25 May 2012

What is Authentic Librarianship?

Recently Rick Anderson authored a couple columns in Library Journal that touched on the idea of "authentic librarianship." As he suggests, this is slightly tricky to define. There are several core principles that all librarians generally strive to employ in our professional practice. Anderson offers some examples in his first column. Unsurprisingly they are mostly rooted in promoting critical thinking and improving the lives of individual patrons and the community. All librarians, I think, can agree on the good of these basic principles.

Included on his list was the goal "To improve character and ennoble the 'whole person,'" a natural priority for any good librarian, especially those that work with students. This is a pretty straightforward and noble-sounding mission, but as Anderson notes, different librarians have very different ideas about the nuts and bolts of accomplishing this end. Ultimately, he suggests, taking an aggressively proactive approach to fulfilling the goals of patron service may ironically lead us to serving our own motivations over the good of the patron. As in all occupations, it is good for us to remain humble in our quest for professional authenticity.

So, what is "authentic librarianship"?

Anderson suggests that 'authenticity' consists of the desire to put the patron's needs before our desire to fulfill 'our own agendas.' As he puts it, authentic librarianship is motivated by:
-Concern for the success of the library's patrons in their particular tasks
-Concern for the long-term intellectual welfare of the library's patrons
-Desire to further the goals of the library's sponsoring institution
So for Anderson, authenticity is largely rooted in motivations. But everyone, him included, knows that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so authenticity cannot stop there:

"...to me, authentic librarianship is motivated primarily by concern for those we serve as librarians, rather than by concern for our own agendas or preferences...And it's motivation that lies at the hear of authenticity: authentic librarianship does not consist in a set of specific strategies or practices, but in a set of desires and motivation. This means that authenticity, while important, is insufficient...So we must be more than just authentic; we also have to be effective, and our effectiveness will ultimately be judged by the real-world impact of our actions on the people and institutions we serve-regardless of our inner desires and motivations."
And that's where Anderson leaves off. He's sticking with this theme for a while, and I am interested to see where his reflections lead.

Admittedly, the issue of 'authentic librarianship' has been constantly on my mind ever since the earliest days of my gravitation towards librarianship as an undergraduate. Caught up in the constant discussions of institutional Catholic identity and my own quest to pursue librarianship with strong vocational foundations, I have spent ample time contemplating what it means to be an 'authentic librarian,' particularly a Catholic librarian. It has always seemed obvious to me that librarians should derive special joy in working in a Catholic context, where the heritage of the Church's rich intellectual tradition illuminates our work in a special way. Thus, I have often been disappointed by my conversations with many librarians in Catholic institutions who seem to have given little thought the intellectual tradition or Catholic mission of their workplace, much less integrated it into their professional ethos.

In some respects, the practice of librarianship in a Catholic context ought to have many superficial similarities to librarianship in more secular settings. As Anderson suggests, authenticity has strong interior roots, roots which may not be particularly distinct in practice (it's entirely possible for two librarians with vastly different value systems to respond to a reference question in the same way). But I think it's erroneous to presume that librarianship in both settings should be essentially the same. At the very least, librarians in a Catholic setting should be more animated by a sense of compassion and service to their patrons, concerned for their welfare in the eternal as well as the temporal sense. I agree with Steven Bell's remarks in the comment thread that authentic librarianship has to extend past the interior altruism that Anderson describes. Anderson's only gone as far as to say that our motivations are important and they should loosely fall in line with the goals listed above. But these basic principles aren't enough (I look forward to seeing what he concludes later).

The problem lies not with these basic goals themselves, but that they tend to quickly devolve into things they are not when implemented across the profession (slightly reminiscent of the colossal distortion of the phrase "the spirit of Vatican II"...but I digress). As the great John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, "Evil has no substance of its own, but is only the defect, excess, perversion, or corruption of that which has substance." Anderson mentions improving character, recognizing the dignity of each person, and supporting intellectual well-being, but what do these mean to the average librarian? If one were to conclude anything from the ALA's statements on intellectual freedom, library rights, etc., it would be that libraries and librarians exists to serve the "needs" of patrons, which are largely derived from some innate authority of individualistic determinism (if the profession were indeed more concerned with 'authenticity,' its professional organizations would be far less partisan). Thus, what is "good" for a patron often just means what they think is good for themselves. Because libraries are still so driven by the Enlightenment values that allowed library culture to flourish in the first place (particularly here in the U.S.), there is some degree to which librarians tend to operate in a "knowledge is power" economy, informed (if sometimes subconsciously) by the erroneous assumption that enlightenment driven primarily by individual appetites leads to complete human freedom.

Now a reformed professional practice, more detached from Enlightenment principles, would not manifest itself in the re-institution of censorship offices, etc. (refer back to my post on MacIntyre for more thoughts on that), but I think it would be a welcome re-orientation of the profession, directed towards a more authentic pursuit of truth than that which the children of the Enlightenment endorsed.

Suffice it to say that I have not arrived at a complete definition of 'authentic librarianship' myself, but I'm curious about other ideas of 'authentic librarianship' that my colleagues may have. How do you define 'authentic librarianship' and how does this influence your praxis? Much more on this topic to come.


  1. I'm a book blogger, not a librarian, but I recently ran across a blog post that I thought of when I read this post. As you may or may not be aware, Amazon's best seller lately has been an erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Gray. A public library in Florida bought multiple copies and has a long waiting list for the book. However, they pulled them from circulation; someone had deemed it pornographic (and I've seen it referred to as "mommy porn"). Do you think books like this are appropirate for public libraries?

  2. That's a question too large to answer here, but in short, I don't think public libraries shouldn't be spending their budgets on erotic fiction. I think that many public (and in some cases, academic) libraries have drifted away from the original meaning of the Enlightenment values that were largely the foundation of libraries in America. Libraries exist in order to enrich the intellectual lives of their patrons, regardless of economic status, social class, etc. (this shouldn't exclude materials that we consider 'entertainment,' but there has to be better criteria). Does erotic fiction, or increasingly racy teen fiction (e.g. Gossip Girl) contribute to this goal? I am far from a proponent of the Enlightenment, but a return to basic Enlightenment principles would greatly improve many of our public libraries. One problem is that most public libraries are now relied upon as sources for affordable entertainment, and they would likely lose many patrons if this kind of material was taken out of circulation. In addition, the criteria for 'enriching' material has become very fuzzy, motivated by a slightly quietist fear of not satisfying everyone's 'tastes.' This extends to other library policies. For e.g., the director of the public library in a town where I used to live won't install porn filters on the public access computers, worried that doing so might inadvertently 'censor' someone's intellectual freedom (although this was a pretty unique case). 'Intellectual freedom' has come to mean a right to access any material one desires, rather than the right to access materials in order to be properly informed (i.e. not be excluded from educational opportunities).