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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 6


Neither fish nor fowl ...

It seems a simple question: What is it that makes one a librarian or information professional? Is it her formal education? Her adherence to a defined set of professional values? Her work environment or on-the-job activities? Some combination of the above?

I've always found it ironic that a profession devoted in part to classification and categorization has such a hard time defining its own scope and boundaries. But at the same time, this is also part of what makes our field so fascinating. The boundaries blur, in part, because we can borrow and benefit from so many other professions – and, as we know, these intersections are where some of the most interesting work and conversations occur.

Leaving aside the related question of how to define the standards and common body of knowledge of our professional education (another topic for another column), what are the possibilities and pitfalls of placing ourselves in a blurry profession?

Possibilities

Because we're not necessarily limited by strict definitions of what "is" and "is not" librarianship, we can be more open to assimilating the best of other disciplines. Librarianship has often been described as the last refuge of the Renaissance person, and we recognize that the lines we draw between disciplines are arbitrary at best. When we see ourselves as Renaissance professionals, we recognize that everything we ever learn has the potential to make us better librarians, and that we need to broaden our perspective in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Blurring boundaries and broadening perspectives allows us to take on different roles within our organizations and institutions, while still seeing ourselves as information professionals. When we learn to move beyond the confines of the traditional library, we are able to embed ourselves throughout our organizations, reach out to meet our constituents where they are, and actively demonstrate our value to stakeholders. When considering the fate of the librarian in the age of Google, it's more useful to take an active role in showing our continued relevance than to sit back and bemoan the disintermediation of information. Pushing the boundaries allows us to meet these challenges head on.

Pitfalls

We need also, however, to recognize the challenges our lack of definition presents. It's no secret that librarians have a hard time marketing themselves to the outside world, which has little understanding of what it actually is that we do or what skills we possess. Part of this difficulty lies in the blurriness of our field; if we don't have an exact list of "things librarians do and skills they possess", it's little wonder that it's hard to define – let alone promote – our abilities to others.

Another major pitfall lies when we pull into ourselves, becoming insular in an effort to protect ourselves from the big bad outside world. Lack of definition creates some cognitive dissonance in part because categorization and classification is part of what we do – yet we can't quite agree on how to categorize and classify ourselves. When we try too hard and focus exclusively on our internal battles, we tend to ignore the challenges and opportunities presented by the non-library world.

On a related note, blurring boundaries also encourage us to try very hard to impose our own boundaries by defining an "us" versus "them". This leads to division in our institutions, and leads us to discount the contributions of those we deem as separate from the profession. This comes out very clearly in the "does the MLIS make the librarian" debate over in the US. About a year ago I wrote a couple of posts about this on my blog, The Liminal Librarian, saying, among other things, that those doing the work of a professional librarian deserved the title, regardless of degree status. Most posts garner 0-2 comments – these garnered 105 and 23, respectively. (See http://www.lisjobs.com/blog/?p=278 and http://www.lisjobs.com/blog/?p=286 for the discussion.)

Any topic that generates this much internal debate is worth looking at further, but the bottom line is this: When we dismiss those without LIS degrees or that we otherwise deem outsiders, we lose out on their contributions to the profession.

Potential

So what do we do to maximize the possibilities of our blurry profession, while minimizing the pitfalls? First, we need to embrace blurriness. We need to purposefully blend our professional skills and philosophy with the best of the fields that impact on ours. This can include projects like the Blended Librarian community (http://www.blendedlibrarian.org/), which blends instructional design, technology, and librarianship to create a more proactive academic librarian. It can include embedded librarians, involved throughout the organization in teams and on projects and bringing their unique skills in applying information and knowledge to improving outcomes. It can include knowledge managers, who combine their skills in organizing and managing an institution's knowledge with a unique understanding of their organizations and the ability to fit pieces together to create knowledge out of information. It can include subject PhDs-turned-librarians, who bring their specialized knowledge into our profession and enrich its connections with the larger academic environment.

We need to recognize that we can employ our skills in very different environments, yet still call ourselves librarians and information professionals. The broader our boundaries, the more we benefit – and the less we cede the information arena to the outside world.

Accepting blurriness lets us escape some of our self-imposed difficulties. While we close ever further in on ourselves in an effort to protect our profession, the wider world goes on without us, happily grabbing up the pieces of information work we leave behind. While our skills may be more important than ever, we can only demonstrate this by expanding our view of what information work entails, and broadening our idea of who is worthy of the title "librarian".


Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).