APPROACH & PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY
There is no doubt we live in a transformative age for libraries and archives. Technology is changing how people use and view information, literature, and research. Commentators from inside and outside of the information profession speculate as to the future of libraries and the publishing industry. Experts weigh in with suggestions on how libraries can stay relevant, proposing revolutionary changes in library service, while some critics suggest that libraries could (and perhaps should) cease to exist at all. Cynics claim that books are already dead, merely awaiting burial.
It is worth remembering, then, the durability of libraries through every epoch of human civilization. History began with the advent of the written word. As soon as writing was born, so was culture, for with writing, societies could build upon their achievements from one generation to the next, promoting advancements in technology and trade that were the foundations of civilization. The first city-states, nations and cultures, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, to the Indian subcontinent and the Far East were characterized by their writing. In the infancy of human civilization, the written word became the engine of commerce, the linchpin of diplomacy, and a source of art and inspiration. Records of early libraries – collections of writings, in royal courts and temples — stretch into even these earliest times. After all, it was no less true then than now – content is useless without organization.
It is also worth reexamining the very definition of a book. For those who bemoan its death, I ask, what is a book? The oldest known complete work of literature is an ancient Sumerian poem, known in its time as He Who Saw the Deep, but better known to modern readers as The Epic of Gilgamesh. The poem tells a series of tales about a semi-mythical King of Uruk, and how he tamed the great beast Humbaba and wrestled the Bull of Heaven. His grief from the death of his friend and companion, the wild man Enkidu, caused him abandon his great walled city in order to seek out immortality, only to fail, and return a humbled, wiser, and a greater King. The complete Epic is a circular story with characters as rich and deep as modern literature.
Was it a book?
The codex – the book, as we know it, with front and back covers and bound paper pages – was completely unknown in antiquity. The surviving Akkadian-language version of Gilgamesh was preserved in cuneiform writing on a series of clay tablets, found when the archeologist Henry Layard discovered the Library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. Are these ancient tablets any less a book simply because they do not contain paper pages? Conversely, today I can read the complete Epic on my iPhone through an e-Reader app. Is the copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh I can read on my iPhone any less a book because it does not contain paper pages?
The book is not dead, it is merely being redefined. The codex will no longer be the only format in which books are found. We are moving on from printing presses to pixels. With the proliferation of blogs and other advanced means of self-publishing, there is more writing and more reading going on now than in any time in our history. With more content, libraries and librarians are needed now more than ever to make sense of the clutter, and organize the chaos of this new world of digital print.
My approach to librarianship is born out of the following philosophy: information is information in any format. The printed word is but one way of preserving knowledge, and what a librarian does is organize and promote knowledge and literacy, not just printed books, but in every form and facet in which information is found. There is no difference between the tablets in Nineveh, the vellum manuscripts of medieval Europe, the printed Bibles of Gutenberg or the PDF files of Google Books. Our mission as librarians is to house, organize and refer to these works for the advancement and education of our society, be that a local community, a research institution or university. Historic materials need to be carefully preserved and protected, out-of-print works rescued from obscurity, and modern ones promoted, but their worth is all equivalent: each contribute to that which makes us civilized, the record of our progress and our missteps, our art, and our knowledge. Whether a library’s shelves are groaning with the weight of printed volumes, or its servers are at capacity from its digitized files, its mission remains the same, only the tools have changed.
Bringing Power to Knowledge
“A collection of good books, with a soul to it in the shape of a librarian, becomes a vitalized power among the impulses by which the world goes on to improvement” (Winsor, 1878, p. 5).
This quote, from the great librarian and historian Justin Winsor, neatly encapsulates my conception of the profession, and is a lovely turn on the cliché “Knowledge is Power”. Knowledge alone is useless; it must be contextualized to have a purpose. The organizing and interpreting capacity of a librarian gives knowledge the power to change society.
In my 2007 application essay to San José State’s School of Library and Information Science, I wrote “ever-expanding data is only useful if it is accessible, and the 21st century librarian can stand at the forefront of that organizational effort”. Now, as I complete my education and prepare to embark upon my professional career, I know that the librarian’s duties go beyond organization; the librarian also serves as the human interpreter and guide to information resources, the guide for the researcher, and guardian of our freedom of information. Each of these concepts are reflected in different Competency Statements contained in this e-Portfolio: I address information-seeking and guidance under Competency J, reference and user services in Competency I, research issues under Competency L, and freedom of information in Competency A.
Ultimately, I seek to become the librarian about whom Winsor speaks; the librarian whose understanding of a collection and its associated resources can increase its significance and value to its users, the librarian who brings power to knowledge.
I made a deliberate choice in my course selection not to follow too narrow a track; I believe even in this age of specialization that there is room for a sharp generalist with the skill and ability to work in various environments. I have interned at both an academic library and a special library (the research library of a natural history museum), I have sat up front as a reference librarian and worked deep in the archives, and I have taken both advanced technology courses and studied the ancient history of bookmaking. I have written about museum informatics, Web 2.0 in the Academic Library, and the early public library movement in San Francisco. I would be excited to work in an academic, public or museum library or archival repository. I want to leave room for inspiration as I move forward and opportunities present themselves, and have trained myself for each.
While I hesitate to specify the course of my career before it begins, I have targeted a career as an academic librarian. My ambition is informed by my experience as a reference & instruction intern at the University of San Francisco. I enjoyed the vitality of working on a University campus, and the opportunity to assist focused students in their research pursuits. As an MLIS student, I joined CARL, the California Academic and Research Library Association, and began to network with academic reference librarians working in Northern California. I believe both my experience as a MLIS student and my internship showed that I have the right energy and demeanor for library instruction. I find the sometimes-challenging puzzles of reference librarianship to be intellectually stimulating and the exchange with academic library users to be positive and engaging. I am also ready and trained to bring new ideas about digital outreach to a library or research institution.
Alternatively, I do pride myself on having varied interests and pursuits. My historical research has largely been concerned with the American public library movement, and I understand the spirit and legacy of the public library. Therefore, while my first instincts are to work in an academic setting, my mind is not closed to the possibility of being a public librarian. Like Justin Winsor, whose career accomplishments included venerated tenures on both the public and academic ends of the professional spectrum, I see the purpose and calling in each pursuit.
“Contribute to the cultural, economic, educational and social well–being of our communities.”
There are many ways in which an information professional contributes to the well-being of our community. In my Statement for Competency A, I discussed the ethical legacy of our historic libraries and the modern values that define librarianship today. As a librarian, I will uphold certain ideals: the freedom of information, opposition to censorship, and the safeguarding of integrity in research. This is the chief role a librarian plays in their community.
However, there is more than one definition of community. There is the community served by a particular library, and the effect our libraries have on our society as a whole. But I also see the professional ranks of librarians and archivists to be an important community to which I belong. While some sectors of the profession are riven by the debate over technology use and adaptation, I see only opportunity in the technologies of the future, and only a proud legacy upon which to build when I look back at our past. I do not see the need to reinvent the profession – in each age librarians have taken on new technology and utilized emerging tools. Librarianship, even as it changes, need not undergo a radical revolution. We are simply taking the next step in what has been a long slow road towards progress.
Therefore, I hope to give back to the professional community by chronicling this era of librarianship through the filter of our past. I strongly believe that examining our past illuminates our future. Whatever my professional venue, I hope to further enhance and promote our profession by writing scholarly articles on interesting subjects in library history. Between these attempts to publish original research, I will also continue to use this venue, The Pinakes, to highlight aspects of history and technology I find interesting. I hope to develop a dialog with a community of information professionals. In these ways I will contribute to the well of knowledge regarding the legacy of librarianship and the directions it will take in the future.
I also intend be an active contributor to professional organizations. Should I be employed through an academic library here in California I will continue my active involvement in CARL; if my career ambitions change and I work for a public or special library I will contribute my energy towards the relevant organization in the state or region in which I am working. It is important for librarians and archivists to support each other intellectually, share our ideas, and promote our organizations together, even as our resources and tools change with each technological advancement.
References and Further Reading:
- Winsor, J. (1878). The college library and the classes. Library Journal 3 (1), 5-6.