Is Bob a Librarian?
By Joseph Janes
American Libraries Columnist
Assistant Professor, Information School, University of Washington.
Column for August 2003
I was driving over to west Seattle last night to play bridge when an idle question crossed my mind. We were playing at my friend Bob’s house; Bob was one of the best of a very strong group of students I worked with several years ago at the University of Michigan, and since then he’s been working here in Seattle.
Bob came to Michigan with an undergraduate background in engineering, which he despised, and started out wanting to be an academic reference librarian. As he worked through the program, he gravitated toward the technological, along with strong coursework in organization and reference. He did great work with us, especially at the Internet Public Library, and was very happy to take a development job with a web-based company when he graduated.
All librarians would find his current work really familiar: trying to understand the people who will be using his service and designing something that will meet their needs by organizing and structuring information they will find useful, including developing vocabularies and search protocols, all the while making it easy to use and attractive so they will come back.
So between hands I asked Bob whether he considers himself a librarian, and whether he refers to himself that way when talking with his colleagues or clients. I assumed the answer was no, and I was right—and I don’t blame or fault him for that in the slightest. In fact, in a way I’m pleased; I’ve been telling my students for years that they should present themselves in whatever way makes the most sense for the environment in which they are or want to be working. I believe that the work they do is more important than their job title or public persona.
Would I prefer, though, that Bob and others call themselves librarians? Absolutely. The work is more important than the name, but the name matters. Bob’s position (for the record, he refers to himself as a developer) is an example of one that the Internet has made possible, and is one of a class of jobs that are librarianship in all but name.
Expanding our domain
What the Internet has done is to expand the domain where the concepts and skills of librarianship can be of value. To be sure, people with training as librarians have always worked in all kinds of settings beyond libraries—government agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporations, museums, archives, freelance work, and so on—however, the challenge presented by a distributed, highly dynamic, and widespread information environment makes those skills and talents even more valuable.
For a while, this work was called “information architecture”; now one also hears all sorts of other names, including “content management” and “user experience.” But it all boils down to what we’ve always known: Understand who your users and community are, what their information needs are, find the right and best stuff for them, organize it so it can be found, help out when needed, and all will be right with the world.
It would be easy to get defensive about this; after all, as I’ve said, librarians have known this stuff all along, so why do we need entirely new fields (and new people, who probably get paid a heck of a lot more than librarians) to do this? Truthfully, we don’t. Defensiveness, though, is not the best response.
Our colleagues in these emerging domains are doing us a favor, if they only knew it. They are spreading the word that it’s useful and important to think about users first and then build systems and services, not the other way around. It’s important to think about context and intent, and to build controlled vocabularies and collections and interfaces that make sense and that people can use. The more people understand that, the more likely future systems and organizations will adopt similar techniques.
The challenge for us is to bring these new folks into the fold. Even Bob, trained as a librarian, holder of an MLS, isn’t a member of ALA—and why should he be? What do we have to offer people who do this kind of work but don’t think of themselves as librarians? Of course, the big win in the long run is helping to convince them that they are in fact “librarians,” and should say so on their business cards. But that’s another story.