In a previous post, I wrote about Maurice Line, the eminent British librarian, who died last year. One of Maurice’s specialities was his ability to show up what he regarded as the failings of the profession in a pithy and very quotable style. I reproduce a selection of typical Line-isms below, taken from just two of his later papers, both published in Interlending and Document Supply, 2005, volume 33, issue 2:
• Librarianship as it is practiced: a failure of intellect, imagination and nerve, pages 109-113
• A lifetime’s change in LIS, pages 114-116
Concern with users can lead in public libraries to efforts to satisfy popular demand for light fiction and a general “dumbing down” of stock, including the disposal of older classics. This seems a strange policy at a time when the importance of lifelong learning is constantly thrust on us.
Not only have librarians failed to use their intellect and imagination, but they have failed to put their users before themselves and their stock. How else can one explain catalogues designed for cataloguers, classification schemes designed for who knows what or whom (certainly not users), library systems that are so difficult to use that instead of making them simpler librarians have the impertinence of “educating” people to use them.
The management of libraries has improved immeasurably [over past decades]. Academic libraries used to headed by scholars manqés – a collection consisting mostly of pseudo-academics, but sprinkled with the odd real academic whom the university did not quite know what to do with. Very few of them thought of themselves as managers: they would probably have felt insulted in anyone had called them that.
This has been an issue close to my heart ever since I worked under a librarian whose main purpose in life seemed to be the frustration of users (as well as the destruction of the morale of staff). She achieved remarkable success in both.
On the profession
We need more questioning of theory and practice, most clear thinking and more radical thinking…. We need a profession where the mediocre are not regarded as outstanding. We need some Martin Luthers, Tom Paines and Charles Darwins.
I simply do not believe that librarianship does not have somewhere among its practitioners enough of the qualities of intellect, imagination, initiative – and humanity – that are needed if we are to help shape our future. Somehow we have to find ways of bringing them out, bringing them together, and using them. We have nothing to lose but our mental laziness, our spiritual dullness, our introspection and our inhibitions.
Librarianship as it is practiced is a failure of humanity as well as of intellect and imagination.
On professional education
How [can we ] explain our so-called professional education, which inculcates knowledge that is either irrelevant or likely to be out of date in three or four years, while failing to recruit or develop the qualities of imagination and analytical ability and the spirit of service that we need so badly?
AACR2 is one of the most remarkable examples of trying to solve a problem by committee, with predictable results. The committee did not even tackle the right problem – what users surely want is not comprehensive or perfectly accurate bibliographic records, but far better subject access to books, comparable with that provided for scientific journal articles by the large international databases. No data on users’ needs, whether for bibliographic information or subject access, were collected; instead, cataloguers discussed how to change the rules, rather as if hens were to gather together to discuss the design of eggs.
I am however doing the committee an injustice in accusing them of not involving consumers in their discussions, because much of the use made of catalogues is in fact by cataloguers for the purpose of adding to them.
Cataloguers would lose much of their status if it were shown that most cataloguing is a trivial job easily done by clerical staff or that the length of a catalogue entry was not a sign of virility
On problem solving
I would argue that in most cases librarians have failed to anticipate the problems, they have failed to see problems in context, they have failed to identify the problems correctly and precisely, and when they have been confronted with problems they cannot avoid they have failed to react intelligently.
In fact, librarians make the worst of all worlds, because not only do they do little… (and what they do is mostly costly and ineffective) but they have wasted time and money in discussing the wrong problem (it is noteworthy that one of the first reactions of librarians to shortage of money is to spend money on discussing with other librarians how to deal with the shortage of money – but there are few things librarians enjoy more than frequent, extensive and inconclusive discussions).
Why is discussion by groups of librarians, however distinguished, preferred to the collection of relevant facts?
I have seen little or no sign in the literature or elsewhere of a thorough analysis of the needs and issues involved or of any attempt to conceive of alternative approaches. Instead we have the good old tradition of assumed needs and largely preconceived solutions. Again there is a failure to identify the problem, a failure to imagine possible solutions, a failure to collect the information needed to help find the best solution, and a failure to analyse fully what data and proposed solutions are available. If the best solution were by any accident found, I have little doubt that the initiative and courage necessary to implement it would be lacking.