|The Radical Patron is pleased to welcome guest author, Oleg Kagan. Oleg is a librarian at the Lancaster Branch of the Los Angeles County Library System and blogs regularly at Life in Oleg.|
In her 2009 Public Libraries article CEO of Howard County (Md.) Library Valerie J. Gross wrote “…we have immense power over our image and perceived value merely by choosing smart terminology that people understand and value…By replacing typical library terms and jargon with bold, value-enhancing words and phrases, we have the capacity to transform our image, receiving full credit for what we already do”.1 Consequently, if I was working at her library my value would be enhanced by job titles like Information Specialist or Instructor. If I was working at a corporate library like some of the “super searchers” from Grace Avellana Villmora’s book,2 I could proudly proclaim that I was a Multicultural Information Expert or a Research Consultant. As if those aren’t choices enough, I am pleased to know that if I worked at the Welch Medical Library of Johns Hopkins University I would be an Informationist. Even though it’s become increasingly clear that Librarians fancy not being called librarians, when people at parties ask me what I do, I tell them the truth: I am a Librarian.
Oh, they say, speechless and I flashback to a time not long ago when I introduced two close friends to a mysterious service called reference. “What?! Really?” they exclaimed, “You don’t just help people find books in the library?” Practically falling from my chair I wonder how they’d missed something so basic. These are people who went through four or more years of higher education and should know better. That night, I fell asleep wondering: Do Informationists have these problems?
As I see it, my job title woes come from two sources. The first is the basic disconnect between the newfangled monikers and what should be the foundation of our professional philosophy. The obvious problem with changing my job to anything that starts with information, data, knowledge, intelligence, or digital is that the guiding principle of my career (and my library system) is customer service. I didn’t choose my profession because I loved books (though I surely do), I chose it because I loved working with the public. I am, I recently told a journalist writing an article about my library’s writer’s group, an Adult Reference Librarian. It makes sense; I spend four to six hours a day providing reference assistance to adults in a library. I specialize in determining what exactly a customer needs and how best to connect the two. I’m a Customer Need-Meeter. More to the point, I do not specialize in information, I specialize in information sources. Customer needs are sometimes information needs but not always; for the aforementioned writer’s group, I facilitate a forum for expression. Writing groups, book clubs, concerts, classes are par for course for Librarians, dubbing me something that starts with the five words at the beginning of this paragraph puts those concepts before the most important element of librarianship: being of service to others.3 This is why I wouldn’t mind if my job title started with the words public, community, adult, teen or children’s. A business card that read People’s Librarian wouldn’t be bad either.
Considering business cards brings us to the second source of my anxiety: Marketing. The librarian brand is outmoded say name-changers, and thus we must become hip to the new trends by calling ourselves something that can be promoted without an uphill battle. When we say librarian, people make assumptions that are not in-line with our spiffy brand, so why not change our job titles to something that will allow us to hit our talking points with no resistance. It’s like getting a phone call during dinner, you pick up the phone with an open mind – maybe it’s your best friend calling – then you find out that it’s a telemarketer and you immediately assume that you know exactly what they’re selling (and where they can shove it). Telling people we’re librarians puts us in the same pigeonhole as the telemarketer. The solution then is to market the profession and libraries so that the public is led to ask questions. When the Howard County (Md.) Library calls Library Assistants or Librarians Instructors, it gives me pause. In my opinion that’s a positive reaction for a patron to have; it gets the person thinking about the library and gives the organization an in-road to revitalize a tired brand. On the other hand, as a Librarian I can’t help feeling that the titles do a terrible job of describing most of what I do. The name changes clearly seem to be more about aligning with the library’s mission statement than with describing duties; the library’s mission is education and an Instructor instructs, period. That’s what seems to be the catch to marketing, it’s impossible to advertise everything about anything so there is bound to be a certain lack of nuance. That lack is what I feel when I see job titles like Information Specialist or Instructor. But the problem goes beyond having to narrow a promotional thrust, the problem is that, on their own, there doesn’t seem to be much backbone to these name-changes. What then is the purpose, beyond marketing, of having job titles that don’t effectively describe an employee’s role?
When I am at a party and someone asks me what I do, my twofold mission is to represent myself as well as all Librarians. Conversely, the purpose of library marketing is usually to sell the idea of a particular library, not the library profession.4 The public doesn’t care much about librarians; it has never been about us, it has always been about the collection (print and digital), the programs, the myriad things that happened under the library’s roof. Even in terms of advocacy, individual librarians do not get funded, the library does. Hence, the most important thing about the initiative in Howard County is that it didn’t just change people’s job titles, it redefines the way the library is marketed as a whole. In actuality, a quick look at its website reveals that “librarians” still very much exist in Howard County.
We know that as a general fact, regardless of job title, much of public doesn’t know all that we do at the library since their preconceived notions are rarely based on any recent personal experiences. Clearly, there is an information need here that we must fill – to do that, each Librarian, Information Specialist, or Customer Need-Meeter must decide what about their job is delightful for the clientele; no matter what the job title is, an explanation should be forthcoming. Personally, I’m coming to grips with the realization that it’s impossible for me to represent everyone in the information sciences; no one needs to hear my apologia for terrible Librarians or shop talk comparing services provided by different library systems. In adjusting my Librarian explanation, I’ve taken Valerie Gross’s advice to heart and stopped blathering on about my “real work,” choosing to focus instead on the value I, as a Librarian, provide to the public – things anyone can expect when visiting my library. I’ve also taken my road show beyond parties like recently when I sat down to get my hair cut. She wanted to know what I did. I’m a librarian, I told her. Oh, she said, speechless. Undeterred, I regaled her with stories about interesting people who come to the library, the types of questions I answer, how a recent program went, and a future event I’m only still dreaming about organizing. “You do all that?” She asked, turning off the clippers.
“Of course,” I answered, “I’m a Librarian!”
1Valerie, Gross J. “Transforming Our Image Through Words That Work: Perception is Everything.” Public Libraries. Sept/Oct 2009: 24-32.
2Villamora, Grace A. Super Searchers on Madison Avenue. Medford, NJ: CyberAge Books, 2003.
3Powell, Lawrence C. “The Elements of a Good Librarian.” Wilson Library Bulletin. Vol. 34. Sept (1959): 42-46.
4An exception to the rule, the Boston Public Library (BPL) advertisements are an excellent example of a well-known library system promoting its Librarians.