Look Beyond the Library
by April Bohannan
For years we've been trying to create libraries without walls. Now, I'd like to propose that we librarians go beyond our libraries' walls in serving our patrons and our communities. It's time librarians thought more about the work we do. Not the day-to-day tasks, but the very heart of what makes us librarians. Not the "what." Not the "how." But the "why." It's time to look at the principles and theories that provide the very foundation of our work and think about how we can carry them beyond the library.
What I really mean is that we need to think about our skills on a broader platform. Whether you're a reference librarian, a collection development librarian, or a cataloger, you have a unique knowledge of information-handling that is probably being under-utilized.
Reference librarians have terrific searching skills. They need to think about why they're better at finding things (in print or online) than the average person who walks in the door. They need to consider what makes them better researchers than John Q. Public with his daily trek through Google. Once that becomes clear, it's an easy jump finding ways to transfer those skills-to use that knowledge beyond the reference desk.
Those who work in collection development have a similar task. They've been selecting materials for their libraries, but how many have taken that knowledge (how to recognize fact from fiction, authoritative work from propaganda) and used it outside the library?
Catalogers have great organizational skills. They've been creating and building databases for generations. No one knows more about the developmental side of making efficient searches. After all, what is a catalog but a database? What are authority files but searching aids? What are subject headings but a cure for keyword searching? It's time to get out of the back room and give those skills, that understanding of classification and categorization, a real workout.
Your first reaction is probably to tell me to go jump in a lake. You've got enough work to do already. I understand, but I happen to think there are several reasons why this is important.
First, it's important to remind our administrations that we have far more to offer than being able to download records from OCLC or look in Bartlett's to find out who said, "Oh, it is only a novel!" As non-librarians are heading more libraries, it becomes increasingly important for us to let our administrators know that librarians' skills can be translated to environments outside our daily jobs. We need to stop defending our work and start promoting our skills.
Second, it's important for us to make our parent agencies, whether they're university administrations or city officials, recognize that librarians have skills to offer outside the library. This is really the previous reason taken a step farther. Budgets are tight these days, and, let's face it, we're not the fire department or the police department, and we don't generate revenue. But we can offer the city, or the university, an expertise they won't easily find elsewhere. Expertise they may have to pay big bucks for because they don't know they already have it "in-house."
Finally, on a personal level, it will open new avenues for you to express your creativity. It also gives you an opportunity to expand your horizons. We sometimes forget how mired we become in library-speak and library values. It can be a real eye-opener to discover that not everyone agrees with or even understands the two. It's also a real test of our knowledge. For example, can you explain the concept of and need for a thesaurus without using the terms: authority file, controlled vocabulary, and thesaurus? It's harder than it sounds and is a way to stretch and reapply our abilities outside our library settings.
This is not a new concept I'm asking you to embrace. Think of all those Library Journal profiles you've read of people with library degrees who work in non-library environments.
I'm not asking you to look for a new job or to disassociate yourself from the library. All I'm asking is that you get involved in something outside the building in which you work. How? I'm going to give you two examples of work here in Virginia Beach that may help get you thinking.
First is my own experience working with the city's Web team to develop a taxonomy for the city Web site. What started as my desire to see our city site better organized turned into a yearlong project that appears to be taking on a life of its own.
The second is a knowledge--management project taken on by our Municipal Reference librarian. She's using her research skills to harness the city's corporate knowledge so that it is available for all employees instead of being buried in a city department or lost as employees retire.
I'll go into more depth about both these projects in the next issue of Virginia Libraries, but if you have any of your own stories to share, please let me know. I'd love to hear them.