Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Library Professions

It’s my view that the word “librarian” is almost meaningless. The broad popular view … which includes anyone sitting behind the circulation desk … is uncomfortably close to the mark. A “librarian” is, entirely too logically, someone who works in a library.

A “professional librarian” should be someone who is specially trained in that work. Back in the day, before Dewey, there were only two or three closely related library professions: the collection developer, the archivist, and the cataloger. They worked to create and maintain the library. They were frequently the same person, often a retired scholar. Perhaps, indeed, a Casanova.

Whether or not anyone else was welcome to use the library was another issue entirely, but as these librarians were generally scholars there was a commonality of interest between the “library creators” and the (most academic) “library users.” Others weren’t as welcome.

I own a copy of an Emerson essay (I think the title is “On Books”) where he suggests that the panjandrums who ran the Harvard library might hire a few librarians to work with the students and acquaint them with its content.

Dewey’s library school concentrated on just one species of librarian: the cataloger. The reason was that this technical craft was in extremely high demand during what might be called the “first information explosion.” This was the mid-19th century nexus of 1) universal literacy, 2) high speed printing, and 3) the burgeoning discoveries of science and exploration. The librarians of the time could not keep up with the flow of new titles. The “professional cataloger” was the result … but, unfortunately, the training that led to cataloging largely became the training that led to all of the other library professions.

These professions – reference, youth services, reader’s services, audiovisual, and (now) electronic media – were stunted as a result. Each of these should have its own master’s level degree and, indeed, its own doctorates. Those of you reading here can no doubt think of others.

(If people can get a doctorate in film studies – and they can – then a doctorate in any of the above is surely possible.)

Imagine, if you will, what today’s librarianship would be like if database management had developed as a “library profession” rather than as a “computer sciences” profession.

I doubt that any of the graduate schools would have closed.

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