I’m usually in pursuit of wisdom, wherever I can find it. In fact, I think that wisdom is at a premium in the library field, which is dominated by knowledge. Of course, knowledge is extremely important, and the battle in which libraries play a vital role is one of knowledge vs. ignorance. But I have perceived some limitations in the application of knowledge in my 12 years in the library field. I think that these limitations stem from the lack of wisdom in the field as a general rule.
There are many pathways to wisdom. Or rather, acquiring wisdom requires one to walk many pathways and compare lessons from a variety of sources. We must measure what we receive and apply lessons where they will do the most good. That’s the essence of wisdom: it’s a practice of honing and developing the application of knowledge from a broad variety of contexts to equally broad situations. However, I think there are limitations to this kind of approach built into libraries.
In my opinion, the heart of what I see as problematic here is that libraries are very siloed as a field. The first instinct to learn about the state of the field and how to move it forward is to consult the library literature and our own journals. There’s nothing wrong with these journals per se, but they are necessarily self-referential, as are our conferences and presentations. I’ve only rarely experienced these tools as bringing insights from outside of the field into focus for the rest of the field.
For example, when I got interested in neurodivergent library workers, I consulted the literature of the library field and was sorely disappointed to find very few resources. A whole lot has been done with the ideas of autistic workers in a variety of research fields, but it’s extremely slow going to make headway on the topic if you’re going to rely on the publications in librarianship. A new study came out recently that I’ll be writing about here when I have the chance. But one example in a sea of articles is not an encouraging statistic. We’re missing out on a lot of practical insights from many fields and I believe that hurts us in our attempts to build authentic libraries that reflect our values.
I once brought a book to a group of team members for reading and reflection. The books was from a well-respected thinker in the realm of marketing and organizational relationship building. There are some tremendous insights that businesses have gleaned through experience building up brands and communicating their values to their customers. In my opinion, those lessons could be very valuable for libraries as they attempt to build the foundation of long-lasting relationships with their patrons and taxpayers.
Despite my best pitch with the book, some of the team members weren’t interested in the message. They couldn’t get past the fact that the examples in the book all came from the private sector. “What does this have to do with us?” they asked. “We aren’t in this for the money, and businesses are.” I’d hit the walls of the silo. The lessons were lost because the examples called user “customers” instead of “patrons.” Library literature is safe, and ideas from outside are viewed with suspicion (at best) and hostility (at worst). It’s an odd thing, because librarians tend to pride themselves on their command of knowledge in a plethora of subject areas. It’s strange to see the limits of that attitude and where we step around the insights available to us. It betrays our professional biases in a big way.
Of course, not everybody in the field is opposed to learning lessons gleaned by for-profit entities. But there’s always a period of acclimation to the terminology and philosophy of the “other.” A translation is needed to get the mind free of the library perspective, library jargon, and library traditions that we are steeped in every day. That itself reveals the fault lines of what I mean about libraries being siloed.
In my opinion, libraries suffer from self-constructed echo chambers. I think this goes beyond the things like journals and conferences. Even really productive initiatives suffer from a form of self-referential value reinforcement. An example that springs to mind is a mentorship program a professional association sponsors and runs every year for library workers. I’m very much in favor of the program and I think it does a lot of great things. But it’s limited: it only pairs library workers with library mentors. That’s fine, but it’s not enough. I think that library workers can be well-served by cultivating relationships and finding mentors outside of their field. This would help cross-pollinate ideas and enriches the library worker (and by extension, the library) with that elusive thing: wisdom from a variety of perspectives and experiences.
We are a field of people who are stereotypically well-read. We can pride ourselves on having read all the latest hit fiction, romance novels, sci-fi graphic novels, and more. I’m just amazed that we would, even at this late stage for libraries, limit ourselves in finding useful approaches to the practice of the field. I am continuing to work on that moving forward: finding bits of wisdom and carrying them back to the library for application. Because without applying it, it just becomes another bit of trivia.