Professional Life

Changing the Face of Librarianship

L-R: 2011 Spectrum Scholar Teresa Silva, 2011 Spectrum Scholar LaToya Devezin, 2009 Spectrum Scholar Stephen X. Flynn, 2011 Spectrum Scholar Ana Elisa de Campos Salles, 2011 Spectrum Scholar Jarrett Drake

Editor Note: This is a guest post by Jarrett Drake

“The Incunabula. I’d like to see them,” said a patron in a muffled tone. “Can you repeat that?” I responded unassumingly. “The Incunabula, the Incunabula!” she exclaimed, her voice rising with each repetition. After a brief hesitation of speech that left my mouth quite unable to repeat her enunciations, the patron interjects, “You’re not familiar with the Incunabula? Are you a librarian?”

And that’s where I’ll stop. For the record, I’m not a librarian (yet). But if there’s one takeaway from my attendance at the 2012 Spectrum Leadership Institute and the 2012 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, it’s that the future of libraries—and indeed, librarianship—is a changing face. As emerging professionals, we library and information students mustn’t simply notice that change, but champion it.

For those unfamiliar with Spectrum, it’s a scholarship program that former ALA President Dr. Betty J. Turock initiated in 1998. In its nearly fifteen years of existence, Spectrum has supported close to 800 graduate students from underrepresented populations in their pursuit of master’s and doctoral degrees in the field of library and information science. The Spectrum Leadership Institute, held yearly to coincide with the ALA annual conference, brings its scholarship recipients together for a multi-day, engaging series of workshops, presentations, and panels.

This year’s institute, for example, welcomed library professionals who dedicate their lives to delivering access of telecommunications technology to historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. In fact, throughout the course of the past year with the assistance of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Spectrum has offered a series of online webinars titled “Technology Transforms Communities.”  This series of webinars provided valuable information on how library technology can enhance service to traditionally underserved ethnic communities. The Institute was an excellent venue to bring all the knowledge facilitated through the webinar series into one room.

So is the purpose of this post to praise Spectrum and excuse my ignorance? Yes and no, respectively. Yes, because Spectrum is preparing librarians and information professionals to be stewards of change and growth in communities across the country. And no, because I actually come to the field of information science to further my love of learning, not pretend that it is replete.

But the larger purpose, though, can be summarized in the following tweet courtesy of Kate Theimer of the popular blog ArchivesNext:

“If you love books/old stuff, collect them. If you love helping people have access to information, become a librarian/archivist.”

Fewer and fewer LIS students will know what incunabula are. And that’s ok. Although the traditional formats of information are dying, the pulse of librarianship has never been more vibrant. The mediums through which people access knowledge are transforming, and it’s time our sensibilities and expectations transform with them. Our profession’s new demands require librarians who can write regular expressions, tweak stylesheets, and manage databases. Equally applying these toolkits in service to those of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds is a responsibility that past and current Spectrum scholars eagerly assume and should permeate the field.

There is no sine qua non subject matter that a librarian must possess; rather, the only sine qua non for today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) librarian is a willingness to assist people find and use information. In this way, libraries are not just book collectors; they’re life changers. And that’s truly changing the face of librarianship.

Do you agree with the patron’s claim that all librarians should be familiar with Incunabula? What skills do you think will be most useful for librarians of the future? Add your thoughts to the conversation!

Jarrett M. Drake is a second-year master’s degree candidate student at the University of Michigan School of Information where he specializes in Archives & Records Management. He currently works as University Library Associate for the U-M Special Collections Library and as a processing assistant for the Bentley Historical Library. You can find him on Twitter @JarrettMDrake.

20 thoughts on “Changing the Face of Librarianship

  1. Sorry, this got long!!! Your posting bio indicates you work in the special collections library at a big academic research library. According to the that library website, you guys have 450 incunabula! So actually, yes, I would expect a librarian in *that specific context* to know what incunabula are. Because it’s a great thing your library has (that most libraries don’t), and something that people in your user community care about.

    Connecting community and resources is what we do, whatever the combination of those two happen to be at any given workplace, and whatever the “toolkit” is that best supports that connection. Sometimes it’s technology, sometimes it’s story, sometimes it’s enabling user content creation or a combination of those. Your community right now? Just happens to include academics who want to study 500+ year old kind-of-printed books. (Anyway, if you get a chance you should go check out the incunabula – they’re amazing objects and most of us never get to see them in real life. As a fan of the history of typography and book design, I’m completely jealous.)


  2. I work in the Special Collections division of a mid-sized academic library, and even though we only have one incunabulum (1496), I of course know what the word indicates — as should you! While I agree with your assertion that there is “no sine qua non subject matter that a librarian must possess”, I assume that rare materials are part of your current profession, as they are mine. That said, I completely understand the patron’s frustration. If she had instead asked to see the “old books” would it have sparked this topic?


    • I don’t know; the patron’s level of frustration seems an overreaction. From the description of the interaction, it sounds like her request began with a mumbled single word (not even a complete sentence), and then became hysterical and accusatory. If she was frustrated, it’s because she created a frustrating situation.


    • >>If she had instead asked to see the “old books” would it have sparked this topic?

      Probably not. The focus of the post was her indignation that a librarian (which I am not, I’m a student) didn’t know what that term meant. My contention is that more and more future librarians will not know what it means, and that fact does not signal the end of the world for the profession.

      Her question suggested that all librarians should be familiar with incunabula, and much to her chagrin, that’s not true.


      • I’m not a librarian either, I’m an LTA and a student — I’ll graduate with my MLIS next month. Your overall argument regarding librarianship as a whole may be correct, but I don’t think her question (“Are you a librarian?”) was completely off the wall. Not *all* librarians need to know about incunabula, but she thought that someone *in your position* should. You obviously worked there — not many laypersons know that you need a degree to be a librarian — and you didn’t know a commonly used term that relates to what is obviously a huge selling point of the Library for which you work. She could have articulated her question better, sure, but it’s a common enough term in Special Collections. That’s why I understand her frustration, I guess.


  3. I hadn’t ever heard of incunabula either, until just now. Literally. I just googled it. That said, I think the point of this post shouldn’t be overlooked – that the field, and the Spectrum program especially, is evolving our world (information contexts) from the inside out. Yes, we will still have patrons asking these same questions, but also we will have a wider and more diverse workforce that will be able to provide information to new and underserved populations. Whether we deal with archival materials, special collections objects, books or digital artifacts, “the only sine qua non for today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) librarian is a willingness to assist people find and use information.” Well said Jarrett.


  4. As a medievalist who is now entering an MLIS program, this beginning of this post made me cry a little inside. But in the broad context of librarianship, no, most librarians and LIS students will probably never come across incunabula. But for someone who is working in Special Collections and focusing on archives & records management, yes. I would expect you to understand on some level what incunabula are.

    I generally agree with the gist of the post in that a willingness to interact and assist people find/use information is an essential skill, but that is only getting at the public-face of librarianship. I think another important skill across the board is creative problem solving/thinking both in how libraries operate and how we interact with the communities we serve.


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  6. What’s more helpful to someone looking for incunabula? Knowing what they are talking about, or not knowing what they are talking about?

    I’m starting to sense that this discussion as it is being played out throughout our field is too often being distilled into an either/or debate. Either we can love the material, or we can love getting people to the material. And I think a lot of this is coming from the fact that LIS programs in general concentrate too heavily on the latter of the two “options.”

    IMHO the whole debate, as it’s often framed, is ridiculous. Particularly in positions where you are dealing with subject experts, you cannot provide adequate service if you know nothing about what they are looking for. One of the greatest strengths of librarians, particularly special collections librarians or archivists, is that they have an intimate familiarity with the materials in their collection, and a certain level of subject expertise that blossoms naturally from that. We can try all we want to improve our finding aids and our discovery methods, but what’s more service oriented than someone asking a question and you knowing off the top of your head just what materials they need to answer it?

    The problem is that the expertise required for that level of service is just as varied as the types of libraries there are in existence. It is impossible for library schools to provide that sort of education, which means students and new graduates need to develop their expertise on the job, and in the beginning they will find themselves in awkward positions like when they are working in a rare book department and don’t know what incunabula are. That doesn’t mean it’s okay for librarians to know nothing about the subject matter they are in charge of. It means that the bulk of what we learn we learn on the job, and not in the classroom.


  7. >>Particularly in positions where you are dealing with subject experts, you cannot provide adequate service if you know nothing about what they are looking for…One of the greatest strengths of librarians, particularly special collections librarians or archivists, is that they have an intimate familiarity with the materials in their collection, and a certain level of subject expertise that blossoms naturally from that.

    Our library has many other cool and fascinating materials. Not being familiar with THIS particular item doesn’t mean I know nothing about our holdings, which are vast and deep. Moreover, I don’t have an advanced degree in another subject, so I’m not a subject specialist, nor will I be. Spending time with materials will not qualify one with similar credentials and knowledge as someone who has studied in a particular field. And as someone who processes archives at another institution, I can say that if an archivist has ‘intimate familiarity’ with the materials, then s/he is spending too much time with them and would better serve the public by implementing MPLP. 

    >> …in the beginning they will find themselves in awkward positions like when they are working in a rare book department and don’t know what incunabula are.

    If not knowing something as a librarian is awkward, what then is the joy of librarianship? Contrary to popular (or your) belief, librarians are not omniscient. I, for one, am in the field because I have a life-long love of learning, not because I have a pretention that my learning will end.


    • Well that all fits in with my point fine, and I apologize if I sounded like I was criticizing your post directly. I picked up on a broader issue and was mostly addressing that.

      To answer the more direct question, library students (you) don’t need to know what incunabula are. They just need to be interested in knowing what incunabula are once they realize that they will be working with them. And that’s where the passion for lifelong learning comes in. If you were a 10 year tenure track special collections librarian and ended up in the same situation, that would be a problem.

      It’s a false dichotomy to claim that you can either implement MPLP or you can know what you have in your collection. That’s what I’m arguing against, the constant pitting of passion for the stuff vs. passion for the service. There is no conflict here. If someone doesn’t love both they probably aren’t going to make a good librarian.


  8. Interesting post and discussion!

    No, not all librarians need to be familiar with incunabula — only the ones who work with a collection that include incunabula. I would not expect a student worker or new graduate to have the same knowledge as a librarian who is already in the field. So it is okay that you did not know.

    >> “I can say that if an archivist has ‘intimate familiarity’ with the materials, then s/he is spending too much time with them”

    Some librarians and archivists do have that “intimate familiarity” with the collection. That usually comes from working with the same library or type of collection for multiple years. I don’t think it is necessary to know every title in a collection, but an experienced librarian should know all the types or categories of materials that they have available in their library.

    Not knowing something as a librarian can be awkward when a patron tries to make you feel awkward. I have had that happen when interacting with a patron who is impatient or rude because they are used to dealing with one of the more experienced library workers. You live and learn. And like M Lin said, subject expertise can naturally grow, the longer you work with a collection and gain on-the-job experience.

    (BTW, fellow Spectrum Scholar here — congrats!)


  9. I can’t believe how many people responded that they think you should have known what an incunabula is just because there happen to be a lot where you intern at (presumably only a few hours a week). That attitude is exactly why I stopped bothering to apply for Special Collections jobs. Too much snobbery. Jarrett can use the excuse that he is new to the profession, but, in fact, there are MANY professionals who have been in the field longer than he who are no more familiar with incunabula.

    Furthermore, an intimate knowledge of the format is actually pretty useless in a reference situation. All you need to do is ask the user for clarification as to what they are looking.


  10. Jarrett, you consistently pwn me with stuff you know that I haven’t heard of. Guess I’ll be looking up “incunabula” now. But also, just wanted to barge into this post and say how much I enjoyed meeting you at Institute! -Hannah


  11. Just one remark, addressing, “…fewer and fewer LIS students will know what incunabula are. And that’s ok….”

    Is it really “ok” to think that future librarians will be so out of touch with the printed book that they won’t even understand the value which such books continue to bring to society? “Librarianship” is, in great measure, having the ability to both educate and to guide patrons, and Seneca’s declaration that the “librarian must be foremost a teacher” (Epistolæ Morale) is no less true today than it was more than two thousand years ago. The librarian isn’t simply the curator of information – she or he is likewise the curator of the physical book as well, and a vast number of books still exist in only a single edition. The librarian who is unfamiliar with the basic skills needed to guide patrons cannot perform effectively.

    Let’s look at the remark above from Seneca briefly. If a patron – let’s make her or him a student of Moralist Philosophy – were to request the earliest printed sourcebook for the Moralist maxim, most people would at least be aware enough to direct the student to the work of Publilius Syrus, but how many could accurately answer the patron’s needs, being aware that, owed to the appellation “Proverbia Senecae” applied to Syrus’ Sententiæ, that the editio princeps thereof was actually included in the 1475 edition of the Seneca Opera published at Naples by Matthias Moravus? For this answer one must call upon either the antiquarian bookseller or the librarian. The librarian unfamiliar and / or unmoved by the pivotal rôle played by the origin of western books printed by moveable type has missed an opportunity to contribute to society as an whole. With a nod in Maria’s direction, from her delightsome blog “Pop Goes The Librarian” – keep the spirit of Niel Gaiman’s quote alive: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

    A plea to those who are next in line as the curators or Mankind’s treasure of knowledge: please don’t forsake your patrons. Enrich your knowledge of Philosophy, of the Arts and Sciences, of Greek and Latin and all which comprises the Classical world, and in so doing, you’ll enrich the lives of others whom you touch – and if that desire fails to burn brightly within you, change your career path will all haste.


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