Not Merely Service Providers

It’s no secret that librarianship is a service-oriented profession, and that librarians are  proud of this fact (as they should be). But as I’ve reflected on my first year of library school over the course of the summer (and on my first two years working at an academic library), I’ve thought about some instances that have made me wonder if, at times, the service-oriented nature of librarianship has some undesirable consequences in terms of how librarians think of themselves, and in terms of how others view librarians.

Service work is by its very nature work performed in support of something or other (in other words, there’s no such thing as service for service’s sake). Because of this, I think it’s sometimes tempting to take service for granted, or see it as being of secondary importance to whatever it is in support of. This, in and of itself, isn’t really problematic, but I think it can begin to become so if service providers begin to be viewed (by themselves or others) as being of secondary importance to those they are assisting.

Unfortunately this is all too common, as anyone who has ever worked in retail or food service can attest. Service workers in these industries are often treated as mere means to an end, not as skilled people with intrinsic value. Sure, they are providing service, but they are not merely service providers, nor are they of less worth than those they are assisting.

I’ve been fortunate in my work experience at an academic library in having very few interactions in which I felt I was treated as a mere provider of service. But at times, I’ve heard colleagues describe some of the things we do as though the reason we do them is because other members of the academic community (such as faculty and other researchers) have better, more important things to do.

I find this type of talk troubling for a variety of reasons. First, and most simply, it amounts to selling ourselves short, to viewing our time as less valuable than that of faculty members, researchers, or other members of the academic community. I’ll grant that there is a sense in which the work of the academic librarian is secondary to (i.e. in the service of) that of the student, scholar, or researcher. Clearly, there would be no need for librarianship and librarians if there were no one to use libraries. Nevertheless, I think it’s vital that we advocate for the importance of what we do and the value of our time and expertise, and the first step towards doing this is to give ourselves and our skills the respect that they deserve.

Aside from fostering a healthy sense of self-worth, librarians are more likely to be seen and treated as the skilled professionals that they are when they view themselves as more than mere service providers or second-class citizens of academia. Furthermore, embracing a mindset that respects the value of librarianship may, in addition to helping the profession receive more respect from non-librarians, diminish the need to defend the pursuit of an MLS, or help us to better frame questions about whether a Master’s degree is the an appropriate educational standard for the field.

Librarians are service providers, but not merely service providers. We are professionals, activists, teachers, community builders, and so much more. While we shouldn’t lose site of the service that lies at the center of work, we should be cautious so as to avoid letting this focus overshadow everything else that we have to offer.

Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in the ways that technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship, and hopes to work in digital humanities and scholarly communication. He is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good. In his spare time, Ian likes riding his bicycle, watching baseball, and listening to late night public radio. You can follow him on Twitter @harmoniant.




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