The Library Police

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As a longtime library employee, I’m accustomed to being referred to as a librarian, despite not having earned the specialized accreditation (Master of Library Science) that alone warrants the title.  For most casual library users, librarians are everyone and anyone who works in a library, whatever the actual designation of their jobs.  On one level, this is a simple mistake by the uninitiated – like calling all hospital staff doctors, or calling everyone in a law office a lawyer – but on another, it may tell us something of the evolving nature of libraries themselves.

Mid-sized public or academic libraries have hierarchies of workers, ranging from security guards, circulation clerks, and shelvers, to library technicians with discrete fields of responsibility (acquisitions, cataloguing, or database management, for example) and full-fledged librarians who plan budgets, build collections, and develop instructional programs for users.  Some libraries now require junior staff to have obtained a two-year Library Technician diploma (usually called a Lib Tech), an instance of credential inflation which would baffle many library employees of years past, as well as disqualify most of them for their positions.   Yet this drive to make libraries’ service models more complex and more stratified runs counter to the way in which libraries are actually being used today.

In the age of Google, library personnel – whatever their rank within a library system – have become streamers of information rather than sorters of books; self-checkout kiosks and user-friendly OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogues) make many of the traditional library services redundant.  The stereotype of the middle-aged frump saying “Shhh!” is as obsolete as inked due-date stamps.  Day-to-day, what most patrons want is help with using photocopiers, searching online articles, formatting Word documents, and integrating their own electronic devices with those of the institution.  In my own experience, there’s not a lot to distinguish the assistance provided by lowly lib techs like me and the advice given by actual librarians, and I’d go so far as to say that sometimes my assistance has been more courteous and more useful.   Fifteen years ago, one of my colleagues described the difference between library clerks and librarians as analogous to that between orderlies and surgeons, but now the comparison may be closer to a Registered Practical Nurse versus a General Practitioner.  If you have a cold or need a vaccination, you’re just as well to go to an RPN as a GP – likewise, if you want to find an edition in the stacks, research a newspaper article from two years ago, or place a hold on a new book, you’ll likely get what you want as efficiently by asking a roving library staffer as you would waiting in line at the librarian’s desk.

This isn’t to deny the training and experience that is exclusive to those with an MLS, and I’m not saying I could manage a government archive or a multi-branch public system anywhere nearly as well as they could.  But I have seen an increasing blurring of occupational lines between clerks, lib techs, and librarians that the latter seem to resent:  if their jobs are being performed by people several steps below them on the pay scale, and if ordinary library visitors assume the woman processing their loan and the guy moving the carts around are as much librarians as the lady teleconferencing in the corner office, then the usual understanding of “librarianship,” and of the career cachet that goes with it, is clearly changing.  What people get out of libraries isn’t what it was in previous generations; perhaps it’s time to rethink the professional roles of the people working in them.