special dinner at home, one that he misses due to a late night at the White House. He tries to explain the situation: “This is the most important thing I'll ever do, Jenny. I have to do it well.” Jenny responds, “It's not more important than your marriage.” To which Leo emphatically counters: “It is more important than my marriage right now. These few years, while I'm doing this, yes, it's more important than my marriage. I... I didn't decide to do this myself, Jenny. There were many discussions.... I'm five votes down, Jenny! And I need to win....” In the end Jenny leaves; the marriage is at an end. Leo’s priorities, from my perspective, were out of whack.
I never forgot an anniversary, but I didn’t always make time for things that were most needful. Priorities need to be clear and in the right order. In my case faith, family and health take precedence over everything else. It was not any easy lesson, but it is my own; you’ll find your own balance. My sister and her family were on vacation, visiting home the same week that RBMS was scheduled. For me, finally, it was a “no-brainer” decision to be here with them.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

30th Year Reflections/5: Ski-U-Mah

“Minnesota, hats off to thee! To thy colors true we shall ever be, Firm and strong, united are we. Rah, rah, rah, for Ski-U-Mah, Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah for the U of M. — the “Minnesota Rouser”
Which schools should I consider? It is a question I face each time a student asks me about the library profession. I always try to frame my answer by asking the student more questions: what are your interests, how flexible are you in terms of location, where do you want to work, what type of library and associated work appeals to you, etc. In my case the decision was fairly simple. I considered only two library programs for graduate school: Michigan and Minnesota. The narrowing of my choices was really a question of geography and my affinity for “Big Ten” schools. At the time of applying I lived in Michigan and was thus entitled to resident tuition. According to various informants Michigan had one of the best programs in the country. I had no doubts about receiving an excellent education there. But two things gave me pause and stifled my application: the idea of living in Ann Arbor (an unreasonable bias, I’ll admit) and a residency requirement in the application that committed me to living in the state for a least two years following graduation. Neither proposal appealed to me.
Minnesota, on the other hand, would bring me back to the land of my birth and close to family. And the family had strong ties with “the U.” My father and various other relations were all “Golden Gophers.” One uncle worked in the library during his undergraduate days. The Minnesota program was not as strong as Michigan’s but it offered the Twin Cities as a backdrop with no residency requirements following graduation. Maroon and gold ran in my blood; I was a child of ten thousand lakes; my family immigrated here, settled and worked the land. The pull was too great to overcome. In the end family and tradition won out over strength of program. I still remember leaping and hollering for joy on the shore of an Upper Peninsula lake when the letter arrived informing me of my acceptance into the school. Tuition, however, remained a problem for one classified as a non-resident. I solved this in fairly neat (and surprising) fashion by successfully arguing to the Registrar (or whoever made those decisions) that although a resident of Michigan my permanent address was in Minnesota, with my parents. Finding the money for tuition was another matter. A friendly banker and a parental co-signed loaned took care of the problem. It was, even in 1980s dollars—and long before universities engaged in annual tuition gouging, I mean increases—a fairly cheap education.
And so I came to Minnesota. I would consider my options differently today. I would place more weight on the strength of program, the opportunities for internships or practica, and the program’s success in assisting graduates with employment placement; look more closely at the faculty, their research interests and publications; examine alumni, their success and career tracks, and places of employment; put less weight on location, although still consider the area, cost of living, housing, transportation, and cultural offerings. But then all of these considerations, and others, come through hindsight, gained through experience. I wasn’t thinking in those terms when I applied, although I should have. But I was content. Studies and work engulfed me. Wrapped up in classes and working in one of the main libraries as an assistant to various subject bibliographers, I was learning to be a librarian. What I didn’t expect, and what occupied a good part of my second year in school, was a political education. Even though the school had recently been reaccredited by the American Library Association, it was under threat from University officials. In the end I graduated from a school that no longer exists, one of a few that fell during the same time. But that is a tale for another time (and a bit more research on my part).