Monday, January 10, 2005

More about reference

Been thinking more about Dilevko and Gottlieb's book and the "conventional" wisdom they're now attempting to overturn - namely, that technological change mandates that librarians become computer people first first and foremost, and to that end library school should de-emphasize traditional subject training in favor of technology courses. I always felt that this was complete and utter bullshit for myriad reasons. Librarians are never going to be as tech-savvy as professional computer engineers, database designers, coders and programmers. And - take a deep breath for this one, my fellow librarians-in-training, this is okay. No one expects librarians to know how to replace the boiler in the basement or rewire the outlets in the reading room. Stripped of its Internet Bubble mystique, IT is just another utility, a means by which information is conveyed in, out, and around the library. While of course we want librarians to be computer literate, expecting an MLS to do the work of a trained engineer is unfair both the librarian - who is now expected to do two jobs for the price of one, and the lesser-paid one at that! - and the techie - who finds his career increasingly deprofessionalized by this insidious sort of outsourcing to people who aren't even close to being qualified to do the job properly.

In the second place, there is the rate of technological change itself. Even assuming a two-year turnaround at most library schools, any "technology" skills learned are going to be on the threshhold of obsolescence when the LIS students graduate and start looking for a job, whereas traditional broad-based training in library science should serve them well for their entire career. If I learned anything from my time at M.I.T., it's that technology can always be learned on the job - upon graduation, my friends were all being snapped up as computer programmers and HTML gurus regardless of what they had majored in at the Institute and irrespective of what programming languages they knew (or whether or not they had any experience coding whatsoever!). Do we really want to waste valuable credit-hours imparting ephemeral skills better learned during employee orientation and training? Unless the goal of library school is now to turn out half-assed computer programmers, in which case I'm just barking up the wrong tree.

But I think it's incumbent upon future librarians to ask themselves: what am I bringing to the table that's unique and irreplaceable? Because it's sure as hell not the technological skill set. Any teenager growing up today could school even the best-trained "information professional" on technical merits. Being computer literate may still confer some sort of status in the library workplace, but in less than a generation the techie skills being oversold in LIS programs right now will be common knowledge to kids (like my daughter) raised with a computer from birth. In the long term any survival strategy for our profession that relies upon mere technique will doom us to obsolescence - witness the erosion of library reference by the almighty Google. Librarians have to dig deep into their profession and find what makes us special, the ineffable essence of librarianship that cannot as of yet be replicated by centralized call centers or artificial intelligence. That is what we must draw out and hone in library school - if we must have technology courses there as well, let them at least be ancillary to this greater task and not overshadow it entirely as it now threatens to do.

And if we cannot locate that something special, well then perhaps we are doomed after all.

1 comment:

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