Goodbye, shushing: Speaking with authority in the library

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.

References:

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.

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2 thoughts on “Goodbye, shushing: Speaking with authority in the library

  1. You bring up some really interesting points, Nel.

    “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.”

    I think there will always be misconceptions about the role of the professional librarian. It seems that the way librarians can combat these perceptions is through their actions. They must provide a level of service to patrons that they would not otherwise experience. This isn’t an efficient or particularly far reaching solution, but it is effective with every patron that leaves a library happy they consulted a librarian for an information need.

    ““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.”

    The authority of the professional is something I hadn’t given much thought to before this class. I pursued librarianship based on my personal interests in continuing education and information coupled with my experience in customer service oriented positions. I don’t know that I necessarily want the authority of a doctor or lawyer, or to be treated as such. (Totally anecdotally) I’ve found it easier to get to the root of someone’s information need when they feel comfortable/equal to me as a librarian, rather than when they are intimidated by my professional position.

    Really enjoyed the inclusion of Giles. You make a great point that his intense study and research of specific topics isn’t true to many librarian jobs. This is one of the notions of librarianship that I think leads to workplace discontent for new librarians.

    Great post! These are things that are going to stay on my mind for awhile. 🙂

  2. I have to say that I agree with the comment above and even more so with the blog itself. I thought that Nel brought up a lot of interesting things that I imagine I will ponder for some time; and as Dani noted, I too enjoyed the reference to Giles. I was surprised to come across a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference, but it got me thinking more about media’s portrayal of librarians – that is, is there any other notable example from the movies or television? I don’t have a TV and I am no movie buff, but I can say that I can’t recall any single positive or even noteworthy portrayal of a librarian while I was growing up. It was my library-centered upbringing that probably influenced me the most, and yet, I think the absence (if it really is one) says something about the profession as well. Anyway, I enjoyed the post and the way this week’s readings were incorporated 🙂

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