Professionally, I’m in kind of a weird place, right now. (Feel free to make an Alaska joke, here, but that’s not what I mean.) I’ve finally come to understand that I enjoy and am pretty good at programming, and I want to improve those skills, which is something I’m working on. But, more broadly, I’ve also belatedly realized that what I really wanted to be, after library school, wasn’t so much a librarian as an information scientist, and I’ve been unconsciously approaching the entire profession from that perspective (when I don’t go full-on-IT, anyway). I realize perhaps this reads like nonsense, because my degree was in “Library and Information Science” (LIS), implying it’s the same field; so I’d like to explain.
I should say, this revelation didn’t come until after last week’s meeting in the #libtechwomen IRC channel, when we were trying to explain some of the issues around gender and library technology to Valerie Aurora (one of the Code4Lib keynote speakers and founder of the Ada Initiative—so, you know, kind of a personal hero). I don’t remember my exact phrasing, but I talked about some of the issues from my “Tech is eating our lunch” post—tldr: the interesting problems around information access, retrieval, and storage are being solved by information technology/computer science (henceforth, IT/CS), not by LIS. (I didn’t bring up reference robots in the chat, but that’s a thing, too.) I kind of expected that to resonate and garner agreement, but it didn’t. Nobody said much about the comment, which struck me fairly hard, since I felt it was a pretty fundamental issue.
I remember also making a statement to Andromeda (kind of another personal hero), back in November, along these lines: “I think our field and IT should merge; I think we’re really the same field.” She disagreed, very politely (as is her way) but sincerely. That’s also been bubbling along in the back of my head, because I was so surprised at her disagreement.
And all my background processing on these two sort of unrelated conversations, combined with, on one hand, a mild dread of ALA Midwinter and, on the other, time spent putting in some really serious thought about what I want to say in the LibTechGender panel, finally forced a kind of revelation, for me: when I say “our field,” to a librarian, I mean “IS.” In both cases, the people I was talking to meant libraries/librarianship.
My only excuse for never making the distinction, before now, is that it’s kind of subtle. It’s hard to point at something and say “that’s librarianship but not IS,” because so much of librarianship requires applying IS principles. Some branches of librarianship are “ISier” than others, just as some branches of IS are “librarier” than others. But I’m convinced they’re different fields. I am dissatisfied with the definition that “IS is the theoretical side of librarianship,” because I think that’s incomplete, almost to the point of being dishonest. I think it’s more true that IS is a field lying somewhere between librarianship and IT, and it’s a field that should be a lot bigger.
Still, I should have realized this before now: whenever I am asked “Why did you leave wireless engineering?” I usually answer “Because the most interesting problems are already solved, there. Librarianship has far more interesting problems.” But—while I stand by the statement that librarianship has interesting problems—I was really thinking more about dealing with the sheer volume of information that is created nowadays, automating the weeding out of valuable information from junk, improving search algorithms and … IS stuff. I mean, for a while, my blog’s/website’s title was “Artificial Inanity,” a reference to a concept from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (which can be a bit jarring to start in the middle of, sorry). I’m clearly an IS nerd.
In retrospect, education-wise, I’d have been happier doing this program than this one. (Probably my best class was from that program, actually.) It seems like it’s a good blend of IT and IS, which is where I already self-identify, at least in terms of interests, even if my competencies in aren’t yet fully developed. (Around IT people, I say “our profession” and mean it. Around LIS people, I also say “our profession.” Now I know what I mean.)
And, here, my professional weirdness dovetails with my personal weirdness. I’ve had all kinds of seemingly-unrelated medical issues over the last year and a half, and it was really dispiriting, because I had no idea what was wrong with me. I now, finally, have a diagnosis. I should be happy to know, I guess? But it comes with scary treatment “options”; and every time I go to a doctor about it, I end up depressed for days. (Like today, in case that matters at all; I’d probably use sunnier language and perhaps draw clearer distinctions on a better day.) While knowing what’s wrong should be a relief, I find I am just as upset as I was when I didn’t know. (And here I want to state, particularly in light of a certain discriminatory job ad that is getting attention right now, I am sufficiently mobile, work a 40+ hour week, and am generally just as good a coworker/employee as I was before these issues started, despite their language rendering me ineligible for almost the same job.)
Similarly, I’ve been feeling at odds with my profession for a while, like an outsider. I watch the ALA Council listserv with emotions ranging from dispassion to mild amusement to outright horror, and, as I finally admitted on Twitter, I find myself increasingly skeptical about my chances of changing ALA from the inside. I read blog posts about the profession and disagree with most of the commenters; I cringe during discussions about information literacy (which almost universally lack discussion of technical literacy, as if it’s somehow irrelevant or not our job); and I get [silently!] all aghast when librarians pour hate on easy-to-use interfaces for discovery tools. This all makes me feel incredibly and irreparably other, as though there is this weird wall between me and the rest of the participants in any professional conversation. (You know, I make this sound very bad, and it can be, but people join me on my side of the wall for at least sub-sets of these conversations, too. If nothing else, the internet is a beautiful place, where we can find like minds on any sub-issue of an issue we want to discuss. Even in person, though, I am often not entirely alone.) And, I mean, these are widely differing areas; it isn’t something as simple as “I understand UX, and many librarians don’t,” though that’s sometimes a factor. This is too broad a set of issues to wave away with just that one difference, and it was kind of puzzling and discouraging to me, feeling so at odds.
So here I am, having figured out what’s askew with my perspective: it’s my identification as an IS and IT professional, rather than a librarian. (Not to say one can’t be both/all three. And, I mean, in reality, I am; I go to work and do librarian stuff and IT stuff, certainly. Skills-wise, I’m more L than IS—and more IT than either.) And having an understanding of that should be helpful; but to continue the parallel, it isn’t comforting. Very short term, it makes going to ALA and showing up at Council to represent the at-large membership feel very awkward. Longer term, I have to figure out whether I’m just going through a perspective shift from librarianship to IT—and therefore I should go to IT full-time—or if I should be trying harder to find a career in IS. Or perhaps there’s something I can do to modify my current job, or my perspective, or… I don’t entirely know. This post is more an acknowledgment of an issue than it is an attempt at solving it.
In short, I guess knowing why I don’t belong is good. But it still means I don’t belong. And I kind of hate that.