Thursday, August 30, 2012

30th Year Reflections/13: Ethics

“As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.” — Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

I have to admit that it has been some time since I’ve reviewed the ALA Code of Ethics. This is not good professional practice; it is a document that should be reexamined annually (if not consulted more often, pinned to a bulletin board, or taped on a wall or window near our desk, always at hand). Perhaps we should build such a review into the performance evaluation process we go through each year at our place of employment. It is not the kind of professional statement we should ignore or tuck away in a desk drawer and forget about until faced with a crisis.

So now, having confessed my professional sin, I am faced with a question: why did I ignore the code? Was it because I was so certain, given my years of experience that the code automatically coursed through my being? Was it an act of pride or a belief that I knew what was expected of me in any given situation? Was it because I have been freed from ethical conflicts and therefore had no need to consult the code? Or was it (more likely) a case of professional sloth? And if so, what can be done to remedy the situation?

There may be at least one mitigating circumstance that I can point to that in some way gives truth to the statement that the code did, indeed, run through my veins. (For a brief history of the code I suggest some additional reading.) That truth is rooted in the teaching, understanding, and wisdom that I experienced at the feet of David K. Berninghausen (1916-2001) in classes taken from him while at Minnesota’s library school. Berninghausen was the founder and long-time chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. His book The Flight From Reason (ALA, 1975) is a must read for any professional. He was seen by some of his contemporaries as “a young turk” and “more radical than many of the established leaders” of the profession. Yet, as Elliott Kanner observed in an October 2002 tribute in American Libraries:

Despite being the consummate idealist and perfectionist in his work, Berninghausen was always warm and humane. "Love, compassion, empathy, consideration for others, brotherhood, all these will help men to live together with other men," he said. "But man's survival and welfare are contingent upon his preservation of the principle of intellectual freedom.” I owe him so much, as do we all.

As do we all. This is why I need to keep the ALA Code of Ethics in front of me at all times. One can still hear echoes of Berninghausen in the current code:

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

Ethical concerns come our way almost every day. DKB was a mentor. It is good to hear his voice again. And wiser still to pay attention to a set of principles that mean so much to the profession.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

30th Year Reflections/12: Identity Crisis

“The identity crisis for librarians has undoubtedly had a subtle but important influence on the collapse of library schools….In most institutions of higher learning, library schools have suffered greatly not only from how they perceive themselves but also from how they are perceived by other parts of the institution. They apparently have been easy prey.” 

— Larry J. Ostler, Therrin C. Dahlin, and J. D. Willardson, The Closing of American Library Schools: Problems and Opportunities (1995)

For the past couple of weeks I have been engaged (primarily during lunch, on the bus, and during any other free time I can carve out) in some basic background reading and research as I start to flesh out the story of the demise of my graduate professional school. By 1982 the University of Minnesota library school was in a coma and would linger on life support for three more years before it expired. An earlier post made passing reference to the time I spent—along with other students, many more active than I—fighting to keep the school alive. Obviously, we lost the fight. Now, in retrospect, what strikes me as I review the literature from the time—yet does not surprise me—is how much energy the library profession spent (and continues to spend) on questions of professional education and identity.

Education and identity issues are too complex to address in a short post such as this. But let me lay down a few contemplative markers (in no particular order):

1. Early library education was rooted in a philosophy that stressed technical proficiency. This philosophy dominated library education for at least a century. Is this still the case?

2. A dissenting and minority voice called for liberally educated students and a greater emphasis on theory (as opposed to practice). Is this voice still in the minority?

3. We are identified by some (outside and inside) the profession as service providers. We are also identified primarily as a female profession, comparable in some ways to nursing or teaching. What difference, if any, do these distinctions make?

4. According to some within the profession it is difficult, if not impossible, to build professional theories around a notion of service.

5. At some point in the past there was a split in the profession between public and academic practitioners. Is the profession, in terms of areas of practice (and theory), even more fragmented today? If so, is this detrimental to both issues of education and identity?

6. The profession is seen by some as a second career option, possibly a fallback position if original career trajectories are stymied. On a related note, the profession has opened itself to “feral” candidates who do not possess the traditional master’s library degree. What impact, if any, does this have on professional education and identity?

7. At its core is the profession “reactive” or “proactive” in relation to external forces such as the economy, higher education, technology, or government policy?

Shortly before the University of Minnesota library school entered its final slide toward death it was diagnosed by a number of groups. The American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation gave the school a clean bill of health. University administrators, internal review panels using outside experts, and faculty outside the school were less charitable. The school, they said, was isolated, unproductive, and behind the times. Was this a smokescreen created by administrators to hide behind while they dealt with real financial pressures facing the university? Was the school “easy prey”? Who provided the more accurate diagnosis?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

30th Year Reflections/11: Always a Student

“The safest thing for a patient is to be in the hands of a man involved in teaching medicine. In order to be a teacher of medicine the doctor must always be a student.” — Charles H. Mayo

 I started this post thinking I would use a well-worn quote from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists” (found within his Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1903, page 230): “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” But the quote has been so abused and misconstrued—with teachers unjustly bearing the brunt of the criticism—that I settled on this quote from Mayo (although its origin is perhaps even more clouded in mystery) that gets to the heart of this week’s reflection: we must always be a student. The day we think we know it all is the day we’re done—finished, kaput—as a professional. Hubris is deadly. Wisdom comes cloaked in humility.

If we’re fortunate in successfully navigating our way through even one small portion of the continuum of knowing—from information to knowledge to understanding and, finally, wisdom—without an “Icarus moment,” then perhaps at the end of a day (or a career) others might pronounce our work good, our learning sound. Ultimately, it is not for us to decide the quality of our own work, no matter how well we think of ourselves or our efforts.

Early in my career I thought it would be a good idea to weed the library collection. More than a few of the books were outdated, my dean—anticipating an upcoming accreditation visit—also thought it was a good idea, and the professional literature provided plenty of guidance. And so, with the proper criteria established, our small staff began to weed. It was more than we bargained for and as we got deeper and deeper into the project it became clear that I had not thought through the whole process, regardless of how well the literature guided me. I forgot to factor in human aspects such as fatigue and “buy-in.” My staff nearly mutinied. At the start I thought I knew it all. Midway through, I knew better. We collectively took a time out, mapped a new course, and completed the project. It took a little longer to mend fences with my staff. At least one member quit, distressed—justifiably so—by what I put her through.

Earlier this week, at the tail end of a meeting, the discussion moved to the recent passing of the American writer Gore Vidal. Knowing that one of our number was a Vidal collector, I watched and listened in amazement as he shared his passion for the writer: outlined his biography; commented on his historical fiction, essays, and other writings; contextualized his life within contemporary society, etc. It was a virtuoso performance offered without condescension from a deep well of lifelong reading and appreciation. At its conclusion I wanted to wrap my hands around a collection of Vidal essays and share in the excitement. I wanted to learn more.

Each day should be like that. There is always more to study and learn. One might counter such desire with a cliché: “So many books, so little time.” Or one might take a biblical route: “Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” I’ll put these sentiments aside in favor of those who, like the patient in the beginning quote, will benefit from the expanding expertise and experience of the librarian or archivist who serves them. The focus should be on those served and not the server. What we as professionals get out of the process is an added benefit to ourselves and our employer—the ability (and the responsibility) to teach others what we’ve learned along the way and to make our own workplace more vibrant.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

30th Year Reflections/10: Service and Stewardship--The Right Stuff

“NASA's most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars early Monday EDT to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.”

— National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web site, August 6, 2012

Late Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday morning, glued to my computer and the NASA web site, I watched a most extraordinary event: the entry, descent, and landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. My vigil began at 22:30 hours (10:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time in our “normal” reckoning of the clock), the telemetric commentary and anticipation building with each minute. I followed the folks in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cheering with them at each stage of the “seven minutes of terror”: entry interface, peak heating and deceleration, hypersonic aero-manuevering, center of gravity offset elimination, parachute deploy, heat shield separation, landing engine throttle-up, powered approach, rover separation, sky crane maneuvers, touchdown, bridle and umbilical cord cut, descent stage flyaway and impact. On touchdown I screamed and clapped with unrestrained delight, not caring if I woke any family members sleeping a floor above. It was a stellar moment—a galactic, gold medal Olympic moment—for United States space flight and exploration. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology tweeted “There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now.” It was a great night!

I’m a big fan of space flight—since I was a small boy watching the rockets go up from my front yard in Florida—but what, you might ask, does this have to do with librarianship and my thirty years in the profession? The short answer might be “attitude”—that “can-do,” “right stuff,” “maintain an even strain,” “pushing the envelope” way of thinking and behaving. At the same time, while “maintaining an even strain,” our professional demeanor—stripped of complexity and jargon—is at its core about service and stewardship.

Curious about how this plays out within the context of NASA library operations, I wrote to their headquarters library in Washington, D.C. and received a prompt reply.

“Most of the NASA Centers support a library focusing on the particular needs of their facility….The Headquarters Library…serves as the agency’s ‘corporate library’ focusing on its management, policy, budgetary, interagency and international affairs, and public affairs and educational outreach operations. The HQ library does not include extensive resources in science or engineering. For a project such as Curiosity, our role would be to track legislative actions and hearings, providing NASA managers with information on public opinion, tracking down editorials and position papers from think-tanks and lobbyists. The information called upon by senior staff may include locating information on the economic impact of NASA Centers and projects. We may be asked to gather reports on previous mission failures in preparation for hearings or interviews. If there are controversial aspects to a mission, we would track public opinion polls, editorials, and position papers….our role in the agency is typically broader than individual missions. We have tracked down budgetary information on most of the worldwide space programs….. The library’s collection of policy documents dates back to the founding of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915. Our collection focuses on the final, publicly released reports while the NASA History Program Office focuses on internal documents and correspondence.”
It sounds like the NASA library program has “the right stuff” and goes about its business in a very professional manner, what we would expect from an agency that lands one-ton rovers on Mars.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

30th Year Reflections/9: A Professional Snapshot and Glimpse of the Future

“In the last two decades of the 20th century the number of credentialed librarians increased rapidly, but this was followed by a slight decline between 2000 and 2005. More important for the profession, however, is the potential impact that retirement could have during the next ten years. The age structure of librarians is unique. This mostly-female profession has a long-standing pattern whereby people join it at what would be the middle or latter part of many careers. This pattern gained strength as the first half of the baby boom ascended through the profession. Today, this large group of early boomers is in their 50s. They make up over 40 percent of the profession, and they are perched on the precipice of what most think of as the retirement years.”

— Planning for 2015: The Recent History and Future Supply of Librarians (2009)

It is time to consider some numbers. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) there were 156,100 professional librarians in 2010 (professional defined as one having a master’s degree). Another report prepared for the American Library Association (ALA) in 2009 (quoted above), put the number of “credentialed” librarians (i.e. those with a master’s or doctorate) at 104,600. The 2010 median pay, according to the BLS, was $54,500. The projected rate of change in employment for the 10-year time-frame between 2010 and 2020 is 7%, or a numerical growth of about 10,800 jobs. The average growth rate for all occupations is 14%, thus prompting the BLS to characterize librarian job outlook as “slower than average.” According to the BLS the following areas employed the most librarians in 2010:

Local public elementary and secondary schools 35%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 28%
Colleges, university, and professional schools (state, local, private) 17%
Private elementary and secondary schools 4%
Junior colleges (state, local, and private) 3%

In 2009, according to the ALA report, 17% of the profession was male and 45% of those men worked in higher education. (I’m running true to form.) And finally, the ALA report projected that by 2015 nearly one-sixth of the “current working U.S. membership base is likely to retire. Looking forward another five years to 2020, an additional 13 percent of members will retire.” I’m not planning on retiring until 2025 at the earliest, but then I’m not an “early boomer” (according to the report the largest demographic group of librarians in the modern history of the profession, born between 1946 and 1955; in other sections of the report this group is referred to as the “librarian bubble”). Looks like I’ll be saying “happy retirement” to around 28% of my colleagues before I take the plunge.

Why do I mention all this? Because, for those contemplating the profession or just about to take first steps in graduate school, it is good to go in with your eyes wide open knowing what the profession has to offer (or not). And because, as large as the profession might seem, there is a very good chance—depending on where one lands—that one will cross paths any number of times with people met along the way. Thirty-two years ago, while attending a class on academic libraries, I met a retired university librarian who was volunteering his time on a new special collection acquired by the University of Minnesota. The librarian’s name was Errett Weir McDiarmid and the collection was the Philip S. and Mary Kahler Hench Collection of Sherlockiana.