Librarians and other information professionals need to advocate for ourselves. We’re great at helping others speak, and at speaking out for and with them, on the need for governments and other entities to properly fund libraries, archives and other information centers. What we are not so good at–largely, I think, because we’ve been conditioned this way, and no doubt because those of us who choose these professions tend to be humble by nature–is speaking out for ourselves and the vital work we do.
One result of this is that, while we are indeed educators–leaders in the fields of teaching and of providing others with information and the means of accessing and using it–our profession isn’t typically viewed in that vital way. With the possible exception of children’s librarians, who should be officially proclaimed lifesavers for their work in raising generations of readers (has any of us forgotten the librarians who helped us and our children?), we’re generally seen either as comforters and helpers or servants, giving people the warm fuzzies or doing their bidding. It’s true that we’re vocal advocates of literacy programs, and that many of us speak out, courageously and to good effect, when faced with such issues as those involving First Amendment rights or massive layoff or library-shutdown threats. But in almost every such case, our most obvious efforts are on behalf of others–our patrons–not ourselves and our profession.
I joined the American Library Association in 1981, while working towards my MLS at the University of Maryland. About two decades later I added to that a membership in the Medical Library Association, mainly because I was looking for information to help me in my work with several consumer-health-related support, education, information and advocacy organizations. A few years ago I added to those two a membership in the Special Libraries Association, whose members work and live all over the world and specialize in many fields of information and librarianship, from science, health, medicine, business, economics and law to history and genealogy (my principal fields), journalism, government and nonprofit work, the fine and performing arts, and others I’ve probably forgotten. Some work independently, others in academic, corporate, law, private and public libraries; still others work in museums and historical societies.
Through my involvement in these organizations, I’ve learned that ALA is a superb advocate for libraries…but that as librarians or information professionals–whatever term we choose to apply to ourselves–we have yet to unify as advocates for, and teachers about, our profession. I don’t know how many men and women worldwide identify ourselves as practitioners of library and information professions, whether or not we have graduate degrees in the field (and those who don’t yet, should, and should be energetically encouraged and helped to do so), but I’d be willing to bet it’s in seven figures. If many of us unified under a big umbrella as our own and each others’ advocates, there would be a large and powerful organization, or at least a coalition of organizations. We would be able to show those who depend on our skills and knowledge why it’s so important for them to respond to that dependence.
As one of us recently said, we need to sing our own praises. We need to sing them loudly and in both unison and harmony. Humility has its place, but especially in times of budget cuts, humility on our part can have devastating consequences, and not just for us.