What do we do, really?

We provide access to information. The right information. To the right people. At the right time.

We provide access to knowledge, facilitate knowledge connections and foster knowledge creation.

We find stuff.

We translate stuff.

We help with maximising benefits from information assets.

We enrich people’s lives with the skills needed to navigate networks of information for lifelong learning.

We’re in the business of information.

Maybe this is a view from someone who envisions a career in corporate information or knowledge management, or perhaps even management of research data.

But basically, the above list are just some of the things information professionals do.

What’s missing here is a list of characteristics and skills associated with what is the information profession. How is it defined? Will what we do, the outcomes we produce, a precursor for the skills and attributes we possess? Or is it the other way round? Is a profession defined by skills, with the outcomes that follow?

This hasn’t quite bothered me so much until recently. I know what we do. My peers know what they do. But gone are the days when you could say ‘I’m a librarian’ and people knew exactly what you did for a living.

The way I see it, I just can’t win. I’m passionate about what I do. I’m passionate about what I do for the profession. I like to share what I do and my experiences. I like to share how my peers and the profession contribute to others’ lives. My friends and family though, haven’t got the foggiest. They don’t really understand what I do at work, they don’t understand why I write a blog and contribute to the profession. This really gets me down sometimes, especially when my Mum is lost on how to explain to (or rather brag to) others about what her daughters do. And it’s through no fault of their own at all. I don’t blame them.

At a recent family gathering, despite the grim circumstances, people were gushing about what my sister does. She’ll be a registered nurse by the end of the year. I’m really proud of her. She’s helped an elderly lady eat for the first time in weeks by singing to her; she’s braided an elderly lady’s hair because it was so frizzy, and she was apparently a dynamo in a cardiac ward. No one. Not one person asked what I did. And when I was asked how work was by a family member, following a few short sentences, the conversation was quickly turned to another subject. Either what I do is too complicated or boring.

Introducing myself has been troubling me as well. It’s easy for some, like my partner – ‘Hi, I’m a company accountant’. Me? The only way I’ve found to receive any recognition – you know (?) the light bulb going off look on people’s faces, or any understanding in one sentence is by saying, ‘Hi, I’m a librarian/ researcher’. Which basically means I don’t really know what I do but I do a lot of different things. I say ‘librarian’ and people say ‘Oh, so you’re right into books, hey? Aren’t you becoming redundant because everything is on the internet now?’. So I can’t win there. I can’t say ‘information professional’ because the word ‘professional’ in there somehow means there is no word for what I do. I may work in an archives institution, but I don’t claim to be an archivist. I can’t say ‘I’m in information management’ because that just gets blank looks as well. “Information professional” sounds all well and good in an academic journal, but what about its real word application and its understanding by those who benefit from our skills and services?

Perhaps I’m in a cynical mood tonight.

I am looking forward to the outcomes from today’s Australian Information Education Symposium, held in Adelaide, South Australia, prior to the RAILS (Research Applications in Information and Library Science) conference. A workshop facilitated by one from the Information Systems school at Queensland University of Technology looked at repackaging information education. I was also pleased to see items relating to records management in the program. I know I’m missing some knowledge. I need more systems skills and knowledge. I need to know how systems and IT networks work, the nuts and bolts. There’s no point in knowing the best way to package information if I don’t know the mechanics of how its delivered.

This wasn’t a post about ‘re-branding the profession’. To be honest I’m tired of that conversation, we’re only preaching to the converted anyway.

This wasn’t a post about smashing librarian stereotypes. That too, am tired of that conversation, and I have my opinion which can wait for another post when I’m brave enough to do so.

I’m talking about, or even questioning, what it is that defines this profession. What’s the selling point? What would make people’s light bulb go off at a BBQ? Will this take time as the profession evolves? But seriously, this profession is as old as the hills.


This profession is misunderstood because it lacks physical artefacts. Nurse = hospital beds, IV lines, assisting doctors. Accountant = crunching balance sheets and budgets, movements on the stock exchange. Librarian = books. But hang on, we’re not in the business of books. If we were, we’d work in a bookstore. Let’s try that one again.

Librarian = information……but where? You can’t touch information if it’s electronic. You can experience information, but that’s not tangible. You can process information, but no artefact comes out of that without the assistance of a system managed by another. There goes our credit due for expert input. See what I’m getting at?

We’re in the business of information. We’re not gatekeepers. We’re the facilitators, the navigators. We’re your next business strategy.

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  1. I know where you’re coming from, my parents can’t explain what I do either! Have you tried reading The Atlas of New Librarianship by R. David Lankes? I’ve only just started it but I find it’s giving me a whole new way of thinking about librarianship.

    Here are three quotes to give you an idea:
    “It’s not about cataloguing, or books, or buildings, or committees – it is about learning, knowledge, and social action” p. 1

    “New librarians approach their work as facilitators of conversation. Be it in practice, policies, programs, and/or tools, librarians seek to enrich, capture, store, and disseminate the conversations of their communities.” p. 2

    “The prime value of librarians is not their skill set or their credentials. These things will change. The enduring value of librarian on which everything flows is their credibility. Building and holding the trust of the communitiy is the scaffolding on which all facilitation is built” p. 24

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