Today I read a lot of Dilevko and Gottlieb’s Reading and the Reference Librarian: the Importance to Library Service of Staff Reading Habits (which I’d never heard of but found out about here). It shares some perspectives (as well as the LCSH “Librarians — Books and Reading”) with Peter Briscoe’s excellent Reading the Map of Knowledge: the Art of Being a Librarian, though the former analyzes survey results while the latter is more a personal manifesto on being a librarian. Both advocate wide reading as a goal to become a better librarian. Dilevko and Gottlieb focus, in my opinion, too narrowly upon the reference librarian and on the specific effect of reading habits upon library reference service, but then again they do what they do well, and it’s unfair to criticize a book for not doing something its authors never intended to do just because I would have liked to see them tackle other areas of librarianship.
The first chapter deals with the deprofessionalization of reference, especially with the rise of the reference call center of the LSSI model and the way it deliberately focuses on the simplest and most common queries and ignores the rest as a way to reduce professionally trained and educated staff and cut costs, and compares that desire to the way Amazon.com ran their organization until they outsourced everything to India. The Amazon call centers sound harrowing, with loud buzzers and lights flashing when workers weren’t answering emails fast enough, or forced overtime with managers giving out candy bars to motivate and infantilize employees. At least now when we buy from Amazon we can all be relieved that the harrowing and humiliating jobs are done in some foreign country by people totally unlike us for a tenth of the cost, so we don’t have to feel bad about them. The book was published in 2004, based on research done in 2000-01, and I wonder if that’s still as much of an issue. I know LSSI is still around, but I haven’t heard much of a buzz about outsourcing reference for several years. However, that could be because it’s become so common as not be worth mentioning.
Divelko and Gottlieb argue that wide reading of newspapers, magazines, journals, books fiction and nonfiction improves reference service for both public and academic librarians. Some chapters focus exclusively on academic librarians and the benefits to professors and students when librarians read broadly as well as deeply in some academic discipline. A little knowledge of a lot of topics and a lot of knowledge on a few topics help in reference, instruction, collection development, and liaison activities, and the professors interviewed recommended taking classes, earning degrees, reading journals, learning languages, or at the very least reading introductory textbooks in the areas they work with so as to know something about the organization of knowledge in the discipline. In other words, professors want academic librarians to act like academics, to have academic fields of inquiry and an intellectual engagement with the world of scholarship. Go figure.
Sometimes the expectations seem unrealistic. The ideal librarian would be as knowledgeable as every professor about every subject. At some point I made a mental list of the ideal candidate for my job. That librarian at a minimum would have PhDs in philosophy, religion, and history, as well as fluency in Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese. When that candidate comes along, I’m doomed. Good thing I have my quasi-tenure. Nevertheless, in general, I think the point is that the more academic an academic librarian the more successful that librarian will be in several areas of librarianship, and I wholeheartedly agree.
The final chapter, “Reading as a Species of Intellectual Capital,” analyzes changes in reference work through the lens of Bourdieu. “To use Bourdieu’s terms, advocates of digital reference services are deploring their ‘species of capital’ — their belief in the efficacy of technological innovation as represented by the call center model — in order to render less valuable the ‘species of capital’ of reference librarians whom they accuse of being concerned only with ’”reviewing the professional literature” and other odd tasks’.…” The authors conclude that these “supposedly valueless tasks” contribute a lot to a successful library experience for the users, but that some librarians are attempting to discredit ’”the form of capital upon which the force of [an] opponent rests.’” Ignoring call centers for the nonce, does this strategy seem familiar? “Techonolgical innovation has become a weapon allowing one group of individuals to exert power and influence on their own behalf while marginalizing the contributions of those who are skeptical of the ultimate value of such technological advances. It allows the first group of players to paint themselves as innovators in the profession, and it renders the second group a ‘negligible quantity’” (211).
Dilevki and Gottlieb are not impressed, and clearly articulate the point of this familiar rhetorical strategy: “The terms of the debate thus permit any skeptic of technological innovation to be branded an opponent of progress and thus an impediment to the field’s survival” (211–12). These accusations, though often in mild enough form befitting librarians, seem rife enough in library discourse. The advocates of constant technological innovation often look for any sign that library users are moving in their direction, while ignoring the overwhelming organization of a considerable portion of academia. In the humanities, those might be the librarians who praise and wonder at a tiny flowering of “digital humanities” while ignoring the undeniable able fact that most humanists do now and have always engaged in the study of texts without accompaniment of multimedia. Confirmation bias is rampant in this company. However, at least in the humanities, how easy might it be to turn the tables? To reply, when challenged about the latest technological innovation or sad, shallow method of connecting people, “No, I’m unfamiliar with that tool, but tell me, what’s the last scholarly book or article you read, or what academic field of study do you have any mastery of?” Since it’s clear that faculty and students benefit from having librarians with subject knowledge of academic fields, it’s quite possible that the current terms of debate do a disservice to our users and ourselves by urging librarians to be computer support and keyword searching specialists rather than academic subject specialists.