Gaiman quotes and reverse-engineering philosophy: what I wish I learned in GLAM School

2 April 2017

I’m behind on my #GLAMBlogClub post for March - observant readers will notice it is already April. Partially the reason is that the last month has been one of the busiest I’ve ever had at work. I’ve been simultaneously finalising a draft Strategic Framework for library collections (and the three associated documents needed to take it though local government approval processes), preparing to open a new library branch, and assessing quotes to migrate to a new library management system. This actually neatly sums up my current role, with the three different areas of library life I’m responsible for, but it has also been pretty stressful having all three at 'critical' at the same time.

There is no way that a university degree could ‘prepare’ me for the work I’ve done over March this year. As Danielle Johanesen noted in her March GLAM Blog Club post, complaining about the quality of our education is something of a sport in librarianship, but two years of part-time university study on 'Information Management' couldn’t possibly teach everything one might need to know in a career in libraries. Indeed, I’m coming around to the idea that GLAM school (or at least ‘Librarian School’) should try to be less ‘practical’ in what is taught. Practical, technical skills are best learned on the job, using real life examples. That’s why ‘trades’ still use apprenticeships. When I think back to my Graduate Diploma, whilst I didn’t really appreciate it at the time it was the theoretical classes that were the most important. Whenever a class tried to be more ‘practical’, it seems to have fallen flat.

So if there’s something I wish I, and more of my colleagues, learned early on in my career, the answer surprises me. In the rush to be ‘relevant’ and produce ‘job ready’ graduates, I feel like some of the basic concepts of librarianship and information management fell overboard. For example, I studied one unit on cataloguing, and it was very much focussed on how to catalogue in MaRC, rather than taking us back to core principles, what problems MaRC was trying to solve, and why it has the particular syntax and peculiarities it does, and what other options were available and why they were rejected. I may be mis-remembering of course, but I don’t feel that I was given an adequate grounding in cataloguing theory, and it feels like I’m not alone in that.

I graduated in 2003 - the year Microsoft made a merger offer for Google, whilst they were still a pre-IPO startup. In retrospect, it feels like libraries missed a chance to be part of the exciting shifts forward in information search and retrieval that were happening through the 1990s and 2000s, if only we’d prepared our minds better. Perhaps this is a fantasy - the realities of publicly funded staffing are rarely acknowledged when the profession self-flagellates about how slowly we’ve moved on improving our technology and practices. But still, as I look at the dumpster fire that is Silicon Valley venture capitalised technology, academic publishing’s Fight Club soap economy, and the interminable arguments about how many angels can dance on a $s MaRC subfield, I can’t help but wonder if the world could have been different if we’d dreamed bigger.

“But they are useless. They can only give you answers.”
Pablo Picasso on computers.

The point of being a profession, rather than simply people performing similar jobs, is that there is some kind of ethical framework in which we agree to operate: in our case ideas of privacy, intellectual freedom, objectivity and equality of access. These are all contested ideas, as they should be. So perhaps what I wish I’d learned in GLAM School is that Neil Gaiman should never be quoted by librarians. Librarianship isn’t about finding answers. Engineers can find answers, and their algorithms can even find the ‘right’ one a lot of the time. But librarianship is, as Shannon Mattern so eloquently explains in Public In/Formation, valuable because of the questions it poses. We have a shorthand for this - the ‘reference interview’. In a world of keyword searching, the classic reference interview at a library desk seems quaint. But the principles have never been more important. Increasingly, my own role seems to include a sort of reverse-engineering of the reference interview. Library software vendors provide us with products, and we have to try to work out what questions they asked where this was the answer. Often, I don’t like the questions they seem to have asked themselves (or not asked). Then it’s time to ask a new question - what am I going to do about it? GLAM School didn’t really help me to answer that. We’ll have to work it out together.