What We Know: Advocating the Tangible Knowledge of Librarians

In between reading The Oxford Guide to Library Research (discovered via librarian.net) and the The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, I am reminded that, as a profession, librarians do have a body of tangible knowledge that is unique to us. Without getting into the potentially deep philosophical topic of what kind of knowledge is tangible and what kind is intangible, I will posit, for our purposes here, that tangible knowledge is a product of learning which can be used in an obvious, physical way. For a private investigator, tracking people down starts with knowing which resources to use; certain databases are better for certain queries just as a computer programmer knows one or more languages and can, using them, build something. In both of these cases, one cannot achieve the end results (finding a person or creating a piece of software) without having the requisite knowledge. In advocating libraries as community centers and librarians as generalists, we often forget that an MLIS degree is meant not as an end in itself (read: getting a job), but as a symbol that we have specific knowledge, and that knowledge is real.

It’s true that anyone can read Thomas Mann’s book and develop their research skills, and yet most people do not. Instead, they approach the information desk and ask questions. Because I took a useful course on the Information Access in library school and have some experience in the field, I can conduct a reference interview in order to ascertain exactly what the person requires. Then I can use my knowledge of specific reference books, databases, organizations, and how to discover these resources, to point the person in the right direction. Our proficiency with search is a skill, our ability to recognize when what is found is good and useful is a skill, our finesse in coaxing a person to reveal his needs is a skill – and this is just the tangible knowledge that is related to serving the public. A cataloger’s knowledge of bibliographic control, an IT person’s knowledge of OPAC design, an acquisition librarian’s knowledge of collection development principles are all unique to librarianship as well, but most important of all, they are real skills that should be noted.

I am occasionally disappointed by lazy or stupid librarians who do not want to use the knowledge they have or somehow do not have that knowledge because, it is a singular truth that, as with medicine, librarianship demands the trust of the public. The only way we can put our tangible knowledge to use is if people are confident that we can answer their questions. The two biggest failings in the maintenance of librarianship as a body of knowledge that would curtail the lazy and the stupid is lack of standard assessment and absence of continuing education requirements. Personally, I find it troubling that the differences between veteran librarians and their newer colleagues are not always very striking. Promotions which are based on tenure and not merit are at fault here, and this hearkens back to the assessment issue. Likewise, while reading LIS-related articles and books are a personal interest for me (hence I am reading books on private investigating and library research), I don’t expect this is the case for most librarians. However, an absence of even professional interest among some librarians leads to wildly different skill sets among co-workers, which, in effect, makes it difficult for patrons to have accurate expectations. Without required and consistent professional development, a standard cannot be maintained and it may therefore be impractical to promote the librarian’s tangible knowledge.

That said, there are plenty of good librarians out there and I think that it is worthwhile to pursue the idea of advocating what we know as much as what we do. Some examples of this would be:

Table comparing what librarians know with what they do.

The use of advocating “what we know” is to raise the point that the library in itself is a pile of books and bricks, sometimes computers. In the UK there is talk of replacing librarians with volunteers. I think this is rubbish. I know that the people clamoring for this cost-effective “solution” are folks who do not understand the tangible knowledge librarians possess. The purpose of explaining what we know is to elevate the subject beyond the strictly practical level. I would venture to say that many non-librarians could put together a pathfinder (assuming they know what one is), but because I have the tangible knowledge referenced above (“How to find, evaluate, select, and present quality specialized sources…”), I’ll bet my pathfinder will be better than a layman’s pathfinder. In addition, I can explain why my pathfinder will be better using principles with which a non-librarian may not be familiar. That is the essence of specialized knowledge, not merely a jargon(and acronym)-rich vocabulary, but a set of facts based on scholarly research that has evolved through reflection, evaluation and further study. Like many of us, I have been guilty of deprecating the librarian’s qualifications, but the truth is librarians aren’t average joes; we know things that separate us from others.

From reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, I not only know how easy it is to get a person’s social security number, I also have a sense of the infoscape in relation to personal information. It’s a visceral feeling knowing how quickly someone can “have your number,” but in considering what the PI knows, that’s not the point. The fact of the matter is that the ability to do the PI’s job has limited appeal for much of us on a regular basis; it is the potential that there exists a person who has the aforementioned knowledge that keeps private investigators in business; when the need comes, there is someone with the knowledge. The relevant difference between private investigators and librarians is that no one is trying to replace them with volunteers; no one is going around saying to the PI that I can do your job better than you can. Other than the dangers involved in being a sleuth, people realize that they don’t have the right knowledge.

The reason they don’t have the same feeling about librarianship is that they don’t know what we know. Talking about what we know may not be as sticky as promoting what we do, but it’s important because, on their own, most people do not connect the two. And as long as the two are not related, bean counters will continue to believe that society gains the same value from volunteers as they do from librarians.

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2 Responses to What We Know: Advocating the Tangible Knowledge of Librarians

  1. Zee says:

    That was really a fascinating read not only from the point of a librarian but also from a from a philosophical point of view as to what tangible knowledge is and how it is best put to use. Wish you all the luck.


    • Oleg K. says:

      Thanks for the comment. It is an interesting topic, one whose surface I barely skimmed. Nonetheless, the whole thing sums up to three words: librarians know things.

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