Saturday, December 5, 2009

Librarians and library assistants

About eight years ago, I became involved in a debate within an online forum of the American Library Association (ALA) over whether or not the ALA should publicly support the independent library movement in Cuba, basically a movement started by dissidents to establish their own libraries outside government control. I sided with those who felt the ALA should, but there were others who strongly opposed this movement, arguing that the individuals involved in this movement were "fake librarians" and "professional dissidents" working in collusion with the U.S. interests section to undermine the Cuban regime.

A question was posed to the forum: does the Cuban government have an official policy of forbidding certain materials, and if so what are those materials. I responded by citing legislation in Cuba's penal code that clearly outlawed a wide range of dissent. As a result, I came under the first of many attacks from an individual well known within ALA forums both for his invective and for his vocal support of those oppressed in capitalist countries. I don't wish to rehash the debate, but what struck me at the time was that I would be attacked for citing Cuba's own legislation in addressing what materials might be officially banned in the country; and more germane to this blog, that I was referred to throughout his denunciation as "library assistant Denney", as if my job title was a pejorative term, a mark of inferiority, making me less qualified than an actual librarian to address the issue of censorship in Cuba.

"'Of that which you are ignorant, be silent', or at least do not pretend to knowledge which you do not have. Especially before a group of librarians and research professionals," he concluded.

The reason this individual knew I was a library assistant is because I signed myself as "Steve Denney, library assistant, UC Berkeley," as I often do as a way of identifying myself when posting to professional forums. It is my job title, nothing to brag about, maybe, but nothing to be ashamed of either.

Judging people by their job titles or educational degrees they hold can be very misleading. I don't doubt that one can learn much in an MLIS* program, but to me, the chief value of the degree lies more in the professional doors it opens than in the knowledge and training it provides. Essentially, it certifies that one is qualified to perform library work at a certain level, but those lacking the degree are not necessarily less qualified to perform the same work. Much less does the degree make one wiser in other areas that fall outside the realm of library science, such as how a government represses dissent, or how to behave toward other people.

Among my fellow copy catalogers, there is a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds -- from our staff of about a dozen at least two hold doctorates (but not in library science), another graduated from a university in the Soviet Union with a degree in library science and worked as a librarian there before emigrating to the U.S. Others went straight into cataloging after graduating from U.C. Berkeley.

Here in technical services, most of us work under the job title of "library assistant." There is, for the most part, no sense of superiority or inferiority, but rather a sense of collegiality among us. Nevertheless, we work under a pecking order imposed from above. This has affected the cataloging workflow among other matters, and has been aggravated by the state budget crisis. I will discuss this problem more in my next entry.

* Masters of Library and Information Science, generally required from an ALA accredited college graduate program in order to qualify as a librarian in the U.S.


  1. What a snob! Anyone who bases his objections on the speaker's job title and not the subject matter clearly has issues. I must be lucky--at my library the librarians and library assistants (like me) all work together with a lot of overlap.

  2. Thanks Lizzie. But the person who made that comment was not a part of my library system, I have never encountered such outlandish behavior in my workplace.