University Librarians: Glorified admin officers or partners in research and teaching?

When I was living at home in the 1970/80’s my father, who is an engineer, was a fellow of the Institution of  Engineers Australia (which I think now is called Engineers Australia) and I used to glance at the newsletter that we would receive every month.  As you would imagine the topics were fairly dry.  Mining projects, structural developments etc.  There was an argument however that cropped up once in a while and did interest me, which was the perception in the Australian community of what an engineer was and whether they should call themselves engineers at all.

This was because, unlike continental Europe, in English speaking countries an Engineer was in the old days someone  starting up, regulating, repairing, and shutting down equipment. They monitored meters and gauges.  They got their hands dirty by using hand and power tools to perform repairs and maintenance.   So when someone described themselves as an ‘engineer’ many people immediately imagined not someone who studied advanced mathematics and applied physics for four years and able to design a bridge that didn’t fall down, but someone in a boiler suit and a wrench making sure pipes were not leaking.

The fact is that jobs either peter out (like telephonists) or they morph into something else in response to changes in society and technology.  Engineers were hands on fixers of things in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but as the complexity of technology and machinery increased, so was the job of someone with the skills to design these things.  And the description of an ‘engineer’ shifted from being a hands on skilled tradesperson to someone who worked in offices making calculations and designing projects.

I find a parallel in my job as a librarian, and sometimes I find it a struggle amongst some of the people I need to assist in my job to shift their perception of what is my role.

In the old days the job of a librarian was organising information in the print form, books and journals.  Selecting, purchasing, classifying and cataloging.   Circulating, preserving, and weeding.  Of course also allowing a space where people could read and study in piece, which inevitably lead to the stereotype of the sexless shushing librarian.


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However with the digital age this role has diminished.  Some stated that the idea of a ‘Library’ was finished.  People didn’t need to go to a library anymore because they could get everything they wanted on the internet.  I remember that a library I was working at whist studying for my library degree closed after I left by a new CEO that thought precisely that.

The problem with this idea though is that it is a bit like driving.  Anyone can sit behind a wheel and press a pedal.  But to be effective and safe a driver needs to learn about speed, rules and how to get to a destination.  The advent of the internet has in fact made the role of a librarian even more important (even if some want to change the name to something like ‘Information Managers’   – remember the engineer debate?).  An article written quite a long time ago titled Technology is changing role of librarian into that of a teacher
which was written in a librarian blog, outlines this:

While I was President of the American Library Association in 1999-2000, I began to see another big change taking place in the library. More and more, librarians were becoming teachers. It was less about the book, less about the media and more about helping library users find information. Many factors are contributing to this change. One is that much of the work of acquiring and processing and circulating books and other materials has been automated. Another is that the world of information has gotten much more complex with the introduction of the Internet, the World Wide Web and all sorts of electronic information. Today the critical need for librarians is to serve as interpreters and guides to the vast array of information that exists.

Kathy Walsh, Dean of University Libraries at National-Louis University saw the librarian’s role in the age of Google was to help users answer the complex questions of life. “Most people don’t need much help anymore with the “who and what” questions. Now it’s the “how and why” questions that bring people to the library. A lot of what our librarians do is to help users formulate and clarify their questions.”

In an academic library helping students searching information electronically is very important.  They may have been able to Google and get information at High School, but this often won’t cut it at University level where sources must be authentic, sometime peer reviewed and scrupulously referenced.  Once I  did a  session with a lecturer to university students that had an assignment on coal.  He mentioned that often he got back text that sounded like some sort of PR for coal.  With further investigation he found that students goggled and took information from coal promotion sites which is not acceptable in assignments at tertiary level.  Librarians now are charged with the responsibility of guiding users through the mire of information that is available through the internet.

I see that to be relevant I need to be more proactive and change the focus of my tasks.  As you may have read in my previous post, the small library I was running closed and now I am located in a big library, where I don’t need to perform tasks such as circulating material or binding volumes but can now concentrate on liaising with academic staff.  A major part of  job is described as being partners in research (such as offer assistance in making research grant applications) and partners in teaching  (such as helping their students in being information literate).  The question is whether as new liaison librarians we are seen as interlopers crashing a party we were not invited to, despite being there to help.  I have noticed that amongst the ‘older’ set of academics, the perception of librarians performing the task of selecting, purchasing, classifying and cataloging circulating, preserving, and weeding print material is firmly embedded in their minds, as engineers as boilermakers was in the populace in the 60’s and 70’s.  The idea that we could help them in showing their students how to maximise the effectiveness of searching of material, how to write a paper which is properly referenced etc. doesn’t come into their minds.  You have to constantly remind them, and then sometimes you feel a bit like the boy that repeatedly asks the pretty girl out and she accepts just because of your insistence.  Some come to the library with photocopies for students to photocopy themselves or to read and you repeatedly, gently remind them that if they asked me months earlier I could have organised for those articles to be digitised, so that students could access them easily through electronically.   But because they have done this since 1973 they continue to do so, not having realised that the skills and role of the librarian have now changed.  Another proof of this is when I was talking to some visiting academics and I introduced myself as the librarian.  “I haven’t used a library for years” came the reply.  “I search through databases online”.  When I inquired further I discovered that was in fact their library that provided the tools  for them to be able to research and find material.  The fact is that they were using the library.  Just because they physically didn’t need to enter a building didn’t mean that they were availing themselves of the skills and knowledge of a librarian.

There is hope however from the younger academic.  Often when I offer my assistance and help their students about how to use library resources they are quite surprised about what I offer.  They say things like ‘I didn’t know there was so much information’ or ‘I learned things myself about how to use library resources that I didn’t know either’.  The fact is that unlike the engineers, where the old perception has now almost all gone, we librarians are still in the boiler suit phase.  It will take some time for the reality to catch up.

1 Comment

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One response to “University Librarians: Glorified admin officers or partners in research and teaching?

  1. Alex

    Hi Guido,

    I’m not sure the description of the history of the engineer in Anglophone countries is quite right. I think it is more that engineer was used to describe multiple roles (for clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to as professional engineer and technician), and that there isn’t a surety of title (anyone can call themselves “Engineer” in a way that they can’t with, say “Surgeon”). Then, who do most people encounter in a commercial/professional setting when they are dealing with an engineer? They see the technician, who is doing the hands on, visible role, not the professional engineer, who designed everything in the first place.

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