Friday, August 07, 2009

"The bad news - you're bleeding to death. The good news - the bleeding is slowing down..."

"Today's NYTimes: 247,000 Jobs Lost in July; Rate Falls Slightly"

A rambling rejoinder to the post at StanleyK, and a revisit to a comment I made here, earlier. The call is out: We need to step up, more than ever, support our communities... but our budgets are being slashed (again).

A friend of mine working at a library system headquarters in Illinois is now performing the duties of 1.5 people, officially, and has been for the past 6 months. A hospital library at a top-rated med center has seen their budget bleed away in response to dwindling patron visits; 5 years and more of no-growth budgets or budget cuts. They've lost a whole floor's worth of space, and staff. Even before this hard time, we librarians have learned to do with less, do without, to swim with whatever the current fiscal realities may be (as if we ever had a choice, right?) We can justly take pride in our endless creativity, and so can educators, particularly those in public schools.

However, such effortful redefining of our services comes at a price, or it must - I cannot imagine it does not. I have written here before about the need to consider our own practices, to focus on yet another underserved population: librarians. Our discussions rightly focus on those we serve, but they seldom take an inward view, to consider how we might support our own continued development (oh, us? - we'll get through). Oh, yes, we will. Diminished, if we are forced again to scale back services; teaching those (fewer) who hope to join the profession about the hard realities. For the practitioner, such realities may include the reinforcement of an often referenced gap between research and practice.

Give me a minute with this.

Editors and educators have deplored the lack of use of research in practice. The imbalance between academic and practitioner authors in our top journals has been measured, with some calling for practitioners to contribute their 'fair share' (1), while more recently, there has been an attempt to fit the model for evidence-based practice (EBP) to librarianship (EBL).

In articles calling for EBL, barriers to the use and practice of research in practice settings have been recognized again and again: lack of support. lack of education. lack of resources. lack of time. and so forth.

Right. So, back to the original topic of this post, and an attempt to tie it all up in a messy and undocumented bow: these things will not seep from the wellsprings of some unseen good place, and they cannot be wrested from shrinking budgets. My fear is not only that we will continue to fail to recognize our own needs, but that if they continue to be unrecognized, our own profession will diminish before our eyes. Perhaps you think I am making the assumption that EBL is the savior of librarianship, but I'd like to assure you this is not the case. There is a recognition that change is occurring - the aging of the profession, the derelict budgets, and so forth. We wonder about what it all means... and still, we do not regard our own selves and practices very closely. If we are to reconsider practice, we need to reconsider practitioner education; if we are to do that, we need (I argue) to understand more about ourselves.

And this is what we, as enablers of information access for all the world, have not done. If you doubt me - do a search for this topic: the information behavior of librarians. The discussion among us should not be limited to how we can continue to provide service in the face of shrinking budgets, but should also involve how we can change and grow, and more than ever - how we can encourage those who may wish to join us to add their voices to the discussion.

(1) Landwirth, T. K. (1990). Your fair share. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 78(1), 69-70.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sometimes you feel like a flame...

Yesterday on a listserv devoted to LIS education, something notable happened. Now, it's not unusual for little flame wars to spring up on this discussion list, or for some of the same individuals to fan small blazes until they die away from lack of oxygen, witnessed by silent bystanders.

In this case, the incipient struggle may be over whether the discussion list is unfairly censored (though this was unclear, and remains so); a whole new list (it turns out) has been started as a direct reaction to the perception of censorship. It is ironic that the list is named after Stanley Kunitz, whose poetry is so transparent and responsive, so human:

It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
(from Touch Me)

I find irony in all the unsaid words, the near-palpable suppression among us that emerges in these sudden, single flames. Are others witnessing this discussion (and others), thinking whole libraries' worth of thoughts, but not saying them aloud (because, why bother - or, how would my response be perceived - a learned constraint?) In this instance, what really is happening?

I find irony in the situation due to my own circumstance, as well. Planning for my dissertation work, I have thought any number of times about how much I'd love to have a discussion with others in my profession about the issues involved. There are so many to be discussed, but in my case I think: how would it be perceived? I think: who will see this? I think: are people interested, even? - and so don't post about it. I find no real platform for this discussion, but perhaps my own perceptions are off-kilter. Still, my concern about perceptions is a functional constraint against action.

One of the discussions I'd really like to have concerns a link that was also posted on the list, to an opinion piece done by a professor who made a number of assumptions about practitioners and on-the-job training. I can only assume they were assumptions, because the piece was completely devoid of any form of proof that the claims had any validity. We are also not told whether the author has hands-on experience in the setting being discussed, or any direct connection. It's just an opinion - interesting, perhaps even instructive - but curiously empty, and it need not have been. Where the author (in the absence of any research from LIS) might have mentioned research done in other fields, there is no mention, just a blithe (implicit) assurance that the claims made are true... In a profession like ours, where the disparities between libraries of the same type are large enough that it's difficult to make broad claims, the author assumes a problem without proof, then prescribes a solution (also without justification); this is disseminated more broadly and without (public) comment.

I do not want to have this be a rant about one author, one listserv. In the case of the opinion piece, the publishers of the work are equally culpable, and in any case, this sort of thing is astonishingly prevalent, so much so that it's difficult to back up opinions with research -- because the research isn't there.

Even after 20 years in this profession, the whole situation is strange to me. Probably I'm just now noticing something that's been prevalent for a long time. As a member of several web forums unassociated with LIS, I have witnessed discussions about issues like politics or healthcare over a number of years. At some point, the discussion usually gets around to someone saying, 'what's your source?' - or, 'yes, but that source is obviously biased'. Eventually (at least on the one forum, anyway) people become accustomed to providing a link to their source, and exhibit an awareness of bias; it's become a cultural norm. This does not happen often on a listserv populated by highly educated LIS professionals, and I find that to be an ultimate irony.

Because of the lack of substantive discourse backed by evidence, small flames rise and quell themselves; those who speak up subside due to lack of rational discourse; silent witnesses wonder about the sub-rosa politics involved. Each of us, like Stanley K., with only one season to live, reifying a culture of silent witnessing and tacit, undiscussed decision making. Why? Does our fear and distaste of confrontation blind us to a middle ground, where respectful discourse can occur?

Note that there are no citations to validate this post, which is wholly speculative.