What's in a Name?

By Singer, Rachel | American Libraries, April 1997 | Go to article overview

What's in a Name?


Singer, Rachel, American Libraries


On my first day of library school, in my first class, the first statement out of the professor's mouth was: "If you're here because you love books, you're in the wrong place."

I almost didn't make it to my second class.

When did librarians acquire such a need not to be associated with the printed word? I think that this pernicious trend is best exemplified in the recent push to rename the profession. We aren't awarded an MLS, but an MLIS, a "Master's in Library and Information Science." We're anything but librarians - we're information specialists, information scientists, professional researchers, media specialists . . .

One might argue that the above terms better represent the role of the librarian in the Information Age. One might also argue that librarians are in danger of setting aside their true roles in favor of the new, the trendy, and the powerful. After all, what strong associations there are in a name!

* Librarians care for books. Information specialists deal with data.

* Librarians are place-bound, working in a physical library. They have conversations with patrons, hand them books, walk them to the shelves. Information scientists surf the Web, their physical selves anywhere except where they might intrude on some anonymous client.

* Librarians are female, and seen as relatively powerless. Information specialists are male, and, because of their association with computers, enormously powerful in today's society.

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It's not surprising, then, that librarians are tempted to associate themselves with computers rather than with books, with information rather than with knowledge. Not only does such an association confer instant status in the Information Age, it in itself does much to overthrow the tired stereotype of the spinster librarian and replace it with that of the computer nerd - who, no doubt about it, is some mighty and macho guy.

As Karen Coyle put it in Wired Women (edited by Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, Seal Press, 1996), "To question the masculinity of computers is tantamount to questioning our image of masculinity itself: Computers are power, and power, in our world, must be the realm of men."

When we abandon our profession in our rush to cash in on the computer trend, however, we also abandon the possibility of effective advocacy for librarians as librarians. If what is important is a technically correct answer rather than the process of acquiring knowledge, then why hire a librarian at all? By repackaging ourselves as information specialists, we sell ourselves as technicians rather than professionals, and advocate technology as an end in itself rather than a tool for acquiring knowledge.

We're not only guilty of trying to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house; we've tricked ourselves into thinking that the tools are the house and that we can just pack up and move in.

We should be less hasty in doing away with the language we use to describe ourselves. …

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