The move from study to practice is no doubt the most difficult step in anyone’s career development. It is difficult because the bridge that takes us from study to practice actually does not exist. You only notice of course once you have finished library school. You may have your qualification, but the bridge, you will have to build yourself. The raw materials you will use will include your education and experience, your commitment and motivation, along with a whole range of skills you have developed. But often, in this profession, this simply will not be enough. You will also need to do a little thing called networking.
In many ways, networking is a process of getting other library professionals to help you put the bridge together. This is because by networking you are learning from those professionals, but more importantly, you are making connections and demonstrating your teamwork and collaboration skills by showing that you can get along with people. In the library profession, we are very good at networking and it is a very important skill to acquire, so much so that those who network generally tend to be more successful than those who do not.
However, it has been my experience in this profession that in order to become a successful networker, you also, often, have to critically disengage from your profession. This presentation will explore the possibility that our over-emphasis on networking skills and the critical disengagement that follows may well lead to a bigger crisis for the profession and its future.
The MLIS perhaps best prepares students for the world of networking because it uses non-traditional teaching methods through group work and then assesses students using a traditional model by telling them, everyone in the group will get the same score. In this scenario, it is much easier to critically disengage, to conform to the majority, to encourage than it is to question. This is networking training because you will be running into your classmates at events like this, as well as in the jobs market and to cause friction at that stage could result in a negative reputation among your peers.
So, the problem with networking is that it is destructive of critical thinking skills and this destruction quite worryingly begins in higher education. It is not just me that thinks this, by the way. There is a whole school of thought that believes the education system is destroying critical thinking. Education advocate Ken Robinson compares schools and universities to production line factories that output students as replicas of each other – at least if they are all same they will all get along with each other.
So in order to network successfully you need to take a step back and critically disengage. And that’s a shame, because critical thinking is the space where innovation happens. In fact, one of the key attributes of innovators is that they are usually non-conformists. You see, critical thinkers like to explore ideas, probing them and poking them to see if they hold up. They usually are very good at identifying problems and then offering up solutions to these problems. But networking normally requires us to conform, to encourage, to support and ultimately to agree with our more knowledgeable and senior library professionals.
Moving into a professional networking environment then, is it better to conform or to question in order develop your career? I recently attended an LAI event in which the guest speaker gave an interesting talk on cataloguing and metadata. I wanted to ask some questions about the problems caused by biases and limitations with controlled vocabularies in metadata tags. I knew my question, coming from a linguistics perspective might cause problems for the expert speaker. On hearing other questions being asked, which were very complimentary, I decided to take my critical engagement hat off and put on my networking hat. This was a guest speaker and I did not want to embarrass the organizing committee by asking a difficult question.
I recently decided to try and demonstrate my critical thinking skills in a job interview. I needed to try and over come previous rejection excuses of not being experienced enough. So I decided to show how valuable I am by giving a presentation highlighting some of the problems the institution was facing before going on to give some solutions to those problems. A senior library professional later told me I made a fatal mistake. That by highlighting mistakes I was actually being critical of staff in that institution and that I was demonstrating that I would not fit in to the team there. Naturally, I did not get the job. I am not sure why critical engagement is not seen as a necessary skill in teamwork. After all, you are trying to help that team make things better by identifying and solving problems.
While preparing this presentation I decided to find some examples of how librarians network to see if my thesis was correct. On twitter, I saw a lot of this sort of thing. And it is not that I think being supportive and encouraging is wrong, in fact, I think it is great. But shouldn’t this amazing networking lead to a space where library professionals can critically engage in an open respectful way? Well apparently, it doesn’t.
Libfocus is an incredible resource. Some of the most well researched and interesting library content is on there. This is a perfect space for librarians to critically engage. They have 3200 twitter followers and more than 3000 blog followers. But there are no comments on their blog posts. There is a comments function, but no comments. That is, no critical engagement. Perhaps this is because we are afraid that critical engagement will be interpreted in our networking world as being less than supportive and encouraging?
So what if we had an issue in librarianship that was so huge that it could change the very landscape of the profession for better or possibly worse. In this case, do you think we could find examples of critical engagement?
Well, it turns out there is such an example unfolding right now. The open library controversy provides an adequate example. The LGMA and government quietly unrolled the scheme. A community group objected claiming the reports were incomplete and misleading. The LGMA and government got offended, accused the community group of being naysayer and repeated the line ‘this is a good thing’. They refused to engage in a debate on the issue. But more interestingly, the LAI have been silent on this issue. They are tasked with nurturing the profession and here we have an issue that could damage the profession and yet they have been silent on this. Could this be because the LAI are simply a networking platform? Could this be because the very people on the LGMA who are accused of damaging the profession, also sit in senior council positions on the LAI and the LAI do not want to upset these members? To be honest, I can empathise with that because in order for that conversation to take place some difficult questions are going to have to be asked and answered.
So, to conclude. I have tried to suggest that we have an over-reliance on networking in our profession. And this contributes to a critical disengagement, perhaps because we are concerned about harming our career and professional development by non-conforming to collegiate, supporting and encouraging networking standards. But if we critically disengage then it becomes easier to de-value our profession. In fact, by doing so we are devaluing ourselves as professionals. The irony is that while we are networking in order to develop our careers, in this time of increasing automation this critical disengagement, this de-valuing of ourselves, this networking, may well result in many of us not working. Thank you.