Quite a lot actually, when you’re a librarian. A recurring professional issue in librarianship is defining what a librarian does to a member of the public. Laura (Theatregrad) recently blogged about her experiences as a librarianship student discussing her course with other students, giving a really interesting perspective.
What is a librarian anyway? We have the traditional stereotypes – the middle aged woman wearing a bun with a twin set and glasses on string around her neck. What does she do? Well she’s knowledgeable, but she’s a bit stuffy and reluctant to share information – you have to ask very nicely and you have to be very quiet when in her presence. I’ll admit that I held this perception of a librarian until I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2005 and starting trying to find out about librarianship (this fact is ever present in my mind when I talk to people outside the profession).
Now of course I recognise that things have changed since this stereotype (if it ever really existed even!) and there’s a lot more to librarians, and many diverse job roles librarians take on (see Katie Birkwood‘s previous blog posts to get an idea of some of these roles). If someone asks me what I do I’ll tell them I’m a librarian, but I don’t work in a library, I rarely look at a book, and I don’t even support users/customers of any sort. I do however work with information every day, and the projects I work on aim to drive library and information services forward.
Even if we take just the academic librarian role (as that’s what I am most familiar with), there are so many different aspects to this. Of course, there are differences in the role across different institutions, but even within the role there are often a number of distinct different functions (some of the tasks often done by academic librarians include collection management, information literacy teaching and development of teaching resources, enquiry support, research support, information management, web page development…). How can that be encapsulated by just one job title?
There are a few ways we could approach this issue:
- Educate public in what the term librarian means
- Change the job title to something else more meaningful to try to encapsulate the different elements
- Adopt different job titles when doing different roles
Option 1 – Educate
Wanting to educate people about what librarians do is admirable, but in practice is it feasible in the short term? My concern with this approach, based on previous experience, is that as librarians we can miss great opportunities to help support our users because they don’t see how we could help in different circumstances. Although as an overall aim I think it’s a great idea to educate people on what librarians do (I have a draft blog post started on some of my efforts), in reality I don’t think we can or should dedicate too much of our work time on this when we could be out there spotting opportunities to get involved. I think we can get too hung up on the term librarian – does it really matter if people don’t know what a “librarian” is? I’d far rather them just know how we can help them regardless of what they call us or what our title is.
Option 2 – Change job title
This option can make it easier for people to know what we do – titles like information specialist to me as an undergraduate student would have meant more to me than librarian did (I don’t even know if I had a subject librarian, but that’s a whole other issue). But there are concerns that we lose our professional identity this way, which I do think would be a shame in some ways. And is there any one title that can encapsulate all the different activities we do?
Option 3 – Multiple job titles
This is a new one to me, and I think it’s a genius idea. It’s a happy medium between the two extremes and I think it makes it clear to users exactly how we can help them, whilst also holding onto our professional identity. The example I came across was within an academic library and involved having three different titles depending on the duties they are involved in; librarian when they are in the library helping with enquiries, academic skills tutor when they are teaching information literacy skills, and information consultant when they are working within the wider university (for example on projects). I absolutely love this idea!
What do you think? Which of the options is your preferred approach? Or maybe there is a different option? I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. Please share your views in the comments.