Library Thought Leaders

On April 8, 2015, dolly m (@loather) tweeted the following:

dolly m pithily sums up something I’ve been wrestling with for the past few years, ever since I started working in a public library:

There are so-named “thought leaders” in the library community who make their living telling the rest of us how we should do our jobs. They travel from conference to conference, keynoting and presenting, speaking about the current state of librarianship.

Several of these thought leaders haven’t worked as librarians in an actual library in a long time. Some not since before the internet existed. Some of them have no first-hand experience of the practical realities of being a librarian in the Digital Information Age.

This makes it hard swallow when they presume to tell me how I should do my job.

But that’s not the part I wrestle with. No, the real challenge for me is this:

A lot of the time, these no-experience thought leaders are right.

I tend to agree with them. I think their ideas have substantial merit most of the time. Granted, they speak of theory and principle—from the airy perspective of idealism—and not from any in-the-trenches understanding of practical application, but that’s what makes them important. We need strong statements of ideals to guide our work.

Librarianship is an idealistic undertaking in its essential nature. We need people dedicated to the task of stewarding those ideals. That’s an important job.

And it’s not like these individuals are completely out of touch. Most of them are professors in library schools and stay up-to-date on new theories, practices, technologies, etc., as a matter of course. It’s their job to assess these things critically and from the broader perspective of the history of our practice.

This isn’t a perspective you can reliably achieve when you’re in the trenches, dealing with the day-to-day.

But there’s another reason why I listen to what these thought leaders have to say:

It’s precisely because they don’t work as librarians in a library. They interact with their libraries primarily as patrons. As patrons, they can tell us what’s working and what’s not. What helps and what doesn’t. How well we actually serve them.

Moreover, because they’re credentialed librarians, they have a level of insight into our successes and failures that most patrons don’t. They can diagnose why something works, or not, and communicate that to us in our own professional language.

These thought leaders are, by and large, a valuable voice in our profession. I feel that I’m a better librarian for listening to them.

That being said…

It’s really hard to swallow when someone who’s never done my job thinks they can tell me how to do my job. They don’t know what it’s actually like.

It can get a bit insufferable at times.

It would be easier some days if I could just dismiss these thought leaders, convince myself they don’t know what they’re talking about.

But that would be a mistake. It would disconnect me from a vibrant expression of the ideals that drive me to serve my community in this capacity. It would insulate me from necessary critical analysis.

I think my work would suffer without exposure to their ideas.

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