In a recent opinion piece, Rick Anderson suggests a growing conflict between two schools of thought concerning the fundamental mission of libraries and how librarians reflect those philosophies: “soldiers” vs. “revolutionaries”. Solders are focused on local needs and are primarily driven by the goals of their institution. Revolutionaries think more globally and are focused on how the library can bring about positive change everywhere. As Anderson admits, rarely do individuals fall purely within either of these two categories. However, it can be a useful framework for examining our own professional philosophies and environments.
Here’s Anderson’s Model that incorporates the facets of local vs. global as well as short-term vs. long-term:
So, where do I fall on this scale? Well, I’m almost exclusively a “Soldier”, despite the disclaimer that such a thing is rare. And here’s the thing: I feel a little guilty about it. Why? A combination of reasons I’m not sure I am fully conscious of.
In my mind, I was hired on to my small academic library to do a job, which boils down to “make the library the best it can be for the benefit of the people at this institution”. The library’s mission is very much inwardly focused and I conduct myself in the service of that mission, which I don’t see that as a bad thing. Now, I don’t eschew any outward collaboration, networking or focus. I am involved in local and regional professional organizations and events, but, to me it all falls under the heading of making me better at my job. I attend conferences hoping to take something away to apply in my library, I network with other librarians to learn new ideas and potentially collaborate in order to benefit my patrons. It feels like a confession, but I don’t expend my professional energy “for the greater good”. I do it for the good of my small, defined community.
In some ways, I’m a product of my environment. I work at a private, non-profit college. Unlike public libraries, academic library have a much smaller, more defined set of users with a common need. We’re not trying to support the information needs of society – we’re helping students and faculty do research. As such, it’s much easier to maintain a local focus and not think of people beyond this institutional island. Adding to this is the element of a private institution. There are no explicit goals of the institution that involve supporting or bettering the public. Our library does not circulate material to the public and is comfortable with that policy.
Also, being a very small library plays into how I approach our mission. We have a staff of two full-time librarians + work study students. That’s it. Unlike larger libraries, here each individual librarians time is at much more of a premium (or at least it feels like it). With all the work of maintaining and growing an academic library spread among two librarians, any time I spend doing something in support of entities that aren’t my institution, I feel like I’m cheating my institution. Because if I spend an hour, say, typing up minutes for a professional organization I’m involved in, that could have easily been an hour I spent cataloging books, developing instruction, looking for new books to purchase, running reports, preparing assessment documents, planning an event, etc.
Ok, so where does the guilt come in? Well, I feel like a lot of the professional conversation that has been happening recently has preferred the “revolutionary” way of thinking. And in fact I think that’s evident in Anderson’s article itself. While Anderson does well not to suggest one way of thinking is superior, the language choice for the two concepts is imbalanced. The idea of a soldier conjures up images of violence and someone who doesn’t think for themselves and just takes orders to do something that many feel is wrong – a tool of the institution. A revolutionary is a much more romanticized label. It’s someone with full agency that’s going to change the world for the better. Who wouldn’t want to be a revolutionary? Certainly over being a war fodder.
Word choice and semantics aside, libraries and librarians are becoming part of the conversations and initiatives about racial inequality, LGBT support, gender gaps, diversity in the profession, and an overall critical social examination of libraries. These ideas aren’t the exclusive domain of the global thinker – you can examine all these issues in your local context. But often there seems to be an explicit, if not implicit, expectation that librarians work outside the bounds of their own environments to achieve these goals, sometimes apart from library contexts altogether. For example, the #critlib library discussions serve to help librarians “disrupt systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and a range of structural inequalities”. That kind of thing is a pretty tall order for a single librarian in a small academic library. Even the ACRLs newly drafted Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education recommends that students recognize bias and privilege in the construction of authority and understand how groups are marginalized in systems of information dissemination.
Don’t get me wrong: these are all good things. These are conversations we should be having and I’m never opposed to critical self-examination. I just feel like I can’t give my professional time and energy to these causes because I’m operating under a mission that seeks to improve things internally not externally – and I’m OK with that. But it feels like I’m expected to work towards changing society. Most of the critical library conversations treat librarians primarily as agents of social and political change that just so happen to be in a library. I just don’t feel that way.
Am I too small-minded in my thinking? Maybe. Personally, I’m not very active in politics so it makes sense that I don’t use my professional position as some sort of political platform. In a way though, I’m playing right into the stereotype of my privileged position: as one of the primary beneficiaries of the current, imbalanced system, of course I’m not actively working to disrupt the system. But I think it’s just a matter of having a different professional frame: my job isn’t to make the world a better place, it’s to make my college a better place so that the students can go on to make the world a better place.