Thursday, March 24, 2016

What is a Librarian: An Unsolicited Rant

Yesterday I checked my phone in the morning to find that Book Riot posted an article on non-degreed librarians, and how they have value as humans.

As I read it, that’s what this article was about.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the number of negative comments that this article received.

I could write here the many arguments I’ve had when this topic comes up and the comment section explodes: about the process to become a brewmaster and how there are people who run breweries or make beer who are NOT brewmasters, technically (they are usually called head brewers). Or I could talk about the one time a child ran me down in a grocery store calling for her “library teacher” and how I said hi to her rather than explaining that my teacher certification lapsed years ago (and even then, I was never certified to teach in THAT state). Or even how people who are nurses for their entire careers have to take an updated test every few years to prove that they can still Be a Nurse Good; so please stop with “librarians are the doctors/para-professionals are the nurses” because last time I checked it was not a universal requirement for even librarians to keep up with certifications (I mean, it may be that April will arrive and I will have spent 5 years in libraries and I will be summoned to engage in a Hunger Games-style competition using only the Dublin Core, so stay tuned). But instead I want to hit a bit closer to home here, parking this officially in Unsolicited Rant territory.

This was not the only thing I saw shared on social media yesterday. Another widely shared link was to a Libraries Transform post. The supporting text, when shared by ALA, that accompanies this post is “Librarians are early literacy experts!” This was shared on Facebook, at the time of this writing, 496 times. That many shares tells me that a lot of librarians agree with it. And before I recognized the funny juxtaposition that inspired this post, I was kinda pissed.

Listen: being a librarian does not make you an early literacy expert.

Hell, I have a Master’s degree in Literacy, and I don’t even think that I’M an early literacy expert. And that’s because I’ve worked alongside actual literacy experts: people with PhDs in child development and curriculum vitae miles long who have worked tirelessly for years with and against the flow of educational trends to create reports and curricula that model best practices that people can use to help the children in their communities thrive. The members of the National Early Literacy Panel, whose report Every Child Ready to Read is based on, are early literacy experts. Dr. Susan Neuman, who worked to evaluate ECCR1 and develop ECRR2, is an early literacy expert.  Do you need to go to further schooling to become an early literacy expert? Well, that’s a start.

I sincerely hope that didn’t hurt your feelings. But if it did, and you are feeling as though you have to poke holes in the above paragraph rather than keep reading, I once again urge you to revisit this post later, because I truly wish our thinking would change. For our sanity.

Because: Here is what I believe. I am not at all purporting this as fact:
I believe that if you have your Masters of Library Science, you are a librarian.
I believe that if your job title is Librarian, you are a librarian.
I believe if you work in a library and people call you a librarian, you are a librarian.
This is because I believe your existence as a librarian should not impact my existence as a librarian.

The key word here is “should.” There is a very real fear that if we all admit non-degreed librarians have value then that could mean budget cuts and slashing the number of librarian jobs that require a degree, and degreed librarians will become irrelevant. And the worst part is, the reaction to posit degreed librarians as "better" than non-degreed ones inspires, rightly so, a defense of on-the-job training. It's the clashing we do, you see, that sinks our own ship: "I paid a ton of money-- degreed librarians are better!">"hey training happens on the job too">[insert 20+ rambling defenses of LIS programs that intentionally or not completely devalue anyone without a degree]>"library school is worthless oh and by the way all MLS's are pretentious A-holes". We do it to ourselves.

But this reaction, from my perspective, is assuming that all librarians are the same. And we aren’t. We all have something to offer, certainly. But we are not the same.

Librarians aren’t early literacy experts. Their expertise lies in taking the National Early Literacy Panel findings and the ECRR curriculum and using it in the most community-responsive way in their libraries. If early literacy experts want to implement their curricula directly, they will have to learn or re-learn skills to work with families on the front line. “How to get along with children” is not taught in literacy school.

We often talk about “things they didn’t teach us in library school.” Mulling this post over in my brain, I thought about what I learned in library school that I would not have learned, or learned in such an in-depth way, had I learned it through experience (not in comparison to non-degreed librarians in general, but in comparison to my non-degreed self). I thought about strategic planning and marketing for non-profits. I was surprised that my library interviews didn’t ask about SWOT analysis, for how much time I spent on it in school. I posed this question to other library staff and got similar answers: lots of theory, patron behavior patterns, policy writing, how to craft a library from scratch. I realized that in library school, we were not studying to work in libraries. We were studying to be experts in “libraries” as a concept. Non-degreed librarians have spent their careers working in libraries, something we are not trained in until we work in a library ourselves (except for those who work in a library before or through grad school, of course).In these conversations, people with an MLS, who have dedicated time and money and god knows what else to become experts in "library"--we had the capacity/ability/support/resources to get this degree. And we don't serve ourselves well by isolating and devaluing people. That's pretty ugly.

MLS-degreed librarians and non-degreed librarians hold expertise in different, but important, aspects of libraries. And we need to be advocates for our continued existence. We need experts in the field of librarianship, and we also need experts in our community and its history, prepared to fight together for sustained and improved service and the necessary budget and work environments to do that with.

Because otherwise, we’re just gonna be a bunch of sneeches on a beach wondering what it would be like to live without the constant fear of getting fired.

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