Professionalism and the future of librarianship
THE GREAT ARGENTINIAN WRITER JORGE LUIS BORGES (1964)wrote a story called "The Library of Babel" describing a magnificent, endless library:
[I]ts shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols .... In other words, all that it is given to express, in all languages. Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. (p. 54)
這種正確資訊和錯誤資訊的大雜燴迷惑了波赫士的圖書館員。雖然每位圖書館員都該在一些大型圖書館的六角形房間裡能自主其事，多數人還是直覺的發現圖書館容納所有合適的書且辯白著他們這些個人的行為。. “這些朝聖者”他說”在狹隘的走廊上爭論，說著黑暗的詛咒，互相牽絆在神學的書梯上，把這些騙人的書丟在階梯的通風井裡” 而其它人成為官方的蒐尋者 ”我曾看過他們”他說”在他們工作時的演出:他們因為他們的旅程而累壞，他們談著個壞掉的書梯，差點害他們喪了命…有時他們拿起最近的一冊，並且匆匆的翻了一下，找著不好的字眼。明顯的，沒有人期待會找到任何的東西”正如其它人所了解的，在波赫士的文字裡” 在六角型房的一些書架上，必有一本書，它是其它所有書的概要:一些館員讀了它，他就如神一般了。”
This strange stew of information and disinformation bewitches Borges's (1964) librarians. Although each librarian was supposedly in charge of a few of the great library's hexagonal rooms, many reacted to the discovery that the library contained all possible books by rushing off to find those special works that would vindicate their personal actions. "These pilgrims," he says, "disputed in the narrow corridors, proferred dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts..." (p. 55). Others became official searchers. "I have seen them," he says, "in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway that almost killed them... sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously no one expects to discover anything" (p. 55). Still others realized that, in Borges's (1964) words, "on some shelf in some hexagon.., there must exist a book which is the formula and compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god" (p. 56).
Borges's parable serves well as a text for librarianship today, for it is indeed perpetually perched between order and disorder, between information and disinformation, between poverty and surfeit. The vastness of our current information possibilities has many librarians madly pursuing the technologies of data. Others have learned to their detriment the price of panaceas. Still others quietly dream of the librarian somewhere who understands it all.
The sociology of professions has yet to catch up with the wildly dynamic world of contemporary librarianship. If one reads the analyses of librarians written by sociologists, most of them focus on the venerable (and, as shall be shown, meaningless) question of whether librarianship really is a profession. Textbook sociology calls librarianship a semi-profession. The textbooks define a full profession as an organized body of experts who apply some particular form of esoteric knowledge to particular cases. Full professions have systems of instruction and training together with entry by examination and other formal prerequisites. They are believed to possess and enforce some kind of code of ethics or rules of behavior. They are also thought to rely on fees for services, fees which are due whether the result is success or failure. Full professionals in this sense are usually independent, freestanding practitioners. Obviously the models for this conception are law and medicine. Or rather, were law and medicine, for this image--fee for service, internally enforced codes, independent practice--is fast disappearing from law and medicine today.
In this textbook view, semi-professions differ from the full professions in that their members are bureaucratically employed, often lack lifetime careers, and do not use, in the eyes of certain sociologists at least, knowledge as esoteric as that of law or medicine. The major semi-professions are social work, teaching, nursing, and librarianship. As the examples make clear, the conceptual difference between profession and semi-profession probably has more to do with the difference between men and women than with anything else.
The sociologists who divided full professions and semi-professions were not persuaded that the dichotomy would last forever. According to the theory of professionalization, semi-professions had only to wait. Professionalization was as inevitable as an escalator. First there came a school, then an association, then examinations, then licensing, then an ethics code, and suddenly the occupation had arrived at its destination--a full profession, just like the lawyers and doctors. Even today, every time people use the word "professionalization," the image they have in mind is an escalator steadily bearing themselves and their occupations toward a higher status. When they arrive, the would-be professionals think people will respect them and their judgment.
But the escalator on which librarians are perched has somehow never arrived. After a century, librarianship seems no nearer to its goal than in the Dewey days. There is a simple reason for that. There is no escalator. The professions all exist on one level. To be sure, occupations often create examinations, licensing, associations, and ethics codes. But all the licensing in the world does not protect an occupation when new knowledge transforms the nature of its work, when other occupations take parts of its work away, when the capital requirements of its work gradually force it to be organized in different ways. What really matters about an occupation--librarianship or any other--is its relation to the work that it does. When we focus on "professionalization," we take that work for granted as if achieving the structural shape of a "real" profession would somehow stop the history of work in its tracks. But one has only to think of medicine today to see at once that even this most professional of professions looks a great deal different today than it did thirty or forty years ago. In the , most doctors are now salaried workers in bureaucracies. Their fees are set by insurance companies and governments. They are disciplined more by malpractice lawyers than by their own disciplinary boards. They still make a lot of money--if that is one's indicator of professionhood--but that too will change soon.