Keynote address to the UCF MLIS Information Day

"A Day in the Life of a Librarian"

Jonathan Miller, PhD

May 12th, 2011

Why I became a librarian, why it still matters, and what they don’t teach you in library school about fixing copiers, moving libraries, throwing parties, hiring provosts, cultivating donors, and catching bats.

I am going to try and cover three things today.

The first is a day in the life of a librarian and what you might learn from it.

The second is some lessons that I think you can draw from how I became a librarian.

And finally, and certainly most importantly, why librarianship still matters.

Throughout, I will pause to teach you some mini lessons that library school does not about copiers, moving libraries, throwing parties, cultivating donors, and catching bats. How I became a librarian, hopefully I can offer some relevant lessons for those of you contemplating becoming librarians.

A Day in the Life of a Librarian

Ironically, or at least fortuitously, just a few weeks ago I participated in the Florida Library Associations Virtual Job Shadowing Event. In which a variety of Florida librarians were asked to tweet for a day to give anyone interested an idea of what a librarian’s day is like. Did anyone else here participate?

Well here are my tweets. It was a pretty typical day: some meetings, some reference, too much e-mail and a variety of projects. What wasn’t really represented here was the amount of time I spent talking to other people. Informally checking in with people who work in the library and with those for whom we work. Which brings up one of the points I want to make today: when you get to be a library administrator like me, most of what I achieve is achieved through the work of others.  I rarely get to sit in my office and complete a project. Instead I meet with various groups, provide resources so that others can complete projects, help the organization set strategic priorities, and spend a lot of time following up to make sure we are making progress and that people are communicating effectively.

To some people this doesn’t look like work, it is not teaching, or reference, or cataloging, or systems administration and people will ask me, “you are always in meetings, how do you get any work done?” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of work. Increasingly librarians collaborate to achieve their goals with others – those may be others in the library, in the city, or the college or university, or with vendors and other distant collaborators. It is the rare librarian these days who can sit in their office or cubicle and quietly complete projects. So use every opportunity you can to learn how to run meetings, how to work in teams and how to collaborate effectively online.

The other thing I notice about the day is the amount of time spent on things that were not strictly library related – being interviewed for the “Rollins Cares” program which is all about student retention, editing a report for a taskforce concerned with student success after graduation, talking to faculty about plagiarism, planning to attend a Board of Trustees reception. If you think you are in library school to become a librarian you are mistaken. Of course, you are in library school to do that, but once you get that first job, the person signing your pay check is unlikely to know or care much about librarianship. If you work for a public library then your job is economic development, community building, and education. If you work for a college like mine your job is educating students, if you work for a research university then your job is the support of cutting edge research (as well as education.) Obviously I am simplifying things here, but my point is – keep your eye on the big picture. Understand the mission of your institution and look for ways to enact that mission through your work in the library.

Enough lessons from my day on Twitter. You can only get so much blood from a stone.

But this is a good point to pause and think about hiring provosts. In 2010 I was asked to chair the search committee to hire a new Provost at Rollins. First lesson: when you are given a chance like this, take it. It is a big, highly visible task for the College and I am proud that the President considered a librarian for such a job. Secondly, you learn so much about the institution and about the people you work with beyond the library. It helps you become a better librarian. You also learn that the library, which reports to the Provost at schools like Rollins is a very small part of their responsibilities. The library might be my world, but it is small part of the provost’s world, and frankly not the most important. If you can approach an issue from your boss’s perspective you will achieve much more than if you approach it from your own.

How I became a librarian

I got my library degree in 1992. I made the decision to pursue this career in a boarding house in New York City. My wife was launched on her career in higher education and I was adrift wondering what to do with my life and I chose librarianship for many of the same reasons I am sure you did:

Pretty classic reasons, right? I had never imagined myself as a librarian, and had never kept a job for more than 2 years at that point (I was thirty.) I had been a bookstore manager, a lobbyist, a bartender, a real estate manager, worked for her Majesty’s Customs & Excise Department, and had taught English as a second language.

All of that prior experience was helpful to me as a librarian – teaching, customer service, research, management, communication – these are the skills we use every day as librarians. So if you are only now finding librarianship after having worked in many other fields and worry that you are too old. Don’t. All your previous experience can be valuable and can help you compose that killer resume and cover letter.

Which seems like a good moment to talk about copiers. First thing to remember:  you will never ‘fix’ copiers permanently. They are a fragile mixture of the mechanical and the digital that we let thousands of people who just want their paper copy manhandle every day. This is a recipe for disaster! Just go with the flow, stay calm, read the instructions, have a back-up ready, and be ready to get down on the floor with the dust bunnies yanking bits of papers out of a recalcitrant machine. Director, Rare Books Librarian, Subject Bibliographer, Systems Librarian, Youth Services Librarian – doesn’t matter—you will spend time with the dust bunnies and end up filthy. Deal with it.

If you are considering going to library school straight from your undergraduate degree, don’t feel as though you have to rush. Any graduate school experience is quite often better and more fulfilling if you begin after a few years of work experience – you tend to approach it as a professional rather than a student. If you do go straight from your undergraduate degree, then try to find as many practical library experiences as you possibly can – part time jobs in libraries, internships, practicums, etc.

But my library degree was just the beginning of becoming a librarian. It is a very short degree and really only provides the introduction to a complex profession with a 3,000 plus year history and multiple sub-specialties. As soon as I began working in my first professional position – Head of Access Services at the John H. Prior Health Sciences Library of The Ohio State University – I realized that there were great swathes of the profession that I knew little or nothing about. I learned from generous, more experienced colleagues (and very often from generous, less experienced colleagues as well), from reading in the professional literature, from professional meetings and workshops, and from trial and error.

Which seems like a good time to talk about moving libraries. In my first position at OSU, I was lucky enough to work for a woman – Susan Kroll – who took this cocky new librarian – me – and gave me responsibility for organizing the move of the collections out of the building which was being renovated, moving them into a Quonset hut, and then moving them all back in again at the end of the renovation. Of course, she gave me lots of experienced Circulation staff to work with, and a professional moving company so I couldn’t screw up too badly, but I learned how to move a library by doing, which is how we learn so much about librarianship. But I also learnt a great lesson in delegation and leadership from an excellent librarian and I learned how to involve people in a planning process in creative ways.

But you can’t learn everything by doing and yet I felt there was so much more to this profession that I found myself in. So in 2003 I took the opportunity offered by the University of Pittsburgh (where I was head of Hillman Public Services in the University Library System) to do my PhD. A PhD is a great opportunity to dig deeply into a subject to become the expert on a tiny piece of the world – in my case the role of the Association of Research Libraries in the Development of the 1976 Copyright Act. Don’t worry I won’t go into the details of copyright history, instead I want to make two points:

In my case the PhD degree was virtually free, I got to explore in depth a topic that I had been interested in throughout my career as a librarian, and it turned out my next career move was to an institution that “required” a doctorate. Frankly, I don’t need a doctorate to do my job, but the faculty like to have a ‘doctor’ for a librarian and the degree did help me learn how to be a researcher and this has helped me help librarians at Rollins to be more successful faculty librarians.

Which is a good time to talk about catching bats. You may have a graduate degree, you may be a ‘doctor’ one  day, but bats don’t care. When one becomes disoriented and lost in the library and is found clinging to the ceiling tiles, some people will react in very strange ways. They will get very excited, run around like headless chickens and get very little done. In these cases, stay calm, call Facilities Management and ask someone to come and remove the bat. While you wait for the guy with the ladder and the gloves to turn up, tell everyone to calm down, go back to work and designate one person to clear the area around the bat so that it is not disturbed. Easy as that. I have no idea why they don’t teach this in library school, except that it would be really embarrassing to actually have to say to a bunch of library school students, “don’t panic.”

Twenty years after joining this profession I am proud to call myself a librarian. When people ask me what I do I say I am a librarian. This irritates my wife who thinks I should introduce myself as the library director. But a library director is just someone who arranges things so that librarians can do their jobs. I prefer to call myself a librarian.

Why does this still matter?

Is there a future for librarianship? Does the profession still “matter”? Will it still be relevant for long enough for you to have a meaningful career, to do some good, and to get that return on your investment in the degree?

Ever since I became a librarian in the early 1990’s people have been predicting the death of libraries. In fact they have been predicting the demise of our profession for a lot longer than that. Such predictions are usually predicated on the mistaken assumption that the current dominant information storage and communication technologies of the day somehow defines librarianship and so if those technologies are supplanted, or even if they are just supplemented by a new technology then this signals the death of libraries. One famous example of this is the idea, popular when microform technology expanded into the business world and began being used in libraries, that each of us would carry the Library of Congress around in a briefcase and therefore no longer need libraries.

In my own career the first death of libraries came with the advent of the first graphical user interface to the World Wide Web. Information would be organized and accessed on the web, libraries would die!

Then on a slightly more limited scale came Questia, which is still around by the way, a subscription service to a collection of online articles and other sources to which students were expected to subscribe on a monthly basis. Libraries would die!

Then came Google, the migration of some information to the web, and subsequent migration and creation of  a lot of information to the web, hadn’t killed libraries, but now we had a quite remarkable search engine of that web content that regularly retrieved the information we needed with a few key strokes, surely this would be the death of libraries!

And on and on, Google Book Search, the Kindle, Google Scholar, Wikipedia – something is going to kill us!

Of course, all of these are elements in a much larger information transformation – from analog forms of information storage and communication to digital. These changes are truly transformative and we are only a few decades into this digital age. If we compare this to the advent of printing in Europe, we are just coming out of the incunabula stage, the period when print was in swaddling clothes. So who knows how transformative this will be?

There are other indications that we might be in trouble. The OCLC Perceptions Report (2010) while generally quite positive, shows some worrying trends. The latest Ithaka report also shows that faculty see a declining role for libraries with our major role being to acquire the materials they and their students need.

Yikes! Is this the death of libraries? Would you be better off going and doing an MBA, or Law, joining one of the health professions, or getting the latest Microsoft certification?  Nothing wrong with any of those by the way, fine professions. But I think that there is a future for librarianship.

I have an inkling of what that librarianship will be for college libraries over the next few years, no one can tell you much more than that, but it might be a durable librarianship that will outlast us all.

First let’s be honest. Libraries are not dying, they are being transformed. Sure there are crappy public and academic libraries which have declining use, demoralized staff, and outmoded collections and are destined to be defunded by the cities or universities that fund them or to become museums of the book. Good riddance. But a far more common story is of library buildings that are full to over flowing, libraries that are building rich digital and print collections that meet the varied needs of their users, libraries with new services that reach new users in new ways.

Let me just give you a few examples from the library where I am lucky enough to work.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

But this seems like a good time to talk about throwing parties. Remember I said at the beginning that I don’t actually achieve anything on my own, I just  try to create the conditions so that the people I work with can succeed. Well you have to celebrate that fact. Make sure you spend time celebrating significant events in your colleagues lives, whether those are birthdays or retirements or professional achievements and successes. But that is obvious right? The real lesson here is that you aren’t going to be good at everything. We all have strengths and weaknesses. One of my many personal failings is that I am not a natural party animal. I am more like the mobster form the Godfather movie, “Tell Michael it was strictly business.” So I tend to forget to organize celebrations and when I do remember, I don’t have the flair for organizing them. But I do recognize that about myself and so I find people around me who do have that flair and let them do the organizing. Know thyself and delegate.

Actually this photo works for my next mini lesson

Cultivating donors. They certainly don’t teach you this in library school, but most libraries are financially supported in a variety of ways: taxes, tuition, grants, and endowments. Foundations and wealthy individuals are asked to support all kinds of very worthy causes, what makes them want to support your work? You need to build a relationship, you need to show success, you need to have a convincing story to tell, and you need to ask. Literally: if you don’t ask you don’t get. So apply for those grants, cultivate those alumni, and don’t been afraid to ask for money.

OK, back to why librarianship has a future. This all adds up to an answer to the question that I get quite frequently, “what is the future of the library when everything is online?” Here is my 30 second elevator answer to that question.

Not everything is online and is not likely to be a very long time, perhaps never. But, you are right, the move is to be online. About 80% of the use of the library at Rollins is now online and growing. Our collections, services, and tools are designed to serve the user as well from outside the library as they are from within.

So the first question is what is the future of the library building when the library’s collection and services are online? The Olin Library is a place for collaboration and community. Students are increasingly being asked to work in groups, they need a space to do so, what better space than the library. At the same time, as information becomes digital and people have the potential to become more isolated, the library can be a place of community where people mix and mingle with people that they would not normally run across. Of course it is also the place where students want to concentrate and study in silence. So we have to design a variety of spaces that meet the varied and changing needs of our users. The library has huge cultural cache and when students are looking for a place to get their game face on and study, the library is an obvious choice. So strong is the brand that students at Rollins are not asking for a 24 hour gym, or a 24 dining center, but they are asking for a 24 hour library.

The second question is what is the role of the librarian when everything is online? If one spends any time online it soon becomes clear that the Internet is not a smooth ocean of information resources, where everything we need is easily findable, always available, and openly accessible. In fact this ocean of information is more like the frozen sea ice of the arctic. It is fractured with gaps and barriers of technology and intellectual property, information disappears unpredictably and moves imperceptibly. As a society we need people who will collect the most valuable information for our community, will organize that information and make it accessible, will preserve it over the long term, and will help us access and use the information.

That is what librarians do: we collect, organize, describe, preserve and make accessible information. Not books, not scrolls, not CDs or DVD’s, in short not the packets of information, but the information itself.

And that is why we have a bright future. Any literate society that produces and consumes recorded information soon finds that it needs specialists who will manage that recorded information for the rest of us, because frankly most people don’t want to be bothered.

The librarianship you find yourself involved in twenty years from now will be as different , and as similar, as librarianship was when I first started. My advice to you is always keep learning, stay close to your user community and understand how they want to use information, and always keep trying something new.

I will end with a quotation from a book I recommend to anyone thinking about the impact of the Internet on our society (and every librarian should be thinking about this issue.) It is from James O’Donnell’s “Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace” (Harvard, 1998.)   He is discussing the late classical figure Cassiodorus, a man who lived during the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the west and the beginnings of medieval culture. He is credited with first coming up with the idea that monks should copy Christian texts as part of their monastic life. Cassiodorus’ experiment with his Institutes, was a failure and we had to wait another 150 years for the development of the monastic scriptorium. But this is what O’Donnell writes and I think it holds true for librarians during our current period of change. Cassiodorus

“did not despise the new; he used it wholeheartedly. He did not reject old social institutions, but rather found new ways to adapt them. He did not tarry to prophesy a new age of learning and wisdom.

Most of all he did things.”

And so should you.

Thank you.