Librarians are useless…

and we should stop wasting public money training any more of them. It is 2012, the book is dead, and it follows that the library, as the big building housing books is a waste of prime space on campus, and therefore the people wandering around the stacks are relics of a dead age. Like the sailing master on HMS Victory, they are quaint and admirable exhibits, but not much use in a sea fight anymore.

The efforts of many academic libraries to re-invent themselves as information centres, working from within the traditional paradigm of the nineteenth century lending library, are hopeless efforts which often fail and always disappoint the users. A great many librarians are wonderful people, trapped in a dead profession, whose abilities are being wasted.

There are still university libraries who do brisk enough business managing physical book stock, but that can’t last much longer. Much of the traditional “work” that happened in libraries – issues, returns, shelving – is low-level work which is mostly automated or farmed out to feed the student help. Since managing the physical book stock took up so much time, that was what most people understood librarians did, and if you loved books, that was the job for you. The other bits – the stuff that happened out of sight in the back office, the “library science” didn’t get much attention. Now, like the lecture, the library is flipped, and the book handling is only a tiny part of a job which revolves much more about information and knowledge management. This results in librarians having opinions about things which were formerly the purview of academics, and it is a transition which has not been universally popular or happy, on either side.

So it is time we tore up the job description for “librarian” and rewrote it, just as we need to rewrite the description for that other dead profession, “lecturer”. As people on the academic side, especially in digital humanities, try to shape undergraduate teaching which will equip our students for lifelong learning, personal knowledge management and digital literacies for the information age, it is clear that the boundaries between curating the right stock of information (library work) and how you make use of it (academic work) is eroding. As it does, the distinction between “librarian” and “lecturer” is changing. In fact, I would argue that in the 21st century, the distinction is archaic, arbitrary and gone beyond useless to the point where it is harmful.

I’ve felt for quite some time we should abolish the word “lecturer” as a job description, because it is a relic of a pedagogy which now has very limited value. I think we should add “librarian” to that hit list, and replace both with a generic academic label. One consequence would be abolishing the distinction between teaching and library work. We should begin with the idea that from here on in, “lecturers” should be responsible for curating information resources in their field, and “librarians” should teach in their specialist area. (In passing, I’m not at all keen on the emregence of “researchers” as a special sort of non-teaching career in universities either)

The distinction is, of course, being eroded anyway, and there were always individuals for whom it was meaningless. However, institutionally, we need to take it out the back and shoot it, as soon as possible.

That would have immediate implications for what we teach, mostly at graduate level, but also at undergraduate level. We have to move beyond teaching undergrads how to “use” the library (tour the building, use the catalogue, take a class in using zotero) and lay foundations for a proper understanding of how knowledge is created, curated, and manged in and across the disciplines. This needs to develop at masters level and by completion of a phd, academics would be able not only to conduct research and teach, but also to manage the information resources in their field.

There would obviously still be people whose careers would mostly involve minding medieval manuscripts, and who would only do some limited teaching or research. There would be people who did lots of hands- on sub-atomic physics, and rather less managing of information resources.

While we are at it, we should also look at the notion of academic departments, which are often an administrative convenience for allocating budgets. I am not suggesting that the disciplines are dead, because their distinctive scholarly practices are very much alive, but I do think we need to allow for the fact that many active academics with inquiring minds may shift from one disciplinary focus to another, often more than once in their career.

We need to learn to accommodate “portfolio careers” in academe which break down distinctions between the different intellectual activities that happen in a university. That requires creating a space which recognises that “lecturers” order books (which we do anyway) and “librarians” teach (which the best one’s always do) and researchers must do some of both. While we are at it, we should abolish administration – if you are in HR in a university, you should be able to teach a course in the Business school, and order the right books for it. AS far as departments and disciplines go, if football teams trade players, why can’t departments within a university do so?

This demands driving a bulldozer through traditional job titles, descriptions, and rigidly channeled career paths. It requires becoming comfortable with flexible, agile careers but if universities can’t do it, we can hardly expect others to manage it, and we certainly cant prepare our students for modern “portfolio careers” if we remain prisoners of the org chart.

1 thought on “Librarians are useless…”

  1. I agree with your point that the term lecturer is dated. I find that the best ‘lecturers’ in university are those who chair discussions on topics while adding their own expertise to the topic to direct the discussion to one of academic value.

    A lecturer in the syllabus model of Curriculum theory blurges out information which students regurgitate in exams. Librarians at the moment aid the students in finding books that the lecturers information is verified by. Before looking at rebranding lecturers and librarians we should look at the method by which we assess students ability and grade them (Product model).

    Product alone will not make the innovative and resourceful students we want. It is a combination of all aspects of the life of university including extra curricular activities which shape students just as much as a class. When the college recognises this and incorporates every aspect of life into learning then we shall have the praxis which we crave.

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