Having recently written about the wicked problem of trying to find words that adequately describe what we do in our ever-changing work environment, I found myself completely drawn into a question forwarded by a colleague (Jill Hurst-Wahl) via Twitter this morning: “What are some things a librarian isn’t?”
The basic question about what any of us isn’t is one that far transcends librarianship and obviously extends into the entire field of training-teaching-learning (of which I clearly believe librarianship is a part) and many other fields. One current example is provided by the way the American Society for Training & Development recently completed a 2.5-year-long effort to find language other than “training” and “development” or “workplace learning and performance” to represent the work its members do; the solution was adoption of a new name (Association for Talent Development) that is far from the obvious solution Association managers were seeking.
Tackling the question of what librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are not, I quickly found myself sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. Trying to be absolutely ridiculous, I started with the idea that we’re not ditch-diggers—but then realized I know of librarians who occasionally become involved in digging into the soil within library gardens. Then I mulled over the idea that we’re not plumbers—but recalled working with colleagues who had to unclog plugged drains and toilets in library facilities. I even briefly thought about the idea that we’re not chauffeurs—but was quickly able to recall colleagues picking me up at airports or hotels and delivering me to sites where I’ve been involved in facilitating library events. So I puckishly fell into the only response that made sense to me in the moment: a librarian is not a cab driver; nearly everything else is on the table.
And that, I believe, captures part of the beauty, wonder, challenge, and difficulty of looking at librarianship, training-teaching-learning, and so many other professions that exist or are about to exist. (For more on the theme of trying to imagine what sort of work we’ll be doing just a few years from now, please see Michael Wesch’s moving video “A Vision of Students Today” and one of the students’ comments about preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist.)
The context for the question about what librarians are not is the University of Syracuse iSchool (the School of Information Studies) IST 511 “Introduction to the Library and Information Profession” course currently being taught by R. David Lankes. In the draft course syllabus, Lankes encourages his learners to engage in “content exploration” through participation in poster sessions centered on the question of what a librarian is. Some of his learners have obviously taken the challenge a step further by asking what librarians are not—themselves inspired by the Magritte image of a pipe, accompanied by the words “Leci n’est pas une pipe”—and it makes me wonder how training-teaching-learning colleagues would answer a similar question about our own profession.
What struck me, during recent conversations on this topic with numerous colleagues at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, was how much we are all struggling with finding exactly the right, concise word or combination of words to describe what we do. “Librarian,” for the average library user (or former user), is still a term firmly connected to the use of books—which completely ignores the numerous other roles library staff members play (e.g., subject-matter expert, often in more than one field of study; learning facilitator; innovation facilitator, through makerspaces, innovation centers, and other learning centers; community partner; grant-writer/fundraiser; manager/supervisor; writer; and so much more). In the same way, “talent developer” and “trainer” are equally and woefully inadequate to reflect our roles as learning facilitators; change managers/change facilitators; coaches and mentors; instructional designers; evaluators; writers; presenters; and so much more.
As the learners interacted with each other via Twitter today—and thanks to Jill Hurst-Wahl and others, with many of us not previously affiliated with the IST 511 course—they were clearly having fun with the topic. One student suggested “a librarian is not an obstacle on the path to equality,” “a librarian is not a building or a shelf of books or a search engine OR a computer,” and “a librarian is not a follower.” Another learner suggested that “a librarian is not a book-sitter but is a community advocate.” And Jill herself suggested that “a librarian is not timid.”
What is clear from the exchanges so far is that librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are also not the kind of people who limit their exchanges to well-defined insular spaces; the extension of this class project into a larger virtual classroom that includes many of us not formally enrolled in the course is just one of numerous examples that librarians and many others are defined and driven by their ability to function within a variety of settings that quickly shift without warning.
I don’t envy Lankes’s learners as they struggle with the overall question of defining what they aren’t and what they are: Trying to define what librarians aren’t (or are) in just a few words appears to be an impossible task—one that is equally daunting for trainer-teacher-learners (a term I’ve consistently used for lack of anything better to suggest the scope of the work many of us do). But I do envy them for the possibilities that are before them as they build upon the work of those who preceded them; find ways to partner with colleagues in the larger training-teaching-learning sandbox; and continue to define and create labels, policies, and practices that will help them maintain the key roles they play in the communities they/we serve.