Sunday, February 24, 2013

What does it mean to be a librarian? I am not sure.

Time for some navel-gazing!

Sarah Kennedy asks What does it mean to be a librarian?

You know what? Not sure what it says about me that after 5 years in this profession and writing hundreds of blog posts, I have not once come around close to even this topic.

Many of you who are regular readers of my blog probably know or can tell that it seems I love my job and I have even fallen into the trap of describing myself with the "P word". But now that I think about it, I am not sure if this is even accurate.

I enjoy the fact that I am always learning and trying new things, playing with ideas, and currently I am in a position where I have sufficient autonomy to push for change. Also having spent more hours than I want to think of, studying, researching and experimenting on librarianship, I have gone past "The Plain of Suckitude” for many aspects of what I do daily, so I enjoy a feeling of competence exercising my professional skill.

Still, none of this is specific to being a librarian. One of the most important aspects of been passionate is the belief you are doing something worthwhile, whether be it to change the world, or even just a single's person life.

I read inspiring stores from my colleagues (if I may call them that) in the public libraries all around the world, about how they helped the less fortunate people of our society with job hunting, the less IT literate connect with their children using technology etc and I feel somehow I have fallen short because I have few such stories to tell.

How about the fact that as a librarian, I am in one of the oldest and noblest professions and in the line of the "guardians of human knowledge"? Does that give me purpose?

Actually, such descriptions always make me giggle, making me think one has watched too much "The Librarian" (also another time someone asked about "Indiana Jones" type adventures librarians tend to get!).

Seriously, it is not everyday, someone gets to save the Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts. Even day to day, due to my job scope and current position which has nothing to do with preservation and digitization,  I never felt as if I am one of the "guardians of human knowledge" whose role is to "Safeguard and preserve human knowledge so it can be safely passed down to the generations to come".

Though at times, when I page though old books, or see recording/writings by past librarians, I do get a sense of history ..... and hope that I am not messing things up too badly the works of my predecessors, particularly since my institution is the oldest academic library in Singapore with a 100 year history.

I guess it would be only a slight stretch it to say I have been trying to build services since I began my career , but sometimes I wonder, given the limited resources each library has, whether I am diverting resources and more importantly attention from collections for a short term gain. Would the future generations care whether our library had a chat service, had built a good community around social media, or even had a discovery service that was used for 5 years before it was replaced by yet another round of "superior" technology etc?

How about the role of librarians has activists to help make society better by making information available for all? Currently, if you ask me, in our profession, there is one big cause that has the potential to make the world a better place - Open Access. 

While there are many many librarians on the front-lines trying to push for open access such as Barbara Fister (whose writings always make me think), I have to admit to my shame, I barely noticed this aspect of librarianship until recently.

Though now that I have spent time learning and thinking about it, I think it is blindingly obvious the right thing to do so, not for ourselves as librarians but for the world. Yes, I just read that last sentence back and it felt so cliche.... I understand of course, the status quo which includes not just publishers but also librarians and academics themselves will make it hard to achieve and such change if achieved will have both winners and losers.

To be fair, librarians alone almost certainly can't push the academic world to open access, because ultimately the academics themselves will have to say they want it and there is legitimate concern among librarians that open access will make some aspects of librarianship obsolete and who knows we might even risk eliminating our own profession. So again I am not sure , and really I don't do  grandiose big causes..., though I have a certain smaller vision and goal I am working towards.

Truth is, I didn't come into this profession trying to change the world, or even in the belief that it would help people lead better lives. It isn't glamorous to say this, I didn't grow up wanting to be a librarian (I know a few librarians like this, they tend to be a different breed), like most librarians, I suspect, we stumbled upon this profession while looking for something to do and in my case at least found that I took to it like a duck to water and I enjoy the work, so why not?

I can't give you a big speech on why being a librarian is a noble profession (is it nobler than being a teacher, nurse etc?) , or why our work will change the world for the better, or even that I am definitely not in it for the money (though there are easier ways to earn money eg finance, if you manage to get to the senior management levels the pay is pretty comfortable with a lot less stress and competition than other professions).

I don't even have a well articulated statement on why I want to be a librarian, something I am told some LIS schools are teaching their students. (I am lucky, I got a job without it)

All I can say is I wake up every day because I have so many exciting things and ideas to do,  and I always try to improve and fix problems to make life a little easier for our community; I feel a absurd sense of pride when I see my colleagues using things I have been involved in introducing , and maybe that should be enough?

I would guess (and here's the cynical part), the vast majority of librarians don't worry about such philosophical questions either and many go on to achieve great success in their careers whether in terms of professional advancement and/or accomplishing great things for the profession.

So what do you think? Do you have a well articulated statement of why you are a librarian? Or are you similar to me, enjoy the work without thinking too hard about the ideals of librarianship?

PS : For those who read this blog post for ideas and latest on tech and not personal rambling, do check out Qwiki , it's a free app that reminds me a lot of animato  that allows you to quickly make interesting slideshows with your pictures. Another nice app to look at is the Sunrise app, which is now my default calender app, while Any.do is my default task list and so far it looks like it is taking as my task app. 

















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