Tian Xia Librarianship

Photo by Jerry Zhang

“If you’re still using an OPAC, I’m sorry.”
—Andrew Pace, LITA 2014 Forum

Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon is not recognized as a world record because, among other things, he grabbed water bottles from a pace scooter rather than marginally slowing down to pick them up from a non-moving source. Compare to how the cycling “hour record” stood unchanged for decades, until in 2014 the governing body revised its regulations regarding the type of equipment allowed, causing the record to be broken a half-dozen times since.

Another athletic controversy is brewing over the Nike shoes worn by Kipchoge and other record holders, raising the question of if, like those now-banned full-body swimsuits, the shoes are tantamount to “mechanical doping.” Nike’s position on the topic has been rather flippant, stating that, “We do not create any running shoes that return more energy than the runner expends.” Well, neither do rollerblades, although I don’t see those being used on the track.

Each of these sorts of issues are, ultimately, debates over categorization. Some of them make for an entertaining idle discussion (“Is a hot dog a sandwich?” and “Is a burrito a taco?” for example, or whether or not we can say “almond milk”) while others are of a more serious concern, as people competing against transitioning and intersex athletes can attest. Another unsettling one that I’m still dubious about is this prevailing essentially ontological argument that the best primary candidate is by necessity and definition the person who is admittedly guesstimated to be the most likely contender to win the general election.

Anyway, presumably, if we could all agree on some ground rules and initial assumptions regarding our common definitions and other classification criteria, there wouldn’t be much left to argue about. The persistence of emotionally-charged labels, however, all but ensures such disagreements continue. Consider how people who espouse fascist principles don’t proclaim to be fascists, the vast majority of millionaires don’t consider themselves wealthy, and so on.

I received my library degree almost twenty years ago. I don’t remember much from library school—certainly not the proper placement of colons and other punctuation in various MARC fields—but I do recall having regular discussions about our professional values and how we must be uncompromising in our commitment to preserving them. That ideology is one of the few things I’m still an absolute stickler about, which is why it’s so disheartening to see us surrender our standards for no good reason.

The maxim to “don’t censor our collections” should not include the exception “unless it’s politically advantageous to do so.” As another recent example, “we must always protect reader privacy” has now at many libraries become, “we must always protect reader privacy, unless a vendor implements a flavor of seamless [sic] access.” And lastly, a policy of allowing everyone to use the library should entail that we, oddly enough, allow everyone to use the library.

A lot of these disagreements, again, largely come down to semantic quibbling. As with the “should libraries be neutral?” debate, I seriously doubt that most librarians, on all sides of the issue, have any tangible differences in their service philosophies, but there are rather discrepancies in this case only on what exactly constitutes “neutrality” in the first place. That’s not to say there aren’t meaningful distinctions between our beliefs, but they do seem to be overblown in the discourse.

I guess it’s just hard to be a lumper in a profession of splitters. In this day and age, when Google maintains a single index to billions and billions of pages, we should by now be better at providing more of an “everything under the sun” searching experience. Discovery layers have even been around long enough, after all, that calling them “next-generation” searching tools sounds out of place. Our entire consortium, minus one, has used a discovery layer for over seven years, and yet we still have, at our library, 367 other specialized databases for conducting research, while the idea of one day offering truly one-stop shopping seems as elusive as ever.

Our insistence on maintaining pigeonholed search engines for different information needs to me runs afoul of not only the service model to provide an optimally user-friendly and accessible gateway for the entirety of our collections, but also the general concept of libraries as existing to be enjoyed by everyone. Today I looked at our flagship campus library’s homepage to see that their default search box is still for the “Catalog.” It does not include articles, which are instead available by navigating to a wholly segregated interface, even if it is, mind you, run by the same underlying system. At times, this profession makes it hard to believe we’re living in 2020.

Further Reading




Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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