Another academic term is nearing completion, and once again I’m reminded of how much I owe to my students — including the idea for this post!
It’s my practice — borrowed from my colleague Dr. Bill Kules — to ask students for course feedback at the midpoint of the term. I ask three questions: what’s going well, what would you change, and what topics are you most interested in covering during the second half of the course.
I administered this survey in my “Libraries and Information in Society” course back in October. In response to the last question, one student responded (anonymously; all responses are anonymous): “feral librarians”. So, I promised the class that before the end of the term we would talk about feral librarians. As the end of the term approached, I knew I had to make good on that promise.
Now, I recalled reading about “feral librarians” a few years ago, but I hadn’t given the idea much thought. So, back I went, first to Google Scholar, the online databases, and ultimately to Library Journal, where you can read the article, “Raised by Wolves: Integrating the New Generation of Feral Professionals into the Academic Library”, by James G. Neal, at http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6304405.html .
As I understand it, the article raises a concern with the trend of hiring people without traditional Library Science degrees, and the acculturation it brings, into various positions in library organizations. The “feral professionals include paraprofessionals with bachelor’s degrees, or less, being given work formerly reserved for MLS-degreed staff; to IT and other non-librarian specialists; to MLS products of distance education programs who may not have been properly socialized into librarian culture; to Ph.D. subject specialists lacking the MLS degree. All are seen as threats to the status of librarians and the cozy monoculture of the academic library.
With my background in corporate librarianship, I wasn’t very sympathetic to the manifestations of the academic caste system I sensed in the article — the idea that one’s role and worth are determined by the letters after one’s name. I am used to a more meritocratic approach — your position and role are based on what you can accomplish. I felt an undercurrent of panic in the article. The “feral professionals” are presented as a disruptive force that library managers must learn to deal with. It’s true that the article ends on a positive note, saying that the libraries need the diversity these new professionals will bring. But for me, that ending seemed at odds with the tone of the rest of the article. It seems more a grudging acknowledgement of change than a call to leadership.
Yet wasn’t until we were in the middle of the discussion in class that I realized what was really troubling me about the article. It was that the direction of change was portrayed as being almost all one-way: the feral professionals invading our libraries and upsetting our library way of life. (Yes, there’s one sentence about librarians taking on new roles, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.)
What we need a lot more of, in my opinion, is writing about librarians busting out of the libraries and bringing their unique skills and perspectives to their colleagues in administration and the subject departments. Not only writing, though, but leadership that makes it happen. Let’s mix it up. Invite those “feral professionals” into our organizations where they can add value, and push outward to explore and seize opportunities for librarians beyond the four walls of the library.
My research has brought me into contact with library managers and embedded librarians who are doing just that. So, I conclude that this whole “feral professional” thing is a digression. At best, it’s only half the story of building diverse teams, including librarians, in organizations. Let’s get on with the real work at hand.