Thursday, August 4, 2011

In the International Library, the Signposter Tends the Gate


Made using the Card Generator

As a newbie preparing to start library school, my librarian friends have offered me some helpful advice.

"You're going to see a lot of your classmates freaking out if they don't get an A+ on every single assignment," they have told me. "Of course you need to do well, but it's more important to apply what you're learning to a real-life context as often as you possibly can." I have seen this sentiment echoed on numerous library forums and blogs: Get as much library experience as you can while in school, be it through volunteering, part time work, internships, co-op programs. If your school doesn't give you skills you need in a particular area (ie. graphic design), find another way to acquire them.

Here I can already see a major difference between library school and other degrees I've done: I'm responsible for tailoring my library school experience toward the kind of career I want. Just showing up and taking notes is not going to cut it.

To me, this indicates that the most successful library school graduates are not those with straight As, but those who have strong transdisciplinary skills, the ability to think across traditional categories of knowledge. Graduates who recognize full well what they don't know but have the motivation and tools to track it down will be the most successful in their job searches.

On a more personal note, I think transdisciplinary thinkers are the coolest people in the world. You can throw them into any situation anywhere and they will have the resourcefulness to handle it. Of course, librarians are transdisciplinary thinkers by the very nature of their work. This is what most excites me about the librarianship field!

My other passion, international education, dovetails nicely here. Students with transdisciplinary skills have the ability to tackle any subject with initiative and confidence. Add to that an international setting when you are operating among myriad cultures not your own, and there is a whole other layer to the experience. Immigrants, Third Culture Kids, expats, missionaries, and other cross-cultural people are constantly facing new challenges: shifting between cultural codes, acquiring new languages, adopting new habits, adjusting to varying levels of technology and creature comforts.

So, having already served four years as an international educator, what kind of transdisciplinary skills will I require to be a librarian in this context? How can I use my time in library school to get me there?

It's no secret to anyone that the library profession is changing. As the blog everyone's a librarian now put it:

The librarian's traditional position of authority, as gatekeeper between the user and the information they seek, is now being eroded - as Chris Anderson identified in The Long Tail, anyone can now publish their thoughts online, without the need for a publisher's investment in printing or distributing their material.

The blogger goes on to comment that the librarian's job is now to serve more as a signposter than a gatekeeper. Rather than relying on librarians to give them access to information as in the past, people can now access it themselves on the Web. However, with the huge glut of information out there, people need an information specialist, someone "in the know", to point them to the good stuff. That's where the librarian as signposter comes in, helping their users create pathways to the information they need.

All of this is very exciting, but to my thinking, international librarianship requires a fusion of both gatekeeping and signposting. At the international school where I worked in South Korea, for example, I could serve as a signposter, teaching my students how to locate and respond to useful information in a very Web 2.0 fashion. But given that most of the students there wanted to attend North American rather than Korean universities, I also had to serve as the gatekeeper of Western academic culture, ensuring that my students understood that issues like plagiarism are viewed very differently in the West than in Korea.

Nor may I always have advanced technology available to me. Serving as a teacher-librarian at a 1:1 international laptop school in Korea, for example, requires a very different approach than does settling up a village library in Uganda where most patrons have never touched a book. In that situation, knowing how to create an old-fashioned 20th century card catalogue would remain a highly relevant skill, as would the 21st century blogging necessary to solicit overseas donations to stock the shelves.

So I will have to "hack" my librarianing, patching together librarianship methodologies from various eras as appropriate to my context. I already have an idea of ways I can jump in and be of use…but I'll save that for my next entry.


  1. The idea of gatekeeper vs. signposter reminds me of the major shift in museums over the past twenty years: from temple to forum.

    Along similar lines, the idea is that museums are no longer temples of knowledge where visitors come and learn, but rather forums that facilitate discussion and exploration that combine the museum's resources with the visitors' knowledge, experience and perspective.


  2. Katie, I've noticed that museums and libraries seem to be moving in a similar direction. It's interesting that both institutions reflected what was the prime media of the time: television. The networks decided what would be available to watch, and we had very few ways to respond to that. Likewise, librarians and museums decided what would be on display with much more limited patron input. Now, with the Web, people can respond to whatever they see and create their own content to form a conversation. Both libraries and museums have had to alter their structures to ensure that conversation can happen.
    So when people talk about libraries and museums becoming irrelevant, I get concerned. These institutions are more relevant than ever so long as they keep up with the times, which I believe most are enthusiastically doing.

  3. Laura, I think you've hit the nail on the head with this:

    "I'm responsible for tailoring my library school experience toward the kind of career I want."

    Keep that in mind, and you'll go far.