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LJ’s John Berry “Writes” an “Opinion Piece”

Berry at Library Journal loves to stir the pot, but I don’t get the fuss over his latest about the Vanishing Librarians. Still, heck, I’ll give it a go.

It looks like the “transformation” we seek for libraries and librarianship may turn out to be more of a “deskilling” of library jobs than an enhancement of the profession. More and more working librarians are “managed” by a new breed of library leader. Their model for the new public library is that dehumanized supermarket or the chaotic disorganization of the largest Barnes & Noble.

Is this the lede for this article, or a Zagat review?

As this process unfolds, the once professional responsibilities of librarians are being dumbed down into the duties of retail clerks or the robotic responses of machines. Our circulation desks are disappearing. The humans who once greeted and discussed with patrons our wares and services as they dispensed them are being replaced by self-service. Those circulation clerks are either being terminated or sent to work elsewhere in the library.

O.k., let’s parse this paragraph. Librarians are clerks. No, they are robots. No wait, they are neither. OMG, furniture is vanishing, employees are being made to work Elsewhere in the Library, and Angry People-Eating Self-Check Machines are taking over!

Our reference services and the desk from which they were delivered are gone, too, replaced by wandering “librarians,” with or without an MLS. They are supposed to be proactive in searching out patrons in need but are too often summoned on walkie-talkies or terminals to come to the aid of only those who ask or to respond to the few inquiries that arrive online. Of course, we need fewer and fewer of these librarians, because patrons are urged to do it all for themselves, via Google, PACs, or whatever they discover through our terminals or their own laptops and PCs.

Damn straight, John. We sit at those desks for a reason: because it makes us look important. If patrons need assistance, they can come beg for it, and we can continue asserting our professionalism by pointing patrons to an appropriate section of the stacks — preferably up several flights of stairs and down some sepulchral hallway. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, tough nuts. What do they think this is, a service industry?

Our catalogers began to disappear with the takeover of that function by OCLC, the nonprofit that aspires to be a corporation in this brave new retail library world. The standardized result of the effort is bypassed by patron and librarian alike, as they turn to the more friendly Amazons, Googles, et al., for the less precise, more watered-down “metadata” that has replaced what used to be cataloging. Apparently, users don’t miss the old catalog, except as a familiar artifact, which is testimony to how low this dumbing down has taken us.

Exactly right here as well. We need a lot more expensively-produced, randomly dissimilar MARC records floating around privatized ILS silos. Makes us look sharp as a profession.

In the new model, that most sacred of our professional duties, the selection of materials to build services and collections, is turned over to either small centralized teams of two or three librarians and clerks, or in extreme cases to an external vendor, usually a library book distributor.

Once again Berry is on the bus. If only we could go back to the good old days, before organization, teamwork, and the “because I like this author, that’s why” school of collection development!

The resulting “destination” libraries resemble the cookie-cutter design of the grocery store, aimed at making sure everyone who comes in goes out with “product” (books, CDs, DVDs, or downloads). What the patron takes is of as little concern to the storekeeper librarian as it is to the supermarket manager. The success of the enterprise is measured in the number of products collected by patrons, now called “customers.” It is no longer measured in the usefulness or impact of the service on the quality of life in the community served.

Wow, I wish I had worked in Olden Tymes, when libraries knew how to measure the “impact” of reading on their users instead of asking stupid questions like how many “products” the “patrons” were actually able to get their hands on. Sounds like a real lost art.

Many of the American Library Association-accredited LIS programs that once claimed to “educate” the professional librarians who run these libraries have been invaded by faculty from other disciplines, a great many of whom are far more adept at the politics and pedagogy of academic survival than they are at the principled professional practice of librarianship.

Are you sure it wasn’t a hostile take-over by the Employees Who Don’t Want To Work In Other Parts Of The Library?

Now the progress of this deskilling has come full circle. Having discovered that the manager librarians of these supermarket libraries need fewer and fewer professional librarians to staff their simplified operations, the governing authorities are beginning to decide they don’t need a professional librarian to manage them. Some have been turned over to successful business types from industry, some to lawyers, some to academic administrators or fundraisers, and some to professional financial managers.

Methinks Berry either has some examples in mind he forgot to use, or he copied this paragraph from “Michael Gorman: Hits From the Golden Years.”

The most surprising part is that so few library leaders have raised their voices in alarm or outrage at this erosion of the standards to which libraries once aspired. It is frightening to think that we will stand quietly by and watch as professional librarians disappear from libraries and with them the quality of the services and collections in which we once took such professional pride.

Berry states the solution in the second paragraph. We must rise up in arms against the Angry People-Eating Self-Check Machines… because when self-check is outlawed, only outlaws will have self-check.

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