The Heart of Librarianship: A Review

I just finished reading Michael Stephens' collection of essays - plus I make some suggestions for further reading.

July 7, 2016

This has been a difficult few days. Just after I wrote to my senators urging them to do something about the all-too-frequent killing of black folks by police, another man was killed in Minnesota after being stopped for a broken taillight. Like most folks, I don’t know what to do with all these emotions, but we have to do something, and we can’t expect black folks to do it all. Justin Cohen has some advice for those of us who are white. You can join Campaign Zero. We have work to do. 

But today I needed to step back for a bit, and for me that usually means escaping into a book. It seemed a good time to finish reading Michael Stephens’ The Heart of Librarianship. It’s a selection of essays he wrote over the years for Library Journal about the profession, about teaching and learning, and about teaching people who are learning to be librarians. He writes about how organizations and individual librarians can cope with change and confront things like their fear of irrelevance in a positive way. A good deal of the book focuses on education for librarianship, and the section on “considerations for prospective librarians” would be particularly useful to share with undergraduates considering entering the field (along with Lauren Presley’s So You Want to Be a Librarian, which has been Unglued). 

There’s also discussion of what should be part of the LIS curriculum and how librarians can continue to learn throughout their careers. Whatever is on the curriculum will never be sufficient; I get a bit frustrated when librarians say “why didn’t they teach that in library school?” as if that’s the sum of our professional education. Unless we want to expand the program enormously and increase the debt of our new librarians – which I don’t recommend – we need to acknowledge learning has to be continual. That message comes through strongly in this collection. Libraries are places for learning and creativity. Librarians and library organizations must learn, too, always, and engage beyond the walls of the library. What happens next may be chaotic and messy, but that’s okay. If we build organizations that let everyone practice leadership, that give people prior authorization to mess up, and where trust is a given, we’ll have strong libraries.

The subtitle of the book is “attentive, positive, and purposeful change.” I’ve grown so tired of being told to embrace change, to not fear change, to accept change or face certain irrelevance, that I tend to give that word an automatic eye-roll. Yet I know there is a tendency in library culture to over-plan, to put up with things that don’t work well while demanding that a possible solution undergo thorough testing, to let ideas die a slow and painful death being tortured in committees. Given how much change the information world has gone through in recent decades, we need to get good at improvisation and fluidity. He urges us to do so with humanity and heart.

One final observation, perhaps prompted by my volunteer work counting the gender break-down in mystery book reviews. Though librarianship is a majority-female profession, it seemed an awful lot of the people he cited were men. I did a quick tally – yup, more than twice as many men are cited in the book as women. The ratio is more strongly male in the bibliography of book-length readings, in which only five of the 27 books are by women. I haven’t subjected my own writing to the same test, and I may well be doing the same thing. But there are a lot of smart, creative, interesting women writing about libraries and technology, so I’ll close with a few recommendations.

Some books on technology by women that I’ve found fascinating are

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd (which Stephens cites) (my review)

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Self-Branding in Web 2.0 by Alice Marwick (my review)

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman (my review)

And I’m looking forward to reading Networks of New York by Ingrid Burrington which comes out on August 30th.  

I’ve also compiled a list of some of the women who write blogs about academic, school, and public libraries that I follow. I know as soon as I finish posting this I’ll remember more names that belong here. Recommendations welcome!

Andromeda Yelton – Across Divided Networks

Anthropologist in the Stacks (Donna Lanclos)

At the Intersection (April Hathcock)

Attempting Elegance (Jennica Rogers)

Bethany Nowviskie

Cecily Walker – Librarian with Attitude

Coyle’s information (Karen Coyle)

Daring Librarian (Gwyneth Jones)

Emily Drabinski

Feral Librarian (Chris Bourg)

Free Range Librarian (Karen Schneider)

Gavia Libraria (a pseudonymous female bird)

Info-Fetishist (Anne-Marie Deitering)

Information Wants to Be Free (Meredith Wolfwater)

Jenny Arch

Letters to a Young Librarian (Jessica Olin)

Librarian in Black (Sarah Houghton)

Library Hat (Bohyun Kim)

The Mongoose Librarian (Emma Coonan)

New Jack Librarian (moving to Librarian of Things – Mita Williams)

Pegasus Librarian (Iris Jastram)

Screwy Decimal (Jenny Arch Rita Meade)

Solvitur Ambulando (Bess Sadler - also see her Code4Lib article on Creating a Commons and Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery)

The Unquiet Librarian (Buffy Hamilton)


Also, look for everything Safiya Noble writes (I hope she will take ACRL's advice and self-archive all the things); check out Dorothea Salo's publications and presentations and her curated and fabulous collection of links at Pinboard. Her syllabi are wonderful rabbit holes into which I can disappear for hours - see LIS 640: Code and Power as an example.


(Note: edited 7/15/16 to add suggestions made by Andromeda Yelton and my own "d'oh! of course" moments)

(Edited to add: do you need a conference speaker? These women are all highly recommended.)


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