Do Librarians Have a Contract with Society?

Turner, Saralee. 2005 March. Do librarians have a contract with society? Singapore Libraries Bulletin, 15 (1):3-4,6.

Why ask such a question? Why bother doing anything except day-to-day work in this profession that involves endless tasks; a lack of appreciation by our supervisors, who are now, more often that not, untrained in librarianship; and little recognition by society at large?

I think this question deserves some careful attention just because our field is so difficult and we have such trouble communicating to anyone what we do and why we do it.

In social action theory, developed by the sociologist, Talcott Parsons, some of the types of actors in society are bureaucrats, workers, entrepreneurs and professionals. Decision making by these four “types” are made in different ways. These “types” are a theoretical construct and the discussion below is based on trying to understand how we work.

Bureaucrats make decisions based on where they are in the hierarchy. The higher a bureaucrat is in the structure, the more decisions he/she will make and the more “power” there will be behind such decisions. Workers make decisions as to how much they are paid for their labour and in a free market, choose the best price for their work. Entrepreneurs make decisions based on the “bottom line” so as to maximise profits. Professionals, relying on an expert body of knowledge in their field, and on extensive training to develop judgement, base their decisions on what is the best solution to a problem, independent of profit motive or their own place in a hierarchy. A professional decision may be unpopular amongst the upper echelon in an organisation where a hierachy exists and that may make the correct decision difficult to enact, but the correctness of the decision cannot be judged by where the professional is in that hierarchy. The professional is a relatively new actor on this stage whereas bureaucrats are an ancient type. One could also include slaves in some societies as actors. Likewise, serfs are actors in feudalistic societies.

What is a professional? What makes an occupation group a professional? Here again, we turn to the sociologists who have studied work and its place in social action. There are several characteristics that are required for professional status.

  1. The study and acquisition of a body or knowledge in one area in which the professional attains “expert” status
  2. A qualifying process whereby one attains recognition within the profession that one has made the grade and is able to carry out the required duties.
  3. The profession must police itself and must provide disciplinary methods to encourage members of the profession to follow “accepted practice”.

This is not an exhaustive list but will work well enough for this short discussion.

Is librarianship a real profession? Looking at the above, it is clear that we are on our way, but there are some problems. Most library associations have a code of ethics in which acceptable behaviour and attitudes towards work are outlined but disciplinary actions are very rare. Librarians have been held to account for providing incorrect or out-of-date information but these examples most often occur in the larger society (e.g. civil courts), so our ability to police ourselves is not, at this point, possible. In addition, certification and the requirement for continuing education to retain such certification are not part of our field at this time.

So, is there a contract between librarians and society? Professions such as lawyers, engineers, doctors and increasingly accountants, have that contract codified into law in many countries. This places the responsibility for correct professional behaviour on the profession itself and in return for this responsibility, th profession is allowed to perform acts normally not allowed by ordinary citizens (e.g. representing clients in court, dispensing drugs, operating and cutting the skin of human beings, signing orders for the building of bridges and other structures). These privileges allow the performance of the “illegal” or “unthinkable” where, should anything go wrong (e.g. patient dying, bridge/building falling down), the consequences far outweigh the capacity of any individual to repay or repair. This contract allows these privileges and operates with the understanding that professionals do not act only, or primarily, out of self-interest. In exchange for such privileges, the profession is expected to maintain discipline.

The case of librarianship is not as clear. Certainly, the contract with society, if one exists is not codified into law. Negligence in providing up-to-date information is not, normally, a criminal matter but it could and has been handled in civil proceedings. In terms of certification, the closest we come to this in the recognition by library associations of qualifications, often relying heavily on the work already performed in this area by the larger associations (e.g. ALA and LA in UK). Remembering the adage that a public library is the poor man’s university, we could conclude that the teaching profession is closest to librarianship, in that we provide an educational role in the public sphere. However, the mandate of special libraries, especially those serving the business and industrial communities, puts and entirely different focus on the matter. Academic libraries also have an additional focus to that of aiding the process of education – that of providing services to researchers. To further complicate this matter, the role of the national library cannot be judged only in contemporary terms but must also fulfil the historically important role of providing a record of a nation’s cultural heritage, however that is defined. Therefore the expectations and criteria by which librarians can be judged varies with the type of library in which they work.

The setting of standards is another tricky area. So often, in our field, the standards are mundane and trivial in terms of the overall goals of the profession. The counting of titles and volumes in a collection, even broken down by class number; the number of reference queries answered; circulation statistics; and the performance criteria of cataloguing departments in terms of volume of work completed in a specified time spring to mind. We all know that there are better benchmarks but they take time and resources to develop and monitor. Increasingly, our administrators are “time and motion” people, with stopwatches at the ready and little cerebral involvement.

So if we have even a “soft” contract with society, not codified into law, but an understanding of what we do with all the money that we are responsible for spending to purchase, organise and retrieve the books, serials, videorecordings, sound recordings, maps, music scores, ephemera that make up the collections we build and maintain, what are the terms of this understanding? Is there a mandate to provide to all, regardless of status in the society? Is there a requirement that we select only those items that support a certain view of society or are we expected to provide the members of society with diverse points of view leading to debate and informed choices? Is there an obligation on us to acquire the best materials at the best price and without “kickbacks” that benefit us individuals or as a profession? Are we expected to respect and protect the intellectual property rights of creators and publishers?

These are questions we must ask if we are to gain some understanding of ourselves as a profession. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as bureaucrats (if we are in a large organizations) or as entrepreneurs (if we are freelancing consultants). It goes without saying that hiring ourselves out for work in which professional decisions are not possible would be to assue the role of workers. Further, we should be moving towards certification and to install processes of providing discipline so that librarians are held accountable for the resources that they control.