New Librarianship: Librarians

"The Accolade" by Edmund Blair Leighton

We may not need to go this far...but should we?

“New Librarianship” is a buzzword, especially here at Syracuse, but what does it mean? Here’s my take:

New Librarians and people-who-work-in-libraries are two very different things. The latter is a job; there’s nothing wrong with that, and I believe very strongly that libraries need passionate, good people to help fulfill their purpose.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Librarianship” isn’t a job—it’s a vocation. It’s not something you can put away at the end of the day, when you leave the building. Librarianship is an aggregation of personality, ethics, politics, education, worldview, and focus; there is a reason why librarianship requires graduate study to embark upon.

New Librarianship requires a mission. To borrow R. David Lankes’, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” (That quote, and much of the inspiration for this post, comes from his Atlas of New Librarianship.) There’s a lot in that mission worthy of exploration, but for now, let’s move on.

I’m firmly convinced that librarians can fulfill that mission outside of the building we call a library. In fact, those who hold information-science degrees are qualified for a host of careers, as I’m sure we all know.

Librarianship is an awareness — a hypervigilance to any needs of a community. Everything we see or come in contact with is collected and disseminated to those who seek that information. On another level, though, we also retain that idea, and can share it with someone else. In that way, librarians are libraries, indexes, databases; polymaths. “Jack of all trades; master of none” no longer applies–librarians are constantly educating themselves and mastering the next big thing. Good librarians are interdisciplinary, as challenging as it is to sustain.

This may not earn me any friends, but I believe that personality and focus is the only mark of “librarianship.” The MSLIS/MLS/MLIS/etc is (hopefully) proof of the skills needed to work in a library, but it says nothing about worldview. True librarians can walk into an empty room, and suddenly it becomes a library. They can embed themselves into project teams or classrooms, and suddenly their chosen communities perform more efficiently, more effectively. People who cannot be this sort of ever-learning, ever-sharing, always-on go-getter can still find roles that change lives–but they aren’t the people I’m trying to join by earning an MSLIS, or the ones I’m referring to when I talk about New Librarians.

To me, New Librarianship is a movement; a steadily-growing wave of people seeking to improve the world. Exactly how we’ll do that remains to be seen, but it’s the wanting-to-try that matters. Yes, it’s tiring–hypervigilance and the always-on nature of librarianship will take its toll. Between us all, though, we can take turns, and things will keep getting better.

So what’s your view? Am I crazy?

Categories: Big Picture

38 replies

  1. Back in the dawn of time when I went got my Master of Arts in Librarianship from a school that no longer exists, I was firmly inculcated with the notion that a librarian was more important than a collection. I still believe that.


  2. I suppose my question is how do people that do NOT work in libraries, but still utilize their MS.LIS degrees every day fit into this vision?

    Otherwise I agree with what you’re saying.


    • I don’t see them as excluded from this vision at all. I fully expect that I may become a “new librarian” in this style.

      Which part of this excludes new librarians without a building: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” Right now my community is a research lab full of brain scientists.


      • Sorry for the late reply, I just saw this reply. To clarify I should say that while librarian does not appear anywhere in my title, or really tin my job description, I would still consider myself an LIS professional. As someone who works exclusively in the digital realm I feel that while the quote does apply to my position, there is either little attention paid to the born digital field, or it is not well understood. Thus it’s difficult reading all of these blogs to not feel a slight sense of exclusion from the larger professional sphere.

        I have more to say, but don’t really feel that this is the right venue for a protracted conversation. Feel free to contact me through my website (, or Twitter (AlexBerman647) as I’d love to continue discussing this idea.


  3. I don’t think this is anything “new”. Some librarians I knew when I was a child are long gone now but fit the criteria. I always joke that in 8th grade Sister Catherine Patrice told us to pray for a vocation and my fervent “Please don’t make me a nun” resulted in my vocation to be a librarian. I’ve lived my life in libraries, as an employee, as a volunteer, and as a library utilizer. I’m on a mission from god to put people together with the stories and information that will help make their lives better. Because of the fabulous librarians who so influenced me, I was shocked to become a librarian and realize that it isn’t a vocation for some, but merely a job (which is ok, too). Fortunately, throughout time, there always seems to be some who are passionate about librarianship. BTW, I’ve worked roughly 50% of the time since my MLS in libraries and 50% free lance (related to libraries but not employed at one). And, it has all forwarded my mission.


  4. You say it best! Good librarians are interdiciplinary, as challenging as it is to sustain. I’m a librarian of a lawfirm in Jakarta, Indonesia. I’ve got to show a strong-will to learn things outside librarianship in order to become a qualified librarian for the firm.


  5. I’ll second DHT. It’s not “new,” Lankes, clever guy he is needed a marketing term.

    Arthur T. Hamlin said it best, in his dedication of “The University Library in the United States” (1981):

    “To the hundreds of librarians, mostly women, who devoted their lives, to the service of scholarship in secondary positions with little recognition and often at bare subsistence salaries, in the first half of the twentieth century.”

    That’s the legacy we are dealing with today, and by employing “job-as-lifestyle” I think we, as a profession, run the risk of overlooking the exploitation of human intellectual labor in a rush to emulate the “always on” mentality of 21st century capitalism.

    No disrespect, but your division between “librarians” and “people who work in libraries” kind of seems elitist in a silicon valley kind of way: unless your “vocation” takes over your life, you must not be good is a way for employers to “make do with less” at your expense. The implication that everyone else is just doing a job puts down the fact that they might be making the world a better place in ways that librarianship might never be able to. Information is nice, as is sharing, but action is the root of things which change the world.

    I seek to make the world a better place, both on the job and off of it, and that hopefully that makes me a good librarian and a good person, but I am cautious against constantly conflating the two.

    You’re right: “New Librarianship” is a buzzword. I’m not sure that’s what our profession needs.


    • I agree. I don’t think being a good person and trying to improve the world is something that is, or should be, restricted to a particular profession. Nor should there be a differentiation between those that work in libraries because they love it and those that do so for specifically employment purposes. Additionally, this kind of statement ignores the many people that work in LIS fields, but outside the traditional LIS work place.

      Overall, I agree with the main argument of your post, but I do think that it’s slightly exclusionary tone is not necessarily correct (or intended), nor that we need to attach “new” to our profession. Maybe evolving?


    • Definitely agree about how New Librarianship reads as elitist, although I’m a bit late (I have been thinking deeply about this for a while, trying to figure out why it bugs me). I also think New Librarianship denigrates those of us who are interested in working with libraries as conservationists and cataloguers, behind-the-scenes librarians for whom working with books is the vocation, rather than working with people. It implies that my vocation is somehow less worthy because the jobs I want *cannot* be separated from the physical space of the library.


  6. As someone who will be a newly minted librarian in a few semesters’ time, there’s a ton of pressure to stretch yourself almost unbearably thin to gain professional experience and exposure, but also to commit yourself heart and soul to the profession. I definitely think there’s a balance between seeing the fulfilment of a community’s information needs as a vocation and being pathologically committed to your institution, but when times are so hard and jobs are so hard to find it’s hard to tell where that is.

    Ned Potter has pulled together a Storify along these lines:


  7. I don’t know about all of these terms (I mean, I do, but I don’t care). But what’s being inappropriate conflated in my opinion are individual and institutional desires. Your job should align and contribute to efforts that meet the goals of the institution that you are a part of, regardless of how you feel about those goals. Ideally, you enjoy your job. If not, that doesn’t mean you’re not helping (but maybe you’re not helping as much as you could). During crunch time when budgets are cut though, guess who I’d rather work with?

    On the sustainability side of things, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not committed to the library as an institution. I’m committed to helping people sort and evaluate information, and at the moment, I find the library as the best place to do that. If that changes (which I don’t think it will), I’m not looking to save an inefficient or non-functional organization or profession (I ain’t a captain going down with my ship), or a way to market my degree–rather, I’m looking for a way to utilize my *skills* to continue to help students with my commitment. Or build an institution or profession that is efficient.


  8. I’m reading what you’re saying as “there is a growing focus on librarians imparting ‘library values’ outside of the library,” which I definitely agree with. I think there are two ingredients in this focus: patrons making fewer visits to physical libraries as a result of technology and the over-saturation of the library job market (too many degrees, too few jobs).
    I have to disagree with the idea that a library school cannot teach worldview though. I believe that this is a very important function of graduate school. Deep theory is what differentiates a masters degree from a technical degree.


  9. Thank you thank you thank you for this post. This is a nice encapsulation of the method to my madness in how I approach teaching LIS. I am very passionate about librarians being independent, critical thinkers, and also BRAVE, FEARLESS thinkers, not timid about seeking knowledge and sharing that knowledge as they imbue it. And we’re tireless about it – as in – our lifelong learning is an essential part of our epistemological makeup.


  10. I agree with much that is here, especially the phrase “Librarianship is an awareness” – but I think understanding this awareness as “New Librarianship” is profoundly ahistorical. Not singling you out in any way, but it saddens me how little we know about our history as a profession. I recommend reading Toni Samek’s book on social responsibility in librarianship – she looks at the 60s and the various debates re social responsibility in the ALA at that time. Fascinating. For me it was really helpful in grounding my work as part of a progressive tradition in librarianship.


  11. I applaud your idealism and I think there is a paradigm shift happening in regard to how librarians are defining ourselves and the work we do. The technological climate has coerced us into doing so and this is a good thing.

    I have to take issue with the exceptional-ism in the post however. I don’t think we should be knighted or that what makes us special is that we want to change the world. There are many people in all types of professions who want to do that. Nor are Librarians the only people who connect others with information. Moreover, I don’t separate library support staff from librarians. When a customer comes into the library they don’t care which desk the librarian works at or if he/she is talking with an assistant or clerk, They assume that whoever is behind the desk is going to help them. So I believe that everyone who works for an institution is part of the machine (for lack of a better term) that meets customer needs. I view librarians as having the most training and expertise but simply as the highest rung on the information seekers ladder. I depend everyday on my staff, and they provide excellent desk/chat reference, stack assistance, software expertise and hardware troubleshooting. they are phenomenal and It’s taught me that I am just a small part of what my library has to offer, not the centerpiece.

    What defines being a librarian is not only sharing an ethos, but understanding that information is the libraries’ currency. Being a librarian is a constant battle to stay on top of new trends, new media, new information; assimilating it, making use of it, and facilitating access to it. Not to mention, assessing the needs of our patrons, planning, implementing and evaluating new programs, managing workers, doing less with more. Creating and demonstrating value to our patrons and our shareholders. This is the work of a librarian. It’s a daily struggle to keep up with the rush of the world, and to stay relevant.. I like your post because I think it’s important to have some measure of philosophical zeal. But the reality of what we are and what we do is much more concrete.


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