What Makes Us Professionals? | From the Bell Tower

Thanks in part to Library Journal, librarians from all spheres of the field have engaged in some lively debate about whether librarianship is a profession. It all began when Ryan Deschamps authored a post titled "Ten Reasons Why 'Professional Librarian' is an Oxymoron" at his blog The Other Librarian. While the post received a fair amount of attention, and dozens of comments, Library Journal gave the post a larger audience by reprinting it and then providing Deschamps an opportunity to respond to his own assertions that librarianship had no claim to professionalism.

Personally, I thought some of the commenters to the original post, including myself, did a fine, and possibly even better job of refuting Deschamps' rationale for our lack of professional status, than he did on his own.

Who cares if we're professionals?
I understand the value of writing a post that raises some difficult questions, and which forces us to confront challenging issues we face in moving librarianship into the future. Playing devil's advocate is a sometimes necessary function that encourages us to think deeply about why we do what we do—and those for whom we do it.

I was inspired by the mostly positive responses to Deschamps' ten reasons why librarianship is not a profession. As I asked in my comment, does it really matter whether the world sees us librarians as professionals or not? What really matters, as I and others wrote, is the quality of our work and the difference that we make for our colleagues and our campuses. If I have earned the respect of those I serve and they treat me as a professional, then what else really matters?

Having second thoughts
It turns out, in retrospect, that I must care a little bit about this issue because now I'm wondering if I had it wrong. When you look at this issue from at least one particular angle you could very well claim that librarians are not professionals. At least one commenter to Deschamp's original post brought up the issue of regulation, asserting that the one thing that distinguishes professionals is that they are licensed to perform their duties, and that they are legally responsible for damages that might occur during the delivery of their services.

A physician or attorney is the common example; each must past rigorous exams to become certified to practice in their state and both are subject to damages when derelict in the performance of their duties. By that standard your plumber and your hair stylist are professionals, but not your librarian. Though I dare say that all of us are guilty of it at one time or another, no academic librarian was ever sued for professional negligence. Then again, how would anyone prove it?

A parallel discussion about professionalism
A debate similar to the one started by Deschamps is taking place in the world of business. It began with a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about why management is not a profession. Richard Barker makes a case that because management lacks the qualities of a profession, such as licensing and regulatory oversight, MBA schools are technically not professional schools; the bulk of the article focuses on MBA education and changes that are needed to promote professionalism—and much of what is said could apply to LIS programs.

Barker says that, "Professions are made up of particular categories of people from whom we seek advice and services because they have knowledge and skills that we do not." That suggests that librarians are professionals. Surely we have knowledge and skills that laypersons do not. We are experts in conducting research. We know how to mine unique oceans of information and data to come up with the exact information needed. When faculty need a comprehensive citation count for their promotion and tenure dossier they often seek out an academic librarian who has the special skills to do the job thoroughly.

Then again you could make the point, as Deschamps did, that anyone can find or organize information on their own. A savvy faculty member could figure out how to use the appropriate databases to do their own citation counting; some libraries even offer faculty guides on how to count their own citations. They may do it less well or efficiently than a librarian, but what are the consequences? You could point to a few cases where a decision based on poor or misleading information led to disastrous results, but these events are so few and far between that there's no societal initiative to establish a network of certified librarians, regulated by the state, who are the only ones deemed qualified to dispense information.

What really matters is how we think
One response to Barker's HBR article suggests there is or could be something unique about the work librarians do that could establish the field more concretely as a profession. Roger Martin, dean of the Business School at the University of Toronto—and a leading proponent of design thinking—suggested that what makes managers unique is the type of integrative thinking they bring to their work.

By integrative thinking Martin means a particular thought process that enables individuals to develop solutions to complex problems. For example, the library faces a difficult problem with no clear solution. Option A and Option B are obvious solutions, but neither is quite right. An integrative thinker has the capacity to take the best of both options A and B and come with a new and better option C; it is a solution that integrates existing ideas and information into something new and different (for more on integrating thinking read this).

In a brief essay about Baker's article, Martin states that "if we can demonstrate to the world that the inability to integrate is the prime cause of managerial failure, then perhaps management could move toward being a profession in which people could be tested and certified on their ability to think integratively."

We have the knowledge and skills
When I read this I thought it could also apply to the academic library profession. So much of what we do is integrating many different types of knowledge—our disciplinary expertise, our insights into the creation of scholarship, our skill at promoting collaboration, our ability to educate—so that we can quickly assist those needing research assistance and develop solutions to enable them to succeed. Deschamps touched on this briefly in his response when he said "our expertise lies not in surface learning but in the synthesis of a variety of topics."

Embracing the concept of integrative thinking as our professional expertise moves us further in the direction of laying claim to a unique body of knowledge that defines professionals. As Barker states, "Professions are made up of particular categories of people from whom we seek advice and services because they have knowledge and skills that we do not."

Yes, everyone can find information. If we seek to claim professional status, whether or not it's regulated and even if there's no clear code of conduct with legal consequences for violations, then we must promote our unique expertise as integrative thinkers who do much more than just find information. We must differentiate ourselves as integrative thinkers who synthesize many different types of knowledge to help individuals find solutions to their complex information needs. We have the knowledge and skills. Do we have the motivation to create change?

School is Cool: Fabulous Books for Reading Aloud

Burgeoning with optimism and unadulterated fun, these gold-star picture books are sure to alleviate students' first-day worries, generate enthusiasm for things to come, and set the tone for the best school year ever. It will be smiles all around as children enjoy stories that blend realistic back-to-school situations and emotions with a bit of whimsy here, a comfortingly upbeat touch there, and an always-satisfying resolution. In addition to solid storytelling, these titles also feature eye-catching illustration in an array of vivid hues and varied artistic styles. Share these tales to welcome your students, reel in their boisterous energy, and begin to build a classroom community.

A Fine Beginning

It's only the first day, but a curly haired girl and her classmates already feel confident that This School Year Will Be the Best! (Dutton, 2010; K-Gr 3). Humor and high hopes abound, as their teacher gathers them in a circle and asks each one to share a wish for the days to come. Varying from the feasible ("I won't lose things in my desk") to the far-fetched ("We'll have a chocolate fountain at lunch!"), each aspiration is presented along with a cheerful cartoon-style illustration that adds both detail and imaginary flair. Kay Winters and Renée Andriani create a sense of bright expectancy as the students express their desires and take ownership over the school year. The final spread shows the kids posed around their teacher, proudly displaying pictures illustrating their wishes. Use this buoyant book to launch a similar discussion and art project, and help your students to feel right at home.
Though your young learners may still be longing for summertime, you can grab their attention by sharing an amusing poem or two and irrefutably proving There's No Place Like School (Greenwillow, 2010; K-Gr 4). Selected by Jack Prelutsky, these 18 offerings cover the elementary experience with fresh childlike perspectives and lots of chuckle-inducing humor.
Topics include Lee Bennett Hopkins's image of a "wide-awake/freshly-painted-yellow/school bus" carrying sleepy-eyed boys and girls and "hundreds/upon/hundreds/of/school supplies"; Kalli Dakos's breathless "Countdown to Recess" on a sunny day ("Dash!/Gone in a flash!"); and Kenn Nesbitt's hilarious "Drinking Fountain" mishap ("The water squirted east and west./It squirted north and south./Upon my shirt, my pants, my hair-/but nothing in my mouth"). Aglow in kaleidoscope colors and featuring a cast of appealingly offbeat characters, Jane Manning's illustrations are filled with comical high jinks and dynamic motion. This is an enchanting book to dip into at the beginning of and throughout the school year.

Kindergarten Kick-Off

Antoinette Portis's Kindergarten Diary (HarperCollins, 2010; PreS-K) charmingly chronicles a youngster's September experiences. Though Annalina worries about going to "Big School," things quickly settle into happy routine in room 2K, where she becomes comfortable with her not-at-all-scary teacher, conquers show-and-tell fears, and makes new friends. Set against crisp backdrops of wide-ruled paper with dotted lines, the characters and their environs are depicted in fluid cartoon artwork. Photo collage images add a sense of realism that will have readers smelling the crayons and hearing the bounce of a playground ball. By September's end, a contented Annalina proudly proclaims, "We are room 2K. We are fine!"
Fielding familiar worries with a nimble touch, Audrey Vernick's silly but reassuring picture book asks that ever-important question: Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? (Balzer + Bray, 2010; PreS-K). A large brown critter with a cheesy smile and teeny-tiny backpack follows a pigtailed girl into a classroom. At first, he feels a bit shy (after all, "it can be hard to start something new" and he's the "only one with horns. And a mane. Okay, and a hump"), but the children are soon waving hello ("who can resist that furry face?"). Though he can't master every skill or social situation—yet—the buffalo quickly realizes that "Everyone's special in his or her own way" and you can certainly "learn to get along without using your horns."

Daniel Jennewein's droll cartoons work in harmony with the tongue-in-cheek text to underscore the importance of cooperation, patience, and accepting people (or bison) for who they are. Kids will giggle out loud at the protagonist's expressions and antics, particularly on a wordless spread where he proudly poses with a hoof-painted masterpiece.

Lessons From 20 Years of Current Cites

With the publication of the July issue of Current Cites we are celebrating 20 years of continuous monthly publication. Standing alone, that statement is not all that impressive in a world of publications that have much longer publishing histories. But I think there are two things that make that statement into something much bigger than it appears: 1) it is produced by an all volunteer team, and 2) the publication has been freely available on the Internet for nearly the entire 20 years (predating the Web). It was distributed on the PACS-L list by October 1991, and on the MELVYL online catalog before that. Here is an early message about it on PACS-L.

I’m the only one left of the original team, largely because I founded it and it has had my enduring personal commitment. But there have been many contributors who have stayed on for years, contributing citations of current literature that they believe are worthy of attention with insightful commentary written in their personal voice.

In thinking about how to celebrate this anniversary, I thought I would do a couple things. One was to create a web page that described how the publication came to be. Another was that I would write about what I’ve learned over the 20 years of doing this kind of thing. The former is now up on the Current Cites web site. The latter I am doing here. These are some of my lessons:

•Current awareness continues to be important. The changes that are battering our profession are many and substantial. It is more important than ever to keep up with what is going on not just in libraries, but also in the societies within which we work. What we should never do is stick our heads in the sand.
•Current awareness continues to be difficult. When I started Current Cites it was with the belief that it was difficult to keep up with rapid technological change in librarianship. If anything, with the advent of the Web it has sped up and diversified. We have a tremendous number of channels through which we can receive information, with precious few ways to filter them appropriately for our own purposes. Therefore, the need for a publication like Current Cites has only increased, although it must be acknowledged that it adds yet another channel to the diversity of information sources.
•The most important ingredient to keeping something going for 20 years is a responsible individual with the will to make it so. I’ve often thought that if the publication was managed by a committee, or even an organization, it long ago would have ended. I believe this to be true for a couple reasons. It is hard for a group of individuals to have enough personal buy-in to do what needs to be done to keep a publication like this alive. And organizations, in these trying economic times, would find it hard to justify keeping a free publication going. In the end, the personal commitment of a single individual who felt responsible for its continued existence was probably the single biggest factor in its longevity.
•Contributors come and go, but the publication remains. Over the years we’ve had 34 contributors, but probably no more than a dozen active ones at any one time — often only about half-a-dozen. Periodically, as enthusiasm wanes or the call of other responsibilities increases, I need to find new contributors. This not only renews the enthusiasm, it can provide different perspectives and/or a different set of publications that are watched.
•Editors come and go, but the publication remains. Current Cites has had three editors in its life: first David F.W. Robison, then Teri Rinne, then me. I doubt anyone would discern much difference in the publication during each of our tenures, but having someone in charge is important. When I decide to step down I’ll be looking for someone to take it over. I’m certain I will be able to find that person and that it will go on.
•Hosts come and go, but the publication remains. Although Current Cites started at UC Berkeley, when it was clear that support for the server where it was hosted was waning I moved it to WebJunction.org. This was long before I joined OCLC, or even thought to do so. I just needed a logical home for it that would be stable and long-term. My personal server doesn’t qualify.
The last 20 years have been interesting, engaging and challenging. The next 20 promises much more of the same, but faster. My sincere hope is that you will continue to have Current Cites help you find the gems in the information technology literature so that you can focus on not just getting libraries through the next 20 years, but enabling them to thrive.

I also hope that by sharing this story it might inspire some young librarian to take on a similar task, and to apply themselves to draw in other talented individuals to make their project successful and useful for a long time. I know they are out there; I’ve met them, I’ve talked to them, I am even privileged to mentor some of them. I really can’t wait to see what they come up with.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 30th, 2010 at 11:29 am and is filed under Uncategorized . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

E-Texts for All (Even Lucy) | Ebooks and Accessibility

A colleague's perspective helps guest columnist Char Booth see the difficulties librarians face in building their ebook collections

If digital literacy is exploding, the visually disabled are taking the shrapnel. I would wager that most librarians consider ourselves committed to accessibility and make individual and organizational efforts to comply with (and often exceed) the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in our buildings and the Rehabilitation Act Section 508 standards on our websites. We may not, however, have had the sobering experience of trying to access an ebook or e-journal using screen-reading software or other assistive technology. Despite our best intentions, this limited insight can lead us unwittingly to collection development and web design decisions that make digital literacy far more difficult for the print disabled.

Over the past year, I've been working closely with Lucy Greco, a colleague and disability advocate at the University of California-Berkeley (UC-B). Lucy, who has been blind from birth, has transformed my understanding of the word ­access. Not only do librarians need to understand the accessibility front of the ebook wars, we have the responsibility to embrace our advocacy role in shaping its outcome. As one of the few public sector agencies charged with recognizing the access rights of all, libraries must collectively examine how we can steer the e-text trajectory-from ebooks to e-journals to any other format-in a more universally usable direction.

Ebooks and DRM
Lucy is partial to a few sayings that have helped me understand the e-text accessibility paradox. The first is that "ebooks were created by the blind, then made inaccessible by the sighted."

Online text formats like DAISY and EPUB were pioneered in part by the accessibility movement as an alternative to expensive and cumbersome Braille texts. As ebooks have gained popularity, however, digital text became inexorably less accessible as for-profit readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader muscled onto the scene. A patina of digital rights management (DRM) has been added in order to protect the intellectual property of vendors, contrary to the open and accessible orientation libraries have long held toward literacy and learning.

Device- and interface-specific ebooks are often "locked down" to other readers, meaning that by default they block attempts to be read by JAWS and other screen-reading software. The Kindle—still the dominant hardware ereader—has text-to-speech capability, but its speech menus remain inaccessible despite a 2009 promise from Amazon. [The Kindle 3, announced last week, has addressed this particular flaw.—Ed.] Hence the recent Department of Justice letter to college presidents warning against inaccessible emerging technology use and a suit brought by the National Federation for the Blind against Arizona State University's Kindle DX pilot.

Dollars = leverage
While we might only represent a portion of the ebook market, our organizations are the largest collective subscribers to e-journal and other e-text vendors, meaning we have the clout to acquire from publishers in a way that effects positive change. This advocacy can occur at both an individual and programmatic level. For instance, in addition to pursuing EPUB, validated HTML, and other screen-readable formats, why not specify in our consortial licensing agreements that e-text and search interfaces must strictly adhere to accessibility standards, or we will not renew/purchase them? Already 508 compliant are many major vendors, such as Safari Tech Books (Proquest), EBSCO, and Ebrary, but countless others do not focus as clearly on textual accessibility.

We hand over the funds that keep content providers afloat. And, as anyone who has ever met a hard sell with a bluff and won a discount from one of these companies can attest, suggesting you might walk elsewhere with your dollars unless an interface becomes more usable is productive leverage.

We must also be careful not to take accessibility statements at face value, as some "508 compliant" sites are so in name only. We can collaborate with our disabled users to evaluate true usability, hands-on. Lucy and I are working together to develop a usability evaluation rubric, for example.

Usability is accessibility
Our own websites are some of the worst offenders. Library sites as well as e-text platforms and interfaces suffer from an abject lack of standardization, spawning a dizzying array of learning curves, tricks, and workarounds. Lucy's second saying is that "accessible design is usable design." What is the good of providing accessible texts if they are impossible to navigate to and through?

Beyond buying usable e-texts, we have to make a strong commitment to usability standards in our own sites and services. The same principles that make a digital document "visible" to a screen reader are universal design best practices. Screen readers rely on behind-the-scenes coding to narrate a page's structure to a visually impaired user. If that "invisible" underlying architecture is shoddy, the information access process breaks down-and in almost the exact same way it would for, say, a mobile device user.

Lucy's third saying is that when it comes to e-texts, "separate is not equal." Users with visual impairments should not have to request a separate file from a vendor, but that is often exactly what they are forced to do. More ebook and e-journal platforms than you might believe have deep accessibility flaws: Adobe Digital Editions and Flash texts have significant accessibility barriers as evinced by problems with OverDrive books; non-OCR PDF files have proven quite problematic; and CourseSmart, the largest online marketplace for e-textbooks, produces by admission what can only be characterized as dismally inaccessible e-texts (although, according to Lucy, it is working toward improvement).

Educating ourselves
There is a dearth of end user studies that evaluate the universal usability of research databases and ebook platforms. While not every librarian has the time or design expertise to evaluate individual resources, we can ensure that the tools our institutions provide and create follow core best practices: consistency, flexibility, accessibility, and simplicity. In this vein, resources like ASCLA's Think Accessible site and the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) are invaluable. For our own discovery interfaces, the WAVE Web Accessibilty Evaluation Tool and other WebAIM and WC3 products help validate websites for sound design.

There are already accessible e-text initiatives among open access content providers: the Internet Archive recently announced it is making one million books available in DAISY talking book format, while more vended ebook platforms are coming around to their responsibilities in this area. Open access texts in general are created accessibly-the open textbook movement led by Flat World Knowledge operates on an universal access model. The (hopefully) soon-to-be-released Blio is a promising cross-platform reader that could give the proprietary device paradigm a run for its money.

By making access-positive decisions and partnering with the Lucys of the world, we can resist ereading inaccessibility and promote universal usability.

Recharging Our Ideals | Peer to Peer Review

Recently, I read an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David Hiscoe, an academic who left a tenure-track faculty position long ago for the corporate world and has recently returned. Looking around the campus, he likens himself to Rip Van Winkle and marvels at the changes. While he was away, the university became bloated with staff and too many competing agendas, students began to take on crippling debt, and the whole house of cards is trembling, on the verge of collapse. He takes temporary solace when he goes to the library, because he sees students taking delight in their learning. He writes:

A big part of my day is spent in the university library. Coming in one morning recently, I paused to watch a young man walk up and join three students who had pulled chairs together around a table. As the new arrival settled in, he let out the archetypal "That's awesome!" cry, loud enough so that I leaned in to see what he was admiring. He was looking at what appeared to be an animated differential equation making itself visual in stages embedded in a PowerPoint chart. As I walked by, he was practically chewing his lower lip off in his enthusiasm and was asking the laptop driver, "How did you do that?"

It was a moment that could have awakened Rip Van Winkle's long-dead dog. A moment that crystallized all the reasons that most of us went into teaching to begin with. And I see a half a dozen of these a week. It's easy, since this place-the library-is crowded, packing in the equivalent of a fourth of the student population on a good day. I generally walk around for 10 minutes or so each afternoon to recharge.

Some of the students are on Facebook; some are watching cats do funny things on YouTube. But most are heads down in their studies, or working out physics problems together on whiteboards they've drawn into impromptu circles. When we started lending out iPods, they would sometimes come back loaded up with an app that some student had developed herself to make the device more useful. I interview lots of students, and they tell me they love the library, love the university. They are not kidding. They are idealistic and hardworking.

And they're lucky enough to attend North Carolina State University, which has a fine library and the combination of insight and wherewithal to hire Hiscoe as its communications director. (His PhD is in medieval poetry; his corporate work was for a large telecommunications firm that was big, but not too big to fail—it went bankrupt soon after he returned to academe.)

The best place on campus?
But a lot of us who work in academic libraries recognize those moments of joy when walking through the library. We see the potential, we see moments when students have made the shift from transcription clerk (gotta get that paper written, gotta find sources to quote) to becoming engaged and curious co-creators of knowledge. Those members of the faculty and administration who don't take a few minutes every now and then to reclaim their sanity and sense of mission by strolling through the library when it's busy are missing out. Sadly, that category includes the vast majority of faculty and administrators.

As one of the commenters noted, the library is not just student-centered, it's knowledge-centered, and that meeting of students and raw knowledge can catalyze learning and spark a whole new relationship between students and the world. He (or she; the comment was anonymous) writes, "The library should be the best place on campus; the challenge is to figure out a way to channel the 'awesomeness' of students clustered in the library out to the classroom and further, into the world of adults who are hungry for the chance to reflect and learn."

Or corporate mill?
So how do we do that? We can't all hire gifted scholars to tell our stories, and even if we did, those stories still wouldn't pry people away from their constant stream of email and meetings to visit the library.

And as Hiscoe himself points out, those stories aren't necessarily going to change anything. The solace he takes in the moment is matched by the heartbreaking knowledge that what these students are experiencing will likely be extinguished in a few years. The house of cards is toppling. One symptom of that collapse, though Hiscoe doesn't mention it, is the fact that those students will be expelled from that library and the knowledge it holds; the minute they stop paying tuition, we slam the door and turn the key. No more knowledge for you! Our instructional programs don't do much to help them find ways to continue those energizing conversations with ideas after they graduate, whatever platitudes we utter about information literacy for lifelong learning. We're mainly helping them survive as students, using tools available only for as long as they're students.

Hiscoe acknowledges he is not awakening from a golden age; the trend to corporatized higher education was already entrenched when he had his apprenticeship toiling as an underpaid adjunct before finally landing a coveted tenure-track job. But the problems he witnessed in the academy are even worse now. And I can't help but notice that this situation has exactly the same timeline as the so-called "serials crisis," which we all know is not just about serials; it's about the commodification of knowledge that in the good old days was created to be shared. We no longer create knowledge for the common good and to advance our understanding of the world. We create it as grist for the corporate mill, and it's getting pretty dark and Satanic, that mill.

Toward unfettered sharing of knowledge
So I'm left pondering the question of how we get out of this situation, and how to sustain that excitement and energy we see in students and pass that light along to our exhausted, discouraged colleagues. As my mind does its hopscotch act, I remember Thomas Jefferson's argument against treating knowledge as just so much property:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

However we solve the twin crises of scholarly communication and the damaging effects on all of higher learning caused by the corporatization of the university, libraries can be a source of light, a light we need to share. We need to rekindle in our faculty and administrators—and in our taxpayers and legislators—a faith that knowledge can do more good when it's freely available than when it's hoarded as property.

Around the same time that Hiscoe's essay was published, a representative of the Association of American Publishers appeared before Congress, reassuring legislators once again that there is no crisis in scholarly communication, that by adopting rules that would make federally funded research free to the public that funds it would be the ruination of peer review and accuracy in research, and could even endanger national security because American research could fall into the hands of foreign nations. (I am not making this up; read it for yourself.)

If anyone needs the skills of critical information literacy, it's decision makers like those in Congress listening to that kind of testimony, packed with misinformation and baseless scare tactics. I'm not sure we can do much about politicians, given the corrupting influence of money in the campaign system, but we need to ensure that more people in a metaphorical sense, if not in reality, visit the library to see in action the value of the unfettered sharing of knowledge. It's too important to let that fire go out.