According to Garrison (1972-3), librarianship lacks a key component of a profession: a clear-cut knowledge base. For example, Garrison points out, a person consults a doctor or a lawyer for his or her professional opinion. In contrast, a librarian offers no such expertise, and instead servilely attempts to fulfill patrons’ requests. Garrison attributes this passive, reactive orientation to the predominance of women in the field; as she puts it, this is “a natural acting-out of the docile behavioral role which females assumed in the culture” (p. 146). Garrison’s ideas about the impact of women on librarianship are fascinating, but putting them aside, her observations about the professional standing of librarianship alone raise all sorts of interesting questions.
Although public libraries initially were conceived as a means of completing the everyman’s public education, the idea of a librarian prescribing the “right” reading to patrons today is repugnant. Yet if we are not providing our expertise in some manner, aren’t we the reactive service providers Garrison describes? We don’t go to the doctor or the lawyer’s office and not see the doctor or lawyer, yet most people visiting a library do so without ever consulting a librarian. How are we providing expertise? Is it in the ways we find and make materials accessible? If so, if we effectively hide our expertise in systems, how do we handle the problem of getting people to recognize the value of librarians?
Garrison also points out that professional knowledge “requires a long enough term of specialized training so that the society views the professional as possessing skills which are beyond the reach of the untrained layman” (p. 147). If we take this as true, it’s important to acknowledge the role society plays in recognizing a profession. It does not matter if we, as library students or as librarians, feel that an MLIS grants us special understanding of the field if society at large perceives that “all librarians do is shelve books” (or ,as Radford and Radford (2003) put it, “shelving, stamping, and shushing” (p. 60)), if they believe that all of the skills and tasks undertaken by librarians on a daily basis are things that can be picked up in other occupational settings.
One way to change public perception is through media portrayals; Radford and Radford (2003) hold out Rupert Giles of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a positive example of a librarian. Quoting DeCandido, they say, “I am not alone in the belief that the appearance of school librarian Rupert Giles…has done more for the image of the profession than anything in the past 50 years…[Giles is] a pop culture idol whose love of books and devotion to research hold the key to saving the universe—every week” (p. 67). That’s great, but how much of an impact can characters like Giles really have when they don’t accurately portray what most librarians actually do? With the possible exception of academic librarians and those working in special libraries, who are experts on a subject or on what can be found inside a particular collection, how many librarians conduct in-depth research for patrons?
If we are to coalesce as a profession—which seems doubtful given that Garrison notes this debate has been ongoing since 1876—I do think that we must find ways to provide genuine expertise and make people more aware of it. “Specialization in generalism” (p. 147) truly is insufficient if we want the weight of our words to carry the authority of the professional, if we want our contributions to be recognized, if we want to be more than demand-fillers.
Garrison, D. (1972-3). The tender technicians: The feminization of public librarianship, 1876-1905. Journal of Social History, 6(2), pp. 131-159.
Radford, M.L. & Radford, G.P. (2003). Librarians and party girls: Cultural studies and the meaning of the librarian. The Library Quarterly, 73(1), pp. 54-69.