What am I doing here?

I’m writing this on the train on the way home from the CILIP 2016 Conference in Brighton. I don’t know if I’ll actually post it, but I’ve got a lot of thoughts swarming round my head, and I’m hoping writing some of them down will help me start making sense of them.

A conference that challenged

CILIP 2016 Conference has been the best conference I’ve been to in terms of my own CPD. It has challenged me to an extent that I am questioning some of my core beliefs about what it is to be a librarian, how I see myself professionally and how I see the library and information profession. This post is about only one of those questions. The one that is currently threatening an existential crisis [blimey, it’s a long time since I had one of those!].

Helping people

In Lauren Smith’s closing keynote she said “We’re not in the business of making money, we’re in the business of helping people”. This made me think. One of my primary reasons for joining the profession was that I enjoy, want to, and gain huge satisfaction from helping people. Much of my day-to-day role is helping people. I see helping people, both in my professional and personal life, as an important component of who I am.

However, I do not work for an organisation whose purpose is to help people, at least not as a primary function. I work for a nature conservation organisation. [Well, actually, a collaboration of nature organisations.]

“In the business of …”

I think it must have been the words Lauren used – “we’re in the business of” – that made me stop and think. I see myself as part of the information profession, but in the business of nature conservation. I’m not disagreeing with Lauren here, I believe she meant that as librarians and information professionals our role and service is about helping people. [Lauren, if you’re reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.] It is just that her words got me thinking.

What is your organisation “in the business of”?

In some way, the parent bodies of public libraries, school libraries, FE libraries, university libraries and health libraries are all, in some way, in the business of helping people. But what about corporate libraries? Government libraries? Learned society libraries? What about me and my library? Corporate libraries have parent bodies who are in the business of making money. How does that fundamentally different purpose of the parent organisation of a library affect the library and its staff? Is there a clash between our professional ethics as librarians and our organisations’ missions?

**Edit added 21 July 2016**

Out of the echo chamber

Regardless of our sector, maybe there are positives to feeling strongly connected to two different “businesses” or professions. We talk a lot in libraryland (well, I do) about getting out of the echo chamber. I’ve just posted in a conservation-related group I’m part of on Facebook and it hit me – this is how I’m reaching out and taking our libraryland issues and concerns out of the echo chamber and into the community I serve. I often come across things posted on library blogs, or tweeted by library acquaintances, that I share with my conservation network. These are often things we talk about a lot in libraryland, but aren’t exactly high up on the conservation community network. It gets those ideas out there and getting the message across just seems to “work” so much better than in other roles I’ve had. Maybe, that’s because I’m sharing with people in their networks, or because I see myself as one of them and therefore they see me as one of them?

Now over to you

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But now I’m going to ask for some audience participation. Regardless of your sector or role, I’m interested in your answer to (or thoughts arising from) any of these questions:

  • Do you identify as being in the business of helping people?
  • Do you identify as being in the business of your parent organisation? e.g. nature conservation for me
  • If you answered yes to both the above, do you feel that those businesses are in some way at odds with each other?
  • Do you feel your professional ethics conflict with your organisation’s mission/goal/purpose?
  • Do you have a library mission statement? And if so, does it mention helping people?

Feel free to send responses via comments on this blog or via Twitter, openly or in a direct message to @library_lizzie. Or, if you want to be anonymous, umm … via carrier pigeon? Actually, I’m pretty sure you can comment anonymously on WordPress blogs. I really am interested in your thoughts!

P.S. If you were wondering, I did find writing all this down very useful and the impending existential crisis has been averted.

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11 thoughts on “What am I doing here?

  1. Emma says:

    In the business of helping people to do what? I wasn’t at the event so I’m probably missing something important, but to me the notion of helping people is admirable but basically meaningless until you address what help they actually want or need, and who are these people anyway?!

    I guess if you think about it as helping people to do something then librarians being in the business of helping people becomes more straightforward – eg. if you’re a legal librarian you’re helping your lawyers to access the info they need to succeed, if a bank researcher then helping your bankers make money, if a public librarian then helping your users to access the info/resources that they want/need to use.

    Or have I completely missed the point?!

    (NB. I’m a museum librarian, in the business of helping people to make the most out of their research in our collections, and helping ensure the safety of material whilst it’s being consulted. This maps reasonably neatly to the institutional mission statement, and I don’t think we have a separate mission for the reading room. More generally, an intelligent in-house library mission statement would have to include something about helping the institution’s constituent communities in some way, surely?)

    • Lizzie Sparrow says:

      Thanks for your response Emma.

      In the business of helping people do what? – Well that depends on the library and it’s setting – the idea was that helping was what tied libraries in different sectors together.

      Who are these people we’re helping? – Again, it depends on context.

      And in terms of whether librarians are in the business of helping people do something, I was trying to articulate a subtle difference that I feel exists between being “in the business” of something and the function of your role or library service. At a strategic level, I associate more strongly with the ultimate aim of conserving biodiversity (the purpose of the organisation I work for) than seeing helping people as my ultimate goal. As support staff, then purpose of my role is to help other people do the biodiversity conservation. But I’m interested in whether my seeing my ultimate aim as something other than helping people affects how I fit into the librarianship profession, how I approach the profession and how others in the profession see me.

      As for the in-house library mission statement, I was interested in whether helping was explicitly stated.

      Hope that all makes some sense!

      • Emma Davidson says:

        Thanks Lizzie, that makes perfect sense! I think I don’t see a difference between function and being “in the business of”, so it’s been really interesting to read the various comments here and your responses to them – always good to take on a new perspective!

  2. UnofficialFactChecker says:

    Do you identify as being in the business of helping people?
    Yes. My job is to connect people to the right information…potentially life saving or life changing information.

    Do you identify as being in the business of your parent organisation? e.g. nature conservation for me
    I am an academic librarian, so my parent organization is supposed to be in the business of helping people via educating them. But importing the business model into education sometimes means that schools are more into the idea of making money and churning out “satisfied customers” than they are into the idea of educating people. There are flawed, sort of capitalist metrics we are asked to use, such as how often a book circulates to justify its existence on the shelves. That model sees books as in competition with other books. It is very strange.

    If you answered yes to both the above, do you feel that those businesses are in some way at odds with each other?
    I feel like education, in general, is going in some directions that are anti-intellectual and that sort of prohibit the deep intellectual connection with ideas that academe used to foster. I believe too much emphasis is put on schools (specifically community colleges) to be engines of employment opportunity and nothing more.

    Do you feel your professional ethics conflict with your organisation’s mission/goal/purpose?
    I feel like budget shortfalls often prevent libraries from being as integral, well-stocked, well-staffed, and vibrant as they should be to drive real change in the way students interact with information.

    Do you have a library mission statement? And if so, does it mention helping people?
    Not specifically. The language it uses couches it more in terms of supporting the curriculum and improving student learning.

    • Lizzie Sparrow says:

      Thanks for your reply. It’s interesting that your mission statement references things (the curriculum, student learning), rather than people – although helping people is obviously implied.

      • UnofficialFactChecker says:

        I think that is just what is expected in an academic setting. As you say, we help students by helping them learn what is in the curriculum. Though it would be nice if it were a little more personable.

  3. Sam Clews says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your tweets and chatting to you at the conference, so thought I’d read your after conference thoughts. I’m answering in bullets too, to help my brain attempt to function after a long two days!

    I do see myself as being in the business of helping people. My library exists to serve our staff (and the occasional outsider) and I take great pride in being able to help people with their work/studies/research etc. But don’t necessarily see myself as a customer service kind of role, even though I guess in many ways it is.

    I don’t really identify with the business of my organisation. We deal with statistics. I’ve worked for ONS for 7 years and in our library for only 8 months. I feel deeply embedded in our culture and champion the importance of the work we do (and have done since joining in 2009) but never see myself as being in the business of statistics. I think I do see myself as a civil servant but not necessarily on a national level. And more and more, I am identifying with being a library and information professional.

    I don’t feel those are at odds with each other, I feel like they go hand in hand. We (ONS) exist to provide statistics to help inform policy and the work we do (helping people!) provides the support to provide that work. (I’m not sure I’m even making sense anymore. Was I ever?)

    I feel my professional ethics and organisations mission align. So, yay! We don’t have a mission statement, but maybe we should!

    I hope at least a tiny bit of that made sense. A very long day does not make for a particularly useful Sam! 🙂

    • Lizzie Sparrow says:

      Thanks for responding, Sam. Really interesting to hear the thoughts of another librarian in a “special library”, or as l tend to think of them a “none of the above” library. And your comment certainly made at least as much sense as my original post.

      I can see how the purpose of the ONS and the library within it go hand in hand. Reading you comment about identifying more and more with the LIS profession made me realise that it’s not that I’m identifying any less with the LIS profession, but that I’m identifying more and more with the conservation profession. Therefore, the balance is shifting.

  4. Ruth Jenkins says:

    Hi Lizzie, this was a really interesting post. I didn’t attend the confernece but from Twitter it looked much more critically-minded than I had expected. I work for the NHS – the ultimate in the business of helping people, surely – and while my role is very much to help people, the purpose of the library is two-fold. Firstly, to support evidence-based practice (helping people) but also to save money. By employing a librarian to do evidence searches, it’s saving the cost of the time of clinicians doing that work. At the end of the day, while evidence based practice is clearly the most important, saving money is the most urgent.

    Lots of food for thought, thank you.

    • Lizzie Sparrow says:

      Hi Ruth, this idea didn’t really come up at the conference. It was just that a comment made during one of the keynotes opened a door in my mind I hadn’t noticed before and I went through the door and followed a path. That’s one of the things I love about conferences; they take you outside your routine and get the brain wandering in all sorts of directions (well mine does!). Interesting that the concept of saving money has come up again. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised!

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