“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” — The one, the only, Neil Gaiman
Anyone who has been following my posts knows I’ve been trying to write about information literacy and failing. There are a host of reasons WHY this is such a hard post to write at this particular time in history, and I think I’ll get into those as I go, but as I was struggling with how to start, my supervisor pointed out that part of the struggle may be that it’s unclear to a casual reader exactly WHY an information literacy post should be the kind of thing that I, a librarian, who usually posts quirky booklists, am qualified to write. As a part of my conversation with her, I also recognized that tax season is upon us and that it might be helpful for me to also share what librarians aren’t qualified to do. I’ll try to keep this as non-boring and amusing as possible. I sometimes gauge this wrong because, keep in mind, I am a person who could probably spend an hour telling you about what I’d change about the Dewey Decimal System if I were queen of the world OR exactly why it is critically important that the Narnia books be read in the order of publication rather than their chronological order OR that graphic novels are a FORMAT and not a call number… OR why the conversation about libraries and neutrality is as complex as it is. That last one will be done in a later post… and if you want any of the first three, just let @JCLS_tweets know, and I will hear about it and make it happen. My point is that librarians do a lot of different things, but often think pieces that bring out the angry librarians in droves on Twitter get what we do wrong and usually involve statements like “It must be nice to be able to read at work” AND “Why do libraries still exist? Google does the same thing” (narrator voice: it doesn’t).
First off, I WISH I got paid to read whatever I felt like all day. That would, quite literally, be my DREAM JOB. At work I exclusively read things related to the doing of my job, like email. Sooooo much email. Pro tip: if you ever find yourself interviewing for a job in a library NEVER say you want the job because you like to read, that’s not what the job entails… caring about books helps, but isn’t the core of what we do. Legit, dear reader, I write posts and do videos about books I’ve read… but I have NEVER been paid to read any of those books, nor do I believe I should be. So, what DO librarians actually do?
I think it will be helpful to start with the aforementioned “what we don’t do” conversation. We are not doctors, we are not accountants, we are not lawyers. We get asked questions related to medicine and taxes and law A LOT. Seriously, we get asked some weirdly specific questions that dovetail with all those professions, and we get the best information we can to those asking the questions, but in many cases, the answer is outside of our training and to answer it more fully would involve putting ourselves forward as experts in things in which we are not expert. To summarize: our lane = finding information, not our lane = interpreting information. We aspire to stay in our lane. So, since it’s tax season: I can get you the tax form you need. I CANNOT tell you which tax form you need… nope, not even if it sounds like your taxes are just the same as mine. There is a credentialing process involved in being able to file taxes… and I don’t have one. So, what the heck am I qualified to do? Other than the obvious: sitting here, typing a blog post that future you is reading and thinking, “get to the point already.”
What I do have (and many of my colleagues at JCLS have also) is a degree called a Masters in Library and Information Science. Those of us who have such a degree have done advanced academic coursework on how to parse credible information sources and figure out how to make them most accessible to the people who wish to use them. Sometimes we do this by reading every book we can get our hands on to the point that people around us sometimes think we are a little odd (points at self), but sometimes we do this by looking at sources, assessing their credibility, and matching people with the information for which they are looking… and yes, the goal is always for that answer to be the most authoritative we can find… as experts… at finding authoritative information. Taking this a step further, we are also trained to teach others how to do these things for themselves by teaching information literacy. This can be harder to explain in the customer-service-focused environment of a public library because if I say, “Let me show you how to do that yourself,” it can be heard as, “I am unwilling to do this for you.” In short, those of us who have been doing this for a while tend to be tricky and subtle about how we do this teaching. “I’m not sure, let’s figure this out together,” is probably my favorite way to do this. Because we do information literacy work well, quietly, in the background with all the books swirling around us, this becomes something of a stealth activity, and it can feel a little awkward to put ourselves forth as expert at these things. And yet, we are.
…and that’s why right now is hard for us. It’s no secret that there is a lot of mis- and disinformation out in the world (more to come on the distinction between those two terms). We all agree that their prevalence is a problem. What isn’t agreed upon is which information is worthy of the “mis-” prefix. The minute a stand is taken about whether that “mis-” applies, an assumption about political affiliation is made… and then whatever do we do about this as it pertains to the aforementioned discussion of libraries and neutrality? The truth is, I’m not sure I know anymore, but let’s figure that out together. Every other week. Until we are done. I do not know when that will be. I’ll try not to get distracted and do the Narnia thing instead, because one thing all of us at JCLS know is: THIS IS IMPORTANT. This is also very much, as they say, “our lane.” Come for a drive with us.