So what was that all about, anyway?

My reflective essay on my time at Dominican University

     As a way of getting started on this essay, I went back and reread the essay I wrote for my application to the MLIS program at Dominican. When I applied to the program, I was in a place in my life where I wanted to steer things in a new direction and wasn’t sure how to proceed with that. The library and information science program checked a lot of boxes for me, both logical and emotional ones — I knew that I had a lot of existing skills that would be useful in the profession, and I have always felt a strong affinity for libraries as both concepts and as physical places. Two phrases from that admissions essay that jumps out at me now, that I used to describe the things I enjoy and the sort of professional life that I envisioned for myself, are “intellectual diversity” and “the acquisition and use of specialized knowledge”.  These two closely related but sort-of-opposite concepts are a pretty apt summation of what a graduate level education consists of; perhaps I was channeling my immediate future rather than charting a course for a post-graduate career. I like to think, though, that both of these concepts will continue to be an important part of my professional development. Satisfying work is about being challenged, and succeeding, within your sphere of competence and confidence. I’ve enjoyed going back to college and engaging deeply with the world of ideas — in fact, I’m enjoying it much more than I did when I was in college in my 20s — and I’m keen to apply that spirit to the task of finding a new place for myself in the professional world. 

     I opted to take only core classes my first semester at Dominican — LIS 701, 702, 703 — because I knew that I had some preconceptions and vaguely-formed ideas about the MLIS program and the professional options it offered, and I thought that I would learn the most by letting the curriculum steer me, rather than the other way around. I was not wrong about this; while there were aspects of the fundamentals being taught that were familiar and expected to me, there were many ways in which my understanding of the profession was expanded. In particular, the educational aspects of librarianship were something that were not part of my consciousness. While everyone understands that libraries are places of learning, I had not really internalized the corollary idea that librarians are teachers.

     This inspired me to begin thinking about the overlap between pedagogy and some of the things that interested me in the field. As someone who has both grown up with the World Wide Web, and been making my living building web sites for  the past 15 years, I have some thoughts about how the Web does and doesn’t work for society, and ways to make it better. This is not an area of interest solely for librarians, of course; information literacy and the meaning of truth has been one of the hot-button cultural topics of our time, and one with consequences that are obvious to everyone. The predictors of the internet, like H.G. Wells and Vannevar Bush, thought that freely available information would be an unqualified boon for society, and perhaps bring about a golden age; their optimism reflects their cultural blinders. We know now from the experience of the 21st century that you can’t just share the “good” information, at least not in a world where individual liberty is a foundational belief. Information always has gatekeepers; sometimes the gatekeepers are invisible. The library of the 21st century should be a place where the gates are both visible and open.

     For the first several centuries of their existence, libraries were a response to the scarcity of information. The written word that was the library’s stock in trade required a physical carrier, and physical objects are constrained by the laws of economics — there are only so many of them, and their distribution in a society is generally based on wealth, not need. The public library is, to a large extent, the kind of institution it is today because it was created to be a counter to this way of doing things; to distribute knowledge widely meant to share wealth, at least a little bit of it, and the public library became one of the primary templates for a what a public-serving institution was in the context of the new industrial world that arose in the 18th century. While not standing in opposition to the world of business and commerce, public libraries exist alongside it, as an alternative means of distributing the wealth of a society that is represented by its knowledge.

     When Andrew Carnegie began building libraries in 1889, this parallel system of distribution was very explicitly his aim. Ideas that we associate with libraries today, like intellectual freedom and benefiting the public good, were not central to his agenda; these libraries were built for the betterment of individuals who would then become productive, taxpaying citizens. The poverty and inequality created by the Industrial Revolution, as well as the phenomenal amount of wealth and prosperity that it created for those who were in a position to benefit, were impossible for anyone to ignore, and even a staunch believer in rugged individualism like Carnegie could see that, as the saying goes, if you want a man to pull himself up by his bootstraps, make sure he has boots.

     The Protestant ethic of continual self-improvement and moral uplift through labor was deeply ingrained in the ethos and administration of the first public libraries. But over the course of the 20th century, many other moral precepts and ideas began to attach themselves to the social identity of the library –  intellectual freedom, civil rights, social equality. How did this modern identity evolve? Were these values always corollaries to the educational mission of the library, hidden away in a lesser-publicized corner of the Temple of Learning, or did the library come to represent these values simply because there was no other institution available to pick up these roles? Carnegie liked to refer to the libraries he helped build as “the People’s Palace”, a way of juxtaposing their importance with their place in common life. The sociologist Ray Oldenberg coined the term “third place” in 1989 to describe a somewhat less grandiose version of what public spaces bring to communities – a place where everyone belongs, and nothing is expected except civility and peace. Being a third place is a fundamental characteristic of public libraries, and many of the changes that have taken place in the perception and operation of public libraries since the 19th century have been a reflection of that relationship to society, and the needs and expectations of the communities they serve.

     My uncle Dennis, who is in his sixties, grew up in Cleveland. He asked me when I told him that I was going to library school, “Can you still call up the library and ask them questions?” He remembered fondly how, as an intellectually precocious boy, he had been delighted to learn that the Cleveland Public Library had a telephone reference service that you could call and ask random questions about topics in which you were interested, and usually get an answer if the question was something that could be looked up in a reasonable amount of time. This telephone reference service, which was available at a number of large public libraries, demonstrates how the access to knowledge that is at the heart of the library mission is inseparable from the ideals of public service and community outreach; and also how those values are inseparably bound up with the embrace of technological change. Telephone reference service in our time has been replaced or supplemented in many libraries by online chat or text messaging; the goals and service ideals are the same. 

     Today much of the world is drowning in far too much information and the conceptual role of libraries has changed dramatically. The history of public libraries in particular has involved a sometimes-complicated balance between provider and gatekeeper of information; aiding in the assimilation of immigrant populations into American culture, for instance, is a mission that has been overtly expressed by many public library systems in the 20th century, but one that can cause tension with the principles of intellectual freedom and individual self-determination that have long been another part of the core mission of the institution. In the internet age, this tension appears in a different form — librarians find themselves in the position of judging the value and suitability of information sources, a process that cannot be separated from cultural judgement and political decision making. Being a neutral arbiter of “truth” and “worth” is a fantastically difficult position to be in, but one that is powerfully needed.

     Which brings us back to the role of librarians as educators, and how thinking about that role has impacted the way that I envision my future career and professional life. Access to knowledge is still the fundamental activity empowered by libraries, but the meaning of access has changed; if the librarian of the past was a gatekeeper, throwing open the doors of the Temple of Knowledge so that the people could freely roam its halls, the librarian of the future must be a guide, walking through the Temple with lantern in hand, showing people where each kernel of truth they seek can be found among the dark and dusty stacks that stretch on into the seemingly endless darkness. 

     A phrase I have used on many cover letters to describe myself and my preferred type of work is “I like fixing things and solving puzzles”. My previous career as a web developer could involve a lot of this, particularly early in my career, but as the industry has advanced and roles within the field have become more specialized, the opportunity for creativity has become a less common thing, one of the reasons I wanted to move on from the field. My original assumption about the kind of job I would find upon graduating from the MLIS program was that it would be at least tangentially related to programming and the internet, and would probably in many ways involve the same kind of work I was used to doing; sitting in front of a computer, making use of a specialized domain of knowledge to make data useful and/or entertaining to people. I certainly haven’t ruled out that type of work in my future, but my education in the possibilities of the library field has made me think that I might want to work more with people rather than computers for a change, in a reference service or educational mode. Not that building websites isn’t communication; but the kind of puzzles I had been solving in the past tended to be abstract technical ones that are far removed from the everyday experience of the reading (or listening or video-watching) public, and the experience of looking closely at the more human-centered puzzles of reference service and educational development in the context of libraries have made me realize that there is a third thing to add to my list of things I like to do at work: “helping people”. Working with people and helping them to achieve their goals, find the thing they are looking for, or reach their potential, is one of the missing pieces that prompted me to start this journey towards a new professional life.

     So, how to combine doing the things I know I’m good at — programming computers and the internet — with the goal of helping people to better sort and comprehend the ceaseless flow of information in their environment, and live their best lives? I haven’t figured out an easy or obvious answer to that question, but I’ve had a few ideas and picked up a few hints in the process of completing the MLIS. Data visualization is one specific area I’ve been introduced to that I found interesting and enjoyable, so that may be a thing I pursue professionally if the opportunity arises. Information literacy is a core part of the librarian identity that I feel passionate about and can be a way to give back to the world. Metadata and taxonomy are things I find delightful. I have answered some, but by no means all, of the questions I had for myself when I began this degree about why I was following this path, but do I feel quite confident that the path was well chosen.

Jason Grey, MLIS