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?

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