Thursday, February 2, 2017

On the Psychology of Librarianship: Finding a Center of Gravity, by Catherine Jane Minter


On one of my recent forays into European library history, I alighted on a piece by the Austrian librarian Franz Grasberger (1915-81) exploring the “Psychology of Librarianship” (LQ, 1954). Vintage as it is, Grasberger’s account of the multiple – and often conflicting – responsibilities of the academic librarian will surely strike a chord with others as it did with me:
“The librarian must be equipped to combine in himself almost contrasting faculties: a mechanical and administrative skill with an understanding of spiritual content. To be scholar, organizer, businessman, technician, and administrator and to create a harmonious entity out of these contrasting elements of one’s profession would seem to be no mean task.”
Memorably, Grasberger frames this problem as one of a lack of a center of gravity in the librarian’s work -- producing what he describes as “a relaxing of the psychic tension required for top performance.” This is essentially a mid-twentieth century neuropsychological way of saying that the librarian is often spread too thin to be able to do anything very well.
The problem articulated by Grasberger was not a new one even in his time. As far back as the early 1800s, other European librarians were also aware that the requirement for a good librarian to be a generalist was inimical to the development of depth in any one area. Some recommended that librarians should avoid pursuing scholarly work of any kind in order to avoid crumbling under the pressure of trying to reconcile their generalist jobs with their specialized academic interests. More recently, Blaise Cronin made a similar argument that because librarians (unlike the professorate) have day jobs, they generally lack the focus needed to produce profound scholarship (“The Mother of all Myths,” LJ, 2001). The fact that Cronin expresses his views unkindly should not blind us to the truth of many of them; I would only add that, in my opinion, it’s not so much the day job per se that’s the problem, but rather the scattered nature of the work that fills it – which dissipates one’s energies on the intellectual and psychological levels.
Some of us have it harder than others, I think; and public services librarians may be among the least fortunate. As a subject/liaison librarian at a large public university, my responsibilities include building library collections across seven subjects, and providing research assistance and instructional support across these same subjects – the majority of which I honestly don’t know much about. In my case, having a job that essentially consists of keeping a lot of people happy and dabbling in a host of things that I don’t know well and will never fully master has stymied the development of a sense of specialized knowledge or expertise, or indeed of any understanding of myself as a “professional” at all.
Now more than ever, the practice of librarianship seems to be about pleasing people, as libraries struggle to retain their relevance. This trend troubles me, since the people-pleasing impulse decidedly places the focus of the librarian’s work – the center of gravity -- outside rather than within the individual. Will the next generation(s?) of librarians be more vulnerable to “burnout” or – as Grasberger and his contemporaries would probably have put it – “enervation” than those of the past? Insofar as their energies and focus may be increasingly scattered by the demands of their work, and by an outside center of gravity imposed by a “service orientation” run wild, I would say that the answer may well be yes.
Grasberger’s solution to the problem of how academic librarians can give their work a center of gravity is one that may interest a newer generation of librarians:
"The focal point of this activity [i.e. of the librarian’s work] must be sought in the practical effort of acquiring, storing, and rendering a collection accessible, and this, in turn, must serve as a point of departure for theoretical evaluations. […] The unifying approach is the […] method of using practical experience as the basis for theoretical insights. The librarian’s goal must be a synthesis of theory and practice.”
Or, in other words, the librarian should aim to inject into the practice of librarianship a theoretical perspective that serves to give the practice deeper meaning. In recent months, I have been encouraged by the inclination I see in some MLS students at my institution to do exactly as Grasberger recommends – to use their practical experience as the basis for theoretical (and often critical) insights, thereby injecting meaning into experience that in itself may be lacking in depth. For my own part, I’m working on a change, but it’s proving harder than expected, since somewhere in the midst of all the scattered practice I seem to have lost my center of gravity – and, with it, my direction.
Catherine is currently an arts and humanities subject librarian at Indiana University Bloomington. Prior to this, she worked at the Modern and Medieval Languages Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge, and at the library of the Warburg Institute in London. She holds a PhD in German from the University of Oxford, and became an academic librarian when her plans to be a German Studies professor didn't work out. She doesn't regret the decision too often.

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