Are librarians still specialists? Then let’s be so publicly.

September 7, 2011

by flickr user Mai Le

All of this is written from a public library (and youth services) perspective. Academic librarians, special librarians, archivists, and other library folk may see things differently.

A couple weeks ago Ashley Barrineau posted on yalsa-bk about a new website called Story Snoops, which “offers children’s book reviews from a parent’s perspective” (although in their FAQ, they clarify that they do not advocate censorship: “Our website is a resource for parents to seek out or avoid specific content in a book, and to facilitate valuable discussions with their children.”). They also offer book lists and readalikes.

I’m happy to have a new tool to use in helping young readers and their parents find books (and another tool to teach them how to find books), but I have to admit that I’m really bummed that Story Snoops wasn’t created by librarians. This is what we do–so why aren’t we doing it? (I suppose the KDL What’s Next Database comes close, but it isn’t as user-friendly as Story Snoops is.)

I’m not trying to say that non-librarians shouldn’t be allowed to talk about books, write reviews, create book lists, or suggest books to one another. And, of course, it’s not just librarians who organize information. But I do think we need to be librarians more obviously as a way of keeping libraries on people’s minds and reinforcing our image as specialists.

I want to see librarians creating user-friendly tools that help people fulfill their information needs generally (and in this case, provide readers’ advisory specifically). Tools like this (and BookLamp) not being created by librarians is fodder for the “why do we still need libraries” people–not that I think these tools actually threaten libraries, just that we need to keep ourselves in people’s mind as experts. We need to be librarians outside our libraries, and librarians to everyone, not just to our patrons. Libraries are local, but the Internet is worldwide. We need to be visible online because it provides us with an opportunity to be library advocates to nonusers.

I don’t have firsthand, lived experience with with what libraries were like before the Internet (or before computers, even), but I get the sense that we were specialists. We were the ones who understood the more-complicated-than-you’d-think principles of categorizing and classifying information. We were the ones who understood how to find difficult-to-find information. We were the ones who were experts in literature and in finding the right book for a reader.

But now there is tagging and crowdsourcing and Google and “everything” being online and other sources for finding books. And none of that is bad because it puts people in touch with the information that they want and empowers information seekers who know how to use those tools. But does it erode our claim at being specialists (and professionals)? If Google can put “everything” at your fingertips and keyword searches make finding what you’re looking for so simple and a team of dedicated, book-loving moms create a tool that helps you find your new book, what are librarians still around for?

I guess I’d argue that we’re still specialists because we have an eye for information that automated tools don’t. We are the ones who help you sort through the dross Google turns up when you search for something. We are the ones who show you how to go beyond keyword searching when you can’t find what you’re looking for. We are the ones who can say, “Yes, this is a great resource, but look, this tool recommends Because I am Furniture for tweens, and maybe that’s not the best suggestion.”

But are we doing these things in a noticeable way? We are for individual patrons when we help them, and we are when we talk to each other about these issues, but what are we doing to show non-library goers that librarians are worth having?

We need to take this specialized expertise, this domain knowledge, outside of the library. We need to harness what we know to create tools that non-library goers will use. By being specialists publicly, we prove the worth of libraries and librarians.

Why aren’t Story Snoops and BookLamp created by librarians? Do librarians lack the technical knowledge to build tools like this? Or is the intersection of “literature specialists” and “tech specialists” too small? Are we unwilling to do library-related things when we’re not on the clock at work? What’s keeping us from putting librarians and libraries in people’s faces?

We need to identify and overcome whatever hurdles there are so we can prove our worth and defend ourselves as specialists. We need to be librarians–and specialists–more obviously, more publicly.

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9 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Lisa  |  September 7, 2011 at 5:32 PM

    ” Are we unwilling to do library-related things when we’re not on the clock at work?”

    I think this may be a valid point for many – including me! I am happy to volunteer for my library now and again at off-hours events with no expectation of compensation, and I definitely read books and blogs that are job-related while I’m off the clock, but that’s it. I have two kids and a husband to spend time with, not to mention several non-book-related hobbies that I hardly ever get to. Plus there’s the never-ending laundry, the bills to pay, the lawn that just won’t mow itself, etc., etc., etc…

    I suspect that the book-loving moms creating readers advisory tools are doing it in part to alleviate the boredom and monotony that often accompany being a stay-at-home parent (btdt). Or, it’s someone punching a clock at a tedious job who invests their off-the-clock love and energy into something fun – recommending great reads to like-minded folks.

    I love YA lit, and I’m constantly recommending YA books to anyone who’ll stand still long enough to listen; however, there are limits to the amount of time I can invest in it.

  • 2. Andrea  |  September 7, 2011 at 6:49 PM

    I had the same thought when I looked at the bios of the StorySnoops moms. “Hmmm…none of them are librarians.” It’s a cool site (definitely attractively designed!), but I agree with you that an automated tool can’t beat individual, in-person book recommendations.

    ‘Is the intersection of “literature specialists” and “tech specialists” too small?’ Maybe so. Perhaps the two groups need to team up in order to create the kind of super-tool you’re talking about!

  • 3. Hugh  |  September 9, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    “Is the intersection between literature specialists and tech specialists too small?

    Yes! Libraries now need both. Paper books are of course just another technology, but we’re at the beginning of a major transition to different technologies, and just as librarians have previously understood book bindings and verso pages, now we need to understand XML, apps and CSS. The reason librarianship matters is because we have different priorities to a software company or content aggregator – we’re about getting the right information to someone, not just providing an audience for advertisers.

  • 4. Gretchen  |  September 9, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    @Lisa: hm, so if librarians want to do non-library stuff when they go home and non-librarians want to do book stuff when they go home, then the only way we’re going to get librarians to make this stuff is for them to do it on the clock. But what local library is going to give us time to make tools like this? Hm.

    @Andrea: I guess the question then becomes “how do we get these groups to team up?” How do we get tech people want to work on book things, or how do we get book people to take a plan for something to tech people? (Or can we turn book people into book+tech people or the other way around?) Hm again.

    @Hugh: I am so with you on librarians having different priorities than commercial entities–and how important that is! So how do we make librarians who are just as savvy with XML, apps, and CSS as librarians of yore were with bookbinding? Hm yet again.

  • 5. shannon knowlton  |  September 16, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    I am one of the StorySnoops moms, and enjoyed this thoughtful post. We love librarians and have always considered them as partners in literacy We are not technical specialists, nor are we librarians. We are four moms with a great love of literature who found ourselves having to pre-read books for our tweens and teens. Knowing this, parents would stop us at book fairs and say things like, “Our daughters are the same age. Have you read this? Would my daughter like it?”

    It’s thrilling to make a good book match, whether you are a parent, teacher, or a librarian. We have read every single book on our site because we love to do so – 1200 books and counting. You know that feeling you get when you read a good book and you can’t wait to share it with someone? That is why we set up this website.

    There are so many books out there, it is hard to stay on top of them all. We are reading as fast as we can, and we know librarians are, too. I’d like to think that we help each other. After all, we share a common goal: helping kids find books they’ll love so they will become lifelong readers.

    Thank you for the kind words about our site. : )

    Kind Regards,
    Shannon Knowlton

    P.S. Because I Am Furniture should not be on a tween list, you are right. That is why we have that 12-13 year old list. It’s a tricky age!

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  • 8. Ashley Barrineau  |  October 21, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    It takes all of my time and energy to keep up with the fast paced world of libraries, and then the world of books/publishers. Then add to that maintaining a blog, or any number of social presences and it becomes a second full time job. It is unfortunate that there are not more library resources fed directly by librarians, but at the same time I am inclined to not re-invent the wheel. It is a tough position and unfortunately there is not nearly enough funding to allow librarians to be paid for the hours they actually work.

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