On his Embedded Librarian blog, David Shumaker recently mused about the difference between working as partners with our faculty/clients/users/populations/patrons and working to serve them. Shumaker is a former corporate librarian who now researches embedded librarianship, and his brief thoughts on moving from a one-way relationship of service to client (the “information waitress” model of librarianship) to a more mutual partnership in which responsibility is shared are worth a read.
As a fellow embedded type librarian/informationist, I welcomed these words, as my mind has been traveling a parallel track. As I come from a non-profity, education-type sphere, and have never been thrilled with the idea of library using populations as “customers,” the trajectory my mind has been wandering is from Educator to Organizer. That is, organizer as in Community Organizer, who also happens to specialize in the organization and management of knowledge.*
This line of thinking, for me, developed from working on the issue of open access with the research community in which I am embedded. While traditional education methods (lectures, classes, seminars, websites) were of some utility, I found myself drawing heavily on the community organizing skills from my pre-MLIS days.
When I think of the types of library/information work I am most drawn to, they tend to be the ones that embrace the values of community organizing over the values of education – I much prefer the role of an organizer than that of a teacher (and I say this as someone who is technically employed as a teacher in my non-librarian life). I can jokefully say that this much have to do with my “problems with authority,” but in reality there is a kernal of truth in that statement; I find relationships based on equity more appealing than those based on supporting a hierarchy, even when I am placed in a position of power within the hierarchy. I don’t want to be the shushing librarian behind the desk. I don’t even want to be teaching your English 100 library class. I do want to empower you with access to information that will help you meet your (generally self-identified) needs.
In order to organize my research community around open access I have had to find out what matters to my researchers, staff, programmers, etc., and work from there. I have worked collaboratively with them to understand the issue and the relative merits of open access in ways that make sense to them and reflect their motivations and values. Yes, I have specialised tools and access I can offer, and yes I can share my personal values and passions with my colleagues, but the goal we work toward has to be a common one, not one I want to impose upon them. To achieve this I have to suppress the librarian’s natural inner know-it-all a bit, but as long as I can let that out by whupping my little brother at Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit from time to time, that’s not too bad.
This approach obviously wouldn’t work if I were a librarian in an environment where I didn’t share the core values of the institution, but I’m fortunate to work in what I think of as “the world of good,” with people who also work there because they want to make the world better, healthier, and more equitable. This approach also wouldn’t work if I were heavily invested in corporate-speak or a certain flavour of Professional identity.
Time to add community organizing to the list of things not taught in library school? It’s certainly been bouncing around in my brain.
*Once I met a guy at a party who, when I asked what he did, said he was an organizer. I assumed community organizer. He was a professional closet/home organizer. Whoa. I had no idea such an occupation existed.