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I work with the public. You know, those people who are the first to say that they pay my salary even though they haven't paid taxes in years. But even though I serve the non-taxpaying public, they still represent the taxpayer. And more than representing figuratively, they stand in for the taxpayer in the real way that allows the taxpayer to live the carefree lifestyle that comes from knowing that most of the rest of the public is safely inside the library and not out on the streets. But enough about my bosses...
I think the general public are satisfied with library services. But I think the librarians are convinced that services suck. To read what librarians are saying about libraries is to get an image of libraries continually at the center of failure. The librarians say that libraries need new or more everything: more social networking features, more e-services, more e-books, e-readers, 2.0, 1.0, open source software, koha (whatever-tee-eff that is), iPhones, iPads, IM, SMS, Wii, virtual reality, real reality, Facebook, face punch, sustainability, sustainability???, advocacy, political action, fundraising, programming, css, drupal, SEO,... it doesn't matter how much librarians know or do, there always seem to be other librarians who demand that we know and do more. Like it's a personal offense to them when we aren't up on the latest, ... whatever, whether it's a new author or a subject or a device or a philosophy.
There seem to be two schools of thought on librarian adaptation: that we do it for our customers or that we do it for our colleagues. We work to provide for our patrons’ needs, but should we also master the accomplishments of other librarians?
My patrons just want to resize a 3000 pixel baby photo and print it, but I'm too busy because I'm retagging all of my Flickr photos according to some new standard some librarian is pushing. So it's a continual battle of providing for the needs of our patrons while mimicking the pursuits of our peers. Nobody wants to be the stupid librarian, but I also want to keep my job.
Maybe it's a conflict between Arts and Sciences. Librarianship is a Science, but many librarians come from liberal arts backgrounds. We want to discover, but we also desire to create. The artist says, "Lady Emilia has invented a word that rhymes with orange!" And so everyone sits down to write a new poem using “florange” so they won't be left out.
But the scientist in us tells us to discover and classify that which already exists: "Wadsworth, look here at this edition of The Register. Does that spell “florange”? In this sentence, it appears to be a contraction of the words florist and arranger, but they clearly use the word florange. The more proper spelling should be floranger, but that is not what was used. I am citing this usage. And tagging it as, ‘rhymes with orange.’"
Like any profession, we should keep current with the new shiny, to be aware of new tools and solutions, but we also need to know when to apply solutions. Do we create the environment to use “florange” just because florange exists, or do we keep florange in the toolbox and apply it when it's the right tool for the job? Everyone doesn't need to be a trailblazer, but when my library customer needs expertise on which path to take, we should know enough to give good advice.
How would you feel if you paid someone to do a job who didn't know about advancements in the field, or used obsolete technologies? Isn't this the definition of a professional? Meaning that we are obligated to maintain currency with advancements in the profession?
The lowest common denominator of library customer will always only need my help for getting the change machine to take his sweat-soaked dollar, so is that the only skill I should ever master? No. As with any request for information, I need to be prepared take the search as far as the customer needs to go. If she asks for cookbooks, I need to be prepared to direct her to cooking DVDs or recipe websites or how to use Google for a recipe search. And no, I don't follow her around repeating all this information because that makes me the creepy "rain man" librarian. But I need to be ready to answer if necessary.
Most library patrons don't want deep thought; they want free labor. So it's possible to coast through a library job knowing the bare minimum, like how to do a Google search (or twenty) or how to print fifty free tax forms.
But then, where is the professional curiosity? When I got the degree, I wanted to learn all the new stuff I needed to learn to get my degree. But is that it? Does learning stop with the diploma? Do some librarians think that what they learned in library school is all they will ever need to know?
And do some other librarians think that if you aren't using every new service or tool, then you just suck? I look at my Twitter account and so many librarians are twittererering about so many new things that I can't possibly even read about them all, let alone learn to use them. But I feel like I need to know about some of it.
When I got my first librarian job, I didn't know what to expect. I had never worked in a library; I had never answered questions or found stuff for people. But I had a computer on my desk and I wasn't afraid to use it. And when I asked for a specific materials report, the person who had been producing the daily reports decided to pass that duty to me, so I learned how to input commands into the library computer system to run borrower and circulation reports, create user accounts, and to access the system remotely to check files and run reports (so I could work at home in my pajamas). The point is that anyone could have been trained to do that job. But management looked for someone who seemed ready to learn it.
I've seen some online discussion about whether the Boy Scouts of America are still relevant after 100 years and it made me think of the Scouting Motto: "Be Prepared."
How can librarians stay relevant? That simple answer seems to cover it, be prepared. But prepared for what? Be prepared for whatever your customer or your colleague (and especially your boss) might want. Be aware of what other libraries are doing to assist their customers. Be willing to learn. And be prepared for the next step.