Ranting on Berry’s Rants

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To get the full effect you may want to glance at this article first.

To be honest, I was hoping to see a punch line at the end of this article, so that the rather outlandish points delivered by the author could be accounted to blatant humor. Unfortunately it didn’t come and what lay before me was a piece of paranoid rhetoric that warned of the impending “end of days” for the professional librarian. True these are opinions but the knee-jerk reactions to the actions of new library leaders struggling to find a new voice for their libraries is shocking and without reason. Why wouldn’t we need to rethink our practices if the audience has changed its own vision for the library? In some libraries they constantly fight a battle to draw back their population from the migration to the “bookstore” or seclusion of the at home online experience. Even reference services are seeing a downturn in numbers, which could be a factor in their management’s decision to try something new and unexpected. What follows are my free flowing retorts to the article entitled “Blatant Berry: The Vanishing Librarians” published on LibraryJournal.com, 02/15/2008.

In response to the changing outlook on library services, I really find the terms “dumbed down” to be somewhat offensive. For many of the responsibilities you are referring; a seasoned degree in the arts or sciences was never really required. Many users don’t seem to have time to go into depth about the vast history of the books or subjects they are looking for; frankly they just wanted to be able to find the items they knew they wanted all by themselves. All too often they can’t because our catalog systems are written in an obscure technological language that sometimes even baffles those in the know and often confuse the simplest of searches for a known item. In our modern age of self-service, is it so outlandish to find a self-check out machine at the Circulation desk? I would never argue that the Circulation staff should be eliminated altogether, but allowing them to contribute in more productive ways away from the desk is economically more beneficial for the library than having them idly sit in expectation of an eager patron.

The question of the changing reference desk is an interesting one, where I would argue that librarians should be the hub of any public service; do we really need to be chained to a single desk to perform said service? Guerrilla librarians, as a former teacher of mine once called them, are a benefit to the patrons, if they are in need but are not eager to either search for the reference desk or willing to take just what will satisfy their need for now. Would I be angry to find out that a user is finding just the right resource without my help, keeping the fact that my influence on the systems and services rendered made the accomplishment possible; absolutely not. Am I afraid the user would fail without constantly coming to ask me about their search? Not always, but by making myself available through IM services, email, phone, or walkie-talkie; I am only a question away.

Regarding OCLC’s influence in our modern world of cataloging, I would have to say that this section is more for shock value than a factual argument. Users like Amazon and Google because they get answers that fit their questions. Amazon’s interface for finding books and similar information puts most OPACs to shame. Yes there are some systems that are making a more “user friendly” catalog, but as I explained to a young computer savvy patron; the information the catalog displays is such because we are truly only a fraction away from outdated Machine Readable punch cards. The comment on “metadata” is equally as ill-informed as the records themselves are still quite similar and metadata is meant to further enhance catalog records in this digital age. In all truth I would rather have an OCLC controlled universal record for an item, rather than 300 shockingly dissimilar records crafted by individual catalogers and their particular needs. Movements in the library world such as RDF and FRBR are making the steps forward in creating a much more robust and dynamic cataloging resource for libraries. There will always be a period of transition, but fearing change only makes progress more difficult.

I must admit that my experience with the impact of book jobbers and team based collection development in public libraries is limited, but I cannot believe that the usefulness and impact of the services of the library have fallen to the wayside due to such changes. If the library managers want to refocus their services to deal with their patrons as “customers” I would wager that they aren’t only worrying about gate counts, but instead about “customer satisfaction” something we struggle with measuring everyday. In some ways treating the patrons like customers seems more akin to satisfying their needs with our expertise than force feeding our own suggestions to an unwilling audience. It would be great if every child coming to the library was looking for Dostoevsky, but sometimes they just want Harry Potter. Blaming those staff members whose background isn’t in library science or whom you judge as unqualified, is elitist and insulting to those without a professional degree but yet have years of experience and knowledge to offer. Their lack of a “membership card” in our world of librarianship doesn’t disqualify their knowledge, experience, or desire to perform excellent customer service.

I will be honest that even though I am new to the field I can feel a similar frustration in the watering down of the field. I have previously expressed my feelings about the relatively undemanding library school programs producing graduates who can throw down modern library lingo with the best of them, but who have a hard time understanding the most basic of library functions ( See– What are they teaching in library school these days?). Unfortunately I would wager that the infection of political posturing and academic pedagogical temperaments are more likely to be blamed on the mutations found in most academic institutions rather than the influence of a few “outsiders” on the library field. I firmly believe we need to reaffirm our professional influence on modern libraries and want to raise the banner high in the fight for our professional re-examinations. However, I would rather hold my professional flag up high so everyone can see what I stand for, rather than sticking the pointy end into the eyes of those whose trust and support we had previously gained.

 

  1. 02/21/2008 at 4:49 pm

    Hi John,

    I too was annoyed with the John Berry article. As a local library advocate I felt his remarks didn’t represent an informed reality. I actually commented with two posts on my blog. Here is a small sample : “As a customer and taxpayer – I expect public libraries to be efficient and well managed. I expect them to use new operating tools to improve their overall quality of service. I expect that the time savings created by new ways of doing things will allow librarians and library staff to be more engaged with their “customers”, not less. If librarians aren’t out on the floor working with customers it is not because they are being “deskilled”. It is because they are simply providing poor customer service.”

    http://thefishbits.wordpress.com/

  2. 02/21/2008 at 5:09 pm

    Brad,

    Thanks for the comments. I wholeheartedly agree with your statements. Thanks for sharing your blog as well, I will add it to my blogroll.

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