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Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak

The latest kerfuffle from LibraryLand comes courtesy Jeff Trzeciak, university “librarian” at McMaster’s, whose recent speech has garnered tart responses from other librarians and library directors (spoiler alert: count this as another notch on that post).

I have this theory that an uncomfortably high percentage of research library directors are fundamentally very anxious about their standing among their peers (university as well as library), sometimes to the point of professional myopia, and that this results in occasionally bizarre behavior — in this case,  using budget season in a year of severe cuts all around to prattle on about how the very best libraries don’t need librarians or library instruction (just like my favorite local restaurant can stop serving food or waiting on tables).

Me, I really don’t give a gnat’s behind about my standing among other directors as long as I can get ‘er done. As explained previously, I choose the small teaching-university environment because that’s how I roll.

But I do take notice when a university “librarian” seems quite proud to announce that the (self-inflicted) trend in his library is to significantly reduce the number of professional librarians (replacing some with “PhDs” and IT people) and move out of the information literacy role.

I put “librarian” in quotes quite intentionally. After listening to his speech at Penn [edit: Penn State] and the responses from people I respect, I have concluded that Jeff is posing a question, who is a librarian? My response is that I am a librarian, and he is not.

Let me explain.

A few months after I arrived at MPOW, someone on campus commented on all the “cutting-edge services” I was providing. I pressed this person for examples, just to see what was considered “cutting-edge” in our environment.

My Judy-Jetson improvements included:

* Establishing walk-up (and chat/email) reference services (which we call Research Help, since that’s what it is).*

* A regular docket of literary and arts events in the library

* “Allowing” food in the library (which was true before I arrived, but not well-known)

* Making the library cleaner and brighter, with more seating for students

* A renewed rigor/emphasis on information literacy instruction and implementing assessment thereof

* Implementing online interlibrary loan (hello, 1977!)

By the standards of the Gospel According to Jeff Trzeciak, I must seem like some misguided brontosaurus snuffling in the antedeluvian biblioforest. I should be eliminating walk-up service and replacing practitioners with PhDs who will focus on hifalutin digital projects. I’m… boring. And small. Hardly the stuff of Taiga Forum.

Though–wait–wasn’t one of Taiga’s latest findings, “Within five years, universities will expect libraries to assess their impact on student learning and retention and will fund accordingly”? But I digress.

I made those changes, and prioritized them, based on two things: my twenty years of professional library experience (and more years beyond that); and my environmental scan that concluded the following:

  • Our students — many first-generation  college  — arrived with poor research skills, and often graduated that way;
  • Instructors understand the need for high-quality information literacy instruction and absorb skills themselves through our library-faculty instructional partnership;
  • We, the library, could play a pivotal role in helping our students become lifelong information consumers; and
  • We could share and reinforce the joys of reading and cultural literacy, often within the context of faculty- and student-driven creation.

I will stand by those priorities. Yes, we have many other things in work, some highly technical (have your hugged your NCIP messaging today?), some more entrepreneurial, such as our academic-tech support for faculty, and some edgy in a small, fun way, like our LED “Open” sign. I also would love to have more IT staff. Of course I would!  And I have been saying for my entire career that we are shifting to a more professional/managerial workforce.

It may well be that Jeff’s students arrive completely steeped in research skills — which I doubt — and that McMaster’s faculty also self-update in this knowledge. But on this mortal coil, I would consider it sinful and wrong to eliminate a key service I considered crucial to the mission of our university, and crucial to our fundamental obligation to our students and faculty.

* Note, we didn’t have scheduled reference hours for at least the previous decade, and it would have been hard to do it during that period. But with the addition of .5 FTE temporary halftime reference support shortly before my arrival, as well as a new librarian who is willing to work half his time “on the desk” — a daunting schedule he nevertheless believes in — we eke out a slender but highly-prized reference — er, research help — schedule. We work our fingers to the bone, but we make it happen–because we are librarians.

Now I have the added concern that Jeff’s blatherings will be read and taken seriously, not only as a blueprint for library restructuring, but also as a valid interpretation of what librarianship, at essence, really means to all of us, in and out of LibraryLand.

Like Jenica, I don’t speak for my university. But I do feel I can and should speak on behalf of librarianship. And if Jeff has done me one small favor, it is that in studying his words, I feel more than ever the rightness of my leadership and decisions.

In the end, what matters, and what we are about, are the ancient truths of librarianship: organizing, managing, making available, preserving, and celebrating the word in all of its manifestations; helping our users build skill sets the fundamentals of which (if not the ephemeral details) will last a lifetime; and celebrating and defending the right to read, however that word is interpreted. This is what we do. This is who we are. This makes us librarians.

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