Professional Metareading

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 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.


3 thoughts on “Professional Metareading

  1. This is excellent, thanks for discussing these works. To misquote George Needham, now at OCLC, you shouldn’t accept the word of a librarian who doesn’t read – it’s like getting advice from a doctor who smokes.
    But I have to say I’m intrigued by the idea of a debate regarding technology in librarianship. I see people acting in ways that suggests different attitudes towards technology, but I hear very little about it in the way of discussion.
    Librarians are reticent. Or passive-aggressive. And generally when one of us waxes hyperbolic one way or another, the rest of us politely ignore it.
    The whole idea of a debate over technology seems imposed to me. Perhaps the authors were trying to start one?
    I don’t think that most people, when deciding whether or not to adopt the latest shallow method for connecting people, are consciously taking a stand on one side or the other of some great issue affecting our profession. We are just trying to do our jobs as best as we know how.
    What little “debate” I have read – Michael Gorman’s The Enduring Library, is poorly argued and ignores most of the last half century of literacy research, some of which would support and some of which would shut down his theories (this is what I get for reading broadly). His attempt at debate with technologists (“Revenge of the Blog People” in Library Journal, 2/15/2005) was more alienating than engaging.
    So while you may not like it that Dilevko and Gottlieb don’t focus on what you’d like – I’m skeptical that some of that ground you say they cover even exists. My library doesn’t have this book (the keyword search says, “Did you mean Edible and Ghostlike?”, hmm no hits for that either), so it will be a while before I can get it on ILL and see for myself.
    But if you have any clues as to where this debate is raging, or raged, I’d love to hear it.

  2. Good point, Caleb. The debate they were addressing in the book was specifically the one about the efficacy of reference call centers, and arguing how they contributed to the deprofessionalization of reference. This debate doesn’t seem lively these days, and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard Steve Coffman get up at ALA and talk about how great outsourcing reference is.
    As for other debates, I think they exist more in conversations, and are only implicit in written discourse. It’s implicit in arguments about “keeping up” with the latest technology, in promotion of “23 Things” type courses, and in the general disdain for librarians who really don’t care much about social media. It concerns how academic librarians should spend their time. Should they, for example, hang out on Facebook or follow Twitter posts or constantly experiment with new social media, or should they spend their time reading scholarly books or taking classes or earning degrees. Most librarians can’t do all of these well, and some librarians can’t do any of them well.
    The debate is also only implicit because except for Gorman’s ill-conceived “blog people” article, most of the librarians who are suspicious of the usefulness of most technology don’t bother to respond in any way. They don’t blog; they don’t tweet; they’re too busy reading books and developing collections and helping students to bother about keeping up with the next new thing. Their silence is their response to the promotional efforts of others, but I’d agree that this doesn’t make for a raging debate. It makes for frustration and passive aggression.
    Even in the book, many of the librarians, both academic and public, said they didn’t read much, and often enough when they did read they read only fiction and only to relax. Some considered reading newspapers to be a chore they only did for work purposes. They authors also concluded that you could lead a librarian to books, but you couldn’t make him think, and that required reading doesn’t work. The readers have to be engaged in their projects.
    If there were to be much of a debate, it might take the form not of “technology vs. reading,” but of “process vs. substance,” and that IF we had to choose – which we usually don’t – would we choose to have an “emerging technology librarian” or a subject-specialist librarian populating our various reference services. How academic should academic librarians be? Or it could take the form of time management.

  3. Thanks for the clarification.
    I’m thinking that the degree that anyone needs to be an academic is going to vary by their particular role. The teaching librarian at the community college? The agriculture subject specialist at big state U?
    Amy VanScoy talks about “Librarians’ Personal Theories of Practice” and suggests diverse approaches to reference librarianship make for a good service, a good department, and a good profession.
    But perhaps the reason I react strongly to the suggestion that pushing technology in reference librarianship devalues the profession is that I partly agree. I think the profession is stronger with a diversity of skills (see above), but I see a lot of professionals being shut out, shut down, and not a lot of people trying helping them figure out what to do with their expertise and experience when fewer and fewer people take it for granted that this ‘substance’ is valuable.

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