I keep wanting to write about librarianship in meaningful ways, but every time I get a post started I either write myself into a circle of apathy or I get so mad I give up. I love being a librarian, and I love and admire other librarians, but man we have some problems. We are split on so many topics (to safety pin or no? to be required to have a master’s degree or is that harmful and limiting to the profession? to be a place of “neutrality” or take a stand? to become more like corporate bookstores or not? to give in to technology or fight it with our last gasping breath?!?!?!?!!?!!!), and we have a weird sense of self-importance that is not deserved, and we do nothing to further our own profession. In fact, I feel like we are driving our profession into the ground.
What aggravated me about grad school were all of my professors lamenting how there are no jobs and how the profession is changing into a bastardized monster of its former self. This is not what I saw. What I saw were more libraries opening, more states like Ohio and Maryland taking very good care of even their public librarians, and library and information professionals finding wonderful ways to communicate with patrons and academics about the critical nature of literacy, information ethics and equity, and advocacy for access to knowledge. I saw awesome things like the Library Freedom Project and incredible professionals like Dr. Carla Hayden, who once taught at my graduate school in library sciences and is now the Librarian of Congress. But my professors (and many working librarians I encountered) were so bitter, so reluctant to give us the tools to be innovative and competitive. COMPETITIVE!! We are so behind the information game, and all of our “innovations” are either empty and/or cumbersome gestures or outdated even in their conception. And yet, my professors were all too happy to grasp and ownership of Ada Lovelace and Paul Otlet, claiming that they were closer to us than to computer scientists. You know who should have been closer to computer scientists? LIBRARIANS!!
We missed the boat. The boat was ready for us. It was there, maybe even waiting for us. Women were doing the critical work that would have elevated librarianship to Google status, but we had no idea. What am I talking about? Well…I’ve been reading Hidden Figures. THAT’S RIGHT! And now you’re going to hear about it. Dorothy Vaughan was one of the black women who worked as a computer for NACA and then NASA during WWII and the space race. She was a badass to say the least, and one of the most important things she did in my mind was NOT miss the boat. As a skilled and forward thinking mathematician, she recognized the direction the world was going in. When IBM set NASA up with their giant room-sized computers, the actual human computers recognized that they were out of a job. Not Dorothy. She learned how to program with Fortran and then taught the women under her how to program as well. Her accomplishments were amazing, and because of women like her, the task of computer programming fell to women for a long while.
Librarians have always been, uh, chill folk. Usually introverted women who were not down with change or a stressful work environment. That is still relatively true, but you’ll see a lot of us younger librarians are basically frothing at the mouth, present company included. Instead of staying current on scientific, technical, and information-related progress and making critical connections between things like Paul Otlet’s work in classification systems and this new IBM machine and the work other women were doing to store, manipulate, and recall information with it, librarians took a big ol’ dump and continued to shhhh people and be judgy about what they read. Many librarians were doing really critical research that should have made a connection between these things more clear, and yet no! Librarians did not learn about computer programming or information in a new digital form, despite real connections between the two professions, and instead computer sciences became a thing very detached from librarianship and very attached to mathematics and engineering.
This makes me mad! It makes me mad because it could have elevated librarianship to a place of real science today. With our devotion to information ethics and the power of computer sciences and programming, we as a society would not have to worry about Google and their swift domination over all information in a very corporate and capitalistic way. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about or don’t understand why it’s an issue, please ask me. I’d love to talk about it with you. Information would always be free to access without the threat of it suddenly being taken away, altered, or only available to a certain group. It would be authoritative (no more worries about “fake news” y’all), and that information that was not authoritative (like this blog) would be clearly cataloged and identified as such.
People would no longer have misconceptions about libraries and librarians. We have changed a lot over the decades, yet people are still afraid to be shushed, or yelled at about fines, or nervous about feeling uncomfortable in old stuffy buildings. This is not the reality of libraries today, but we have not done a good job displaying this because for a lot time we refused to change. What really gets my goat is that women could have OWNED this shit. This was our work, and if librarians had harnessed it perhaps it would still inherently be our work. But sadly, like film editing, men saw an opportunity for money and advancement so they kicked women out, did not encourage them in the profession, and dominated. Silicon Valley is disgusting, but imagine if it was actually just a bunch of librarians instead of tech bros? Which would you prefer going to work for/with?
So yeah, we missed the boat. But what is more infuriating is that we are still missing the fucking boat. And the train, and the jet plane, and the tractor beam. To bring it full circle, my professors in grad school did not recognize what happened, was happening, or what could happen. They would mention, “Oh, corporations and hospitals need librarians!” but wouldn’t emphasis that work in the classroom. “Oh, did you know we have a Google campus here in Pittsburgh? They hire librarians sometimes!” Yes, they do, but my professors did not prepare us for that work. They did not cultivate good relationships with Google to facilitate internships, or with any other corporate or non-profit organization in the area. They did not see the importance of librarians taking programming classes, and when a few of them did they taught it in the worst way possible with no context at all. I hope to god other programs have their shit together more than mine did, but judging by my experiences alone I can totally see why librarianship is in trouble and can’t seem to focus. We’re frustrated and bored.
Oh we try; maker spaces and cooking classes and metadata and GIS (geographical information system) and meme librarianship, but I feel like we can’t focus. We can’t bring these things together to make lasting professional changes that rival those of computer sciences. As soon as something like metadata or GIS librarianship appears, it gets snatched up by information/computer sciences and no one bats and eye. When our teachers can’t even see forward enough to find our new and relevant place, like Dorothy Vaughan did, how can we? Basically, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for months now. I have plenty to still read and learn, but these are thoughts I keep bumping up against the more I interact with other librarians and library professionals. I’m lucky to work with an incredible group of people in my department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh who are all very aware of these and other issues, and we have good conversations about it all, but even we as a group feel that things are too big for us to manage. This will just be my life’s work I guess.
What are your impressions of librarians and libraries? What do you see next for our profession?