Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Retrofit 1: Starting With Pieces

Like Sir Saul Enderby, chief of British intelligence MI6 in le Carré’s Smiley’s People, I can be “thick.” I sometimes need to plot things out, building a thought or idea step by step as if constructing a Euclidean geometric proof. Such is the case as I consider my contributions to a panel discussion/seminar slated for late June, part of the Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) preconference in Las Vegas. The preliminary description for the seminar — with the title “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?” — reads:

Does the popular image of the special collections librarian match what professionals now find in their jobs? Fundamental changes in librarianship and academia are impacting departments and their staffs. New economic and technological realities are reshaping the demands of the communities we serve – both patron and employer. The reality of the work we do may not resemble our visions of the profession when we started. Today’s professional needs a new understanding of expectations and opportunities in order to succeed. This moderated “fishbowl” discussion will put questions to two library administrators and two professionals in order to clarify their expectations and goals. The seminar will aim to provide strategies for building a successful career in a changing field.

Am I showing my RBMS hand by thinking out loud here, thus diminishing any impact I might have during the seminar itself? I don’t think so. There is a slight risk of showing my ignorance, thinking foolish thoughts, or getting sidetracked along the way. I’ll take the risk. I need to get my thoughts in order and out in the open (or at least partially in the open), in the hope that someone might offer an interesting or useful comment, link me to an article or blog, or correct me along the way. I don’t want to spoil our Las Vegas gathering by disclosing too much. On the other hand, this exercise might plant a few seeds and put colleagues in a prepared and productive mode (or mood) once we arrive in “Sin City.”

I’m not going to attempt to build my entire argument (or statement, or contribution) in a single post. And I might not post all the parts here, as I pick out the various pieces of this puzzle, play with them, and put them in place. I might, after all, need to maintain some sense of suspense or anticipation as to where I finally land and what the puzzle ultimately looks like.

For starters, perhaps in a pedantic or pedestrian fashion, let me grab the first thread from the seminar’s description: the popular image of the special collections librarian. Is there such a thing? Certainly there’s the stereotypical image of a librarian—a thing (and topic) I abhor and believe unrealistic. So, right at the start, let's abandon this train of thought and all images, words, etc. associated with the stereotype.

The impression of a special collections librarian is more problematic, so let me attempt to get at such an image through the back door, as it were, by looking at archivists. (I will have more to say about the archival profession as I move through the various steps of my proof. Let me at least put a placeholder here for a thought worth pursuing later, one I may or may not agree with (but have heard uttered by others more than once): archivists—at least in the North American context—engaged in a silent coup as they took over RBMS leadership during the last decade, wresting control from bibliophiles.)

Richard J. Cox, in a blog post from 2006 entitled “What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like?,” asks:

If an archivist were going to write a novel or mystery portraying an archivist or the work of an archives, what would be the difference between what he or she would write and what a professional writer might compose? Mostly, I suppose, the archivist might work hard to avoid the stereotypical features most writers easily resort to in their portrayal. What are those characteristics? They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

As to this stereotype, Cox observes: "Whatever the reasons, archivists are surrounded, buried in, layers of stereotypes, that they can hardly see their way through. But, still the question might be, what is the ideal way, if there is an ideal way that the archivist might be brought to life in a realistic fashion?"

Does Cox offer as a suitable image, something acceptable to the profession? Not really. Only hints, e.g. through the academic novels of David Lodge, but even here we have a problem as Cox adds another stereotypical image into the mix.

Everyone knows that the great university is still home to many who have no hope of making a living in any other part of the world, adding to the amusement evident in the most recent trend in university administrators’ thinking or rhetoric, to reform their institutions into the corporate model. Assuming that a business is intended to make some degree of financial profit, it is wonderful to envision our splendid group of professors contributing to the profit line. Most experienced academics know that to transform their departments into business would be a sure way of killing their programs in a relatively short time – but the rhetoric and posturing along the way would be fun....

Indeed, a thread to work with here is that so many academic archivists are frustrated academics, people who spend years preparing for a teaching career and life of quiet solitude only to discover there were no jobs or they were, despite opportunities, unemployable as academics for some reason.

If Cox leaves us with hints (skewering administrators along the way), Rachel Alexander provides more, at least in terms of stereotypes. In her “Literature review on the image archives and archivists project in popular culture,” Alexander provides another string of images, including: "middle-aged to elderly..., wearing glasses, and dressing sloppily or primly.... a 'fossilized anachronism who should have been put out to pasture long before....'" More images follow, none of them complimentary. I'll spare you the details. I’m sure readers can point to other articles, blogs, books, films, etc. with popular portrayals of archivists and librarians (who are often lumped together in those depictions). Unfortunately, I am still left with the original question in the seminar description: Does the popular image of the special collections librarian match what professionals now find in their jobs?

I think this is the wrong preliminary question to ask. We should scrap or ignore the popular image. We delude ourselves by thinking about or even briefly considering prevalent impressions. It is navel-gazing at its worst. If we got into this segment of the profession because of some quixotic idea of the scholar-bookman and no one in our graduate educational experience disabused us of our fanciful notions, then our professors are to blame for continuing the stereotype; we’re to blame for swallowing it hook, line, and sinker; and our administrators are to blame by leading us by the nose through poorly written or deceptive job postings (assuming such things exist).

Instead, we should deal with the real image, or at least the one we talk about in terms of professional competencies. It is here that we need to begin, to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and see if we like the reflection. With any luck, and perhaps with a bit of skill and guidance from others wiser than ourselves, we’ll see (or are in the process of seeing) “a professional who gradually achieves such general proficiency over the course of his/her career” and “a sense of community and common identity among special collections professionals” that at the same time helps “others to understand our work.”

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