Identity – developer, information scientist, librarian

whoamiProfessionally, 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.

About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Python dev, librarian, engineer, feminist, maker, bird nerd
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6 Responses to Identity – developer, information scientist, librarian

  1. Sofie Grant says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. If I missed your outline of why you feel like IS, particularly the librarianship facet, should merge with IT, I apologize, but I would be very interested in hearing it.

    • Hi, Sofie!

      I didn’t do a good job of explaining it in the post, or even when talking to Andromeda, but here’s sort of a summary of what I’m thinking—and I’d love to chat about it further with you, if you’re interested!

      Right now, IT is attacking all of these really important information problems, and that’s kind of OK—it’s good that someone’s doing it, right? And IT people are [often? usually?] very smart.

      But they aren’t trained in information ethics and access, necessarily. They haven’t always had classes about metadata and organization of information. They are great problem-solvers, but they haven’t had the same opportunity, in most cases, to think deeply about informational issues, the same way an L/IS person has.

      And, on the flip side, we have L/IS people who are thinking deeply about information, in many cases, but who don’t have the technical skills, or the right kinds of problem-solving skills (“thinking like a programmer”), or who don’t work for the right companies, to help solve these problems, themselves.

      It’s sort of hard to fix, in part because IT folks don’t like being told they’re under-equipped for a problem (“information is in our field’s name, so back off”), and because separating IS from LIS is 1) tricky and 2) maybe leaves kind of a small number of people.

      So this thing that seems obvious and important (urgent!) to me—and that you’re getting into a great position to help solve, incidentally :)—seems unimportant or maybe even untrue to a lot of people.

      … I don’t know, does that make sense?

      • Sofie Grant says:

        I think I understand where you’re coming from. I’m finding that some of the questions I have lingering from my time as a librarian probably aren’t going to be answered by the Computers & Information Systems program that I’m taking. For example, I’ve databases from a technical standpoint (how they’re structured, how you query with SQL, etc.), but I’m not sure how much I will actually learn about applying them. My LIS program was definitely weak on discussing application. Since I’m fuzzy on what my future holds, maybe this will won’t matter.

        I think (as you surmised) it’s not an easy decision to figure out how to link the fields.

  2. Amy Carney says:

    I am on the same journey, Coral. I embrace the fact that librarianship has it’s rewards and my MLIS gave me a lot to chew on. However, I often feel annoyed when I have to emphasize IS in my MLIS when explaining my interests. People understand librarians and love them. People understand IT and have mixed feelings about them. It’s hard to impart that I love organizing information and understanding tech at its fullest. But for now, I know who I am and what I like to do. I’m not as inclined to spend hours programming, but I definitely love working out problems and equally love a challenge to teach me new skills. Plus, I try to give some grace to the entire LIS field because it is evolving so quickly and making an effort to include tech literacy. But to submit to being a librarian due to my personal achievement of an MLIS is not my ultimate goal.

    I have met a lot of great inspirations through various library conferences. They give me comfort that I don’t have to be at a reference desk or developing teen programming just because I earned this degree. It’s a stepping stone that was well worth my time. And whether I break into web design, UX, IA, or another specialty of interest, I know that I’m not alone.

    Sorry for this long comment. :) In short, thanks for your posts online that inspire the rest of us who are headed in the same direction and hope to help make IS better understood as we begin to grasp it ourselves. Keep doing what you’re doing!

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  4. D'Arcy Hutchings says:

    I appreciated reading your post. I can certainly see how you are in a position where you feel like an outsider. I think there is a very real chance that I may feel similarly in a few years as settle in and feel out what it really means to be an instructional design librarian (I’ve learned already that I really need to clean up my explanation of what that means — or is it figure out what, exactly that means?). I won’t pretend that I entirely understand the nuances between IT/IS/Lib that you are putting forth here. Even without a complete understanding, I know that there is a real value to your perspective and the work that you do. You serve as a much-needed bridge/interpreter between/for people in each category. Regardless of where your career path takes you, I know that having your perspective will be a benefit to your employer, colleagues, etc. My two cents.*

    *Sorry, I had to! I saw your tweet.

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