On Being a Librarian

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by Neil Godfrey

How it happened

I never planned to be a librarian. An academic career was stymied as a consequence of joining up with the Worldwide Church of God. That episode brought chaos into my life that led to my early departure from advanced studies. Some years later after more advanced studies I was offered the opportunity to enter a master’s course but by then I was married with young kids and financial commitments and still involved with certain demands of the church so simply could not see that as a realistic option.

I only became an academic or university librarian after another tumultuous turnaround in my life that eventually took me out of the church. Librarianship promised a nice easy nine to five type job that I could leave behind at the end of each day (unlike secondary school teaching) in order to focus on other higher priority personal issues.

Those other issues eventually became past history and there I was, needing stimulation from my nine-to-five cataloguing job. Political and community activism and organizing became one happy outlet.

But when an opportunity came for me to advance up the ladder the job changed and once again I often found myself working extra hours to master all I wanted to master and make the best contribution I could. From there the job opened up international travel and eventually an international posting in a very senior position at the Singapore National Library Board.

What I have enjoyed the most

  1. Understanding how information and resources are organized to the extent that one can most effectively assist students and academics,
  2. The appreciation of students and academics for the assistance provided,
  3. Participating in the change from hard copy to online and internet systems, keeping up to date with the technological changes, watching the way they expand a library’s service potential and learning of the many technical and legal and policy and ethical issues related to these changes.

A metadata librarian

Those are the background pluses one experiences over the years as both a cataloguer and reference librarian. More recent years have seen a complete change in my own responsibilities so that it became hard to even describe myself as a librarian in any meaningful sense to others. I worked in a library building but I no longer touched books or journals. It was all about metadata. I became a metadata librarian.

This shift was all about making publicly funded research in Australian regional universities publicly available through open access and research reporting repositories of digitized research publications and datasets. That over time was expanded to doing the same for special cultural collections.

All of that requires changes in academic culture and university workflows. The public standing and reputation of the researchers is to be advanced and that means close involvement with the researchers themselves on the one hand and the technology teams tasked with building and maintaining the systems that make it all possible on the other.

I was very lucky. I was involved in the very early days of a project to move libraries in this new direction so before long found myself for a while being possibly the only person in Australia who had a handle on what was required metadata-wise across different university sizes and specialties and the different technologies they all used. (Metadata, basically, is about the different languages required for organizing and accessing the different types of data — data for the content, data for the carriers of that content, data for the authors of the content, and so on — one of the many facets required to make the operation workable.) So being a pioneer in a new niche area I was very employable. It has been a stimulating and challenging and most enjoyable time. Helping create major changes for the benefit of researchers and publicly funded research programs, of the public, of cultural groups (in particular Australian indigenous communities) has been the most satisfying time professionally in my life.

The ongoing relevance

I have regularly turned back to some of the professional training I was given to become a librarian even when blogging on Vridar. One of the most valuable areas of that education was in information and knowledge management. Coming to have a clear understanding of the distinction between “public knowledge” and “specialist or research knowledge”; the distinction between data, information and knowledge; the distinction between a creative work per se, the expression of that work, the manifestation of that work, and the digital or hard copy of the work itself — being clear about the differences and functions of each particle that contributes to our ability to share and acquire information — all of this has helped me in analysing different aspects of what I read and what I endeavour to understand and write about.

Before all of that, when doing postgraduate educational studies, I specialized in the essences of propaganda and genuine education, and how to guard against one and promote the other. And all of that further involved understanding the relationship between values and knowledge production and evaluation.

Before that, as a teacher, I found much of my time devoted to working on how to make new concepts clear and as easily understood as possible.

So though I missed out on an academic career I did find a very rewarding way to make a living nonetheless. And that demon that set me on the wrong course at the outset, the religious cult, in the end directed me into seeking to understand as completely and truly as I could the nature of religious belief, cults, radicalization, and even the origins of the Bible and Christianity themselves. One other carry over from that life-destroying demon: the experience has left me with an indelible awareness of just how easy it is for any of us to be wrong, and the importance of doing one’s homework as thoroughly as possible at all times.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “On Being a Librarian”

  1. Somewhat off-topic, but maybe not so much:

    Are books dying? (or being killed?) (At least somewhat.)

    I see used bookstores as well as regular bookstores closing in the US, definitely including large ones that have been around for many years. I have the impression people are having a hard time giving away books, even pretty nice ones. They throw them out now. I myself am struggling with what to do with my massive book collection as I get older. A couple of decades ago it might have been admired. Now it is largely visible as junk.

    I have read assertions that not just people in the US, but US libraries are throwing out books, lots of books that they have had for a long time, decades. They are tending only to keep ones that are popular supposedly I do not know whether it is true. I do know that in a major US public library I could not find fiction by an author from the 1920s who I believe was frequently read 50 years ago, a short story by whom I remember being assigned in school. I have a hard time believing that a couple of decades ago there weren’t several books by this author, maybe even 10 or more in this library.

    Maybe many people just buy and sell books online, and read them online now. Maybe that is why (if it’s true) people and perhaps libraries may be throwing out a lot of books. But the choice of what older book gets put on the internet may too much depend on the biases of the moment. It may be useful to see older perspectives on what books could be, the way one often did by wandering around in a library or large used bookstore, rather than being constrained by current perspectives of what needs to be saved. One may then have seen plenty of books that are not online. I do not know.

    Even if it is a matter of online books, I am not sure how much they are being read. I may be too extreme in my thinking and sentiment here. However I note on some websites I frequently look at where people who comment note that they all old. Once in a while they may joke about how only older people are commenting. They are implying that even serious comments on a webpage, or anything on a serious webpage itself involves too much reading on a given subject for many people nowadays. They imply that people are being taught to go with scattered simple ideas simply expressed in a phrase or a picture, or at most a video.

    People have worried for centuries about regimes or cultures where book-burning becomes the norm. The concern about book-burning was not just a matter of memory holes for history but of ideas and culture often indirectly expressed. It was a concern about destroying evidence of all the ways society and culture might have developed and might develop in the future, and thus a concern about destroying a major tool for critical thinking. I hope humanity is not slipping into the equivalent of world-wide book-burning inadvertently (or if one chooses a bit of paranoia, perhaps with some stealthy intent of conditioning the masses to make them more pliable via simpler and more distracted thinking).

    Enough ranting. Now a question: am I right with the impression that not just individuals but even libraries are throwing out a lot of books, even good or great books, simply because they are not being read?

    1. An academic library will periodically “weed” technology and science areas of older books whose content has become outdated.

      Other books may be removed from the main shelves from time to time simply because there is limited space for new material that is being added. In that case the removed material will usually be sent to an off-site storage facility but it will remain accessible to users requesting it.

      State and National libraries have policies to preserve all material that has been published within certain jurisdictions so that nothing is lost. I recently requested a work through my State library that they in turn requested from America’s Library of Congress. Another time I wanted an obscure thesis that was housed in only two places in the world: Israel and Germany. I was lent the copy from the Israeli university’s library.

      But the most important factor is that there is simply not space to house all the hard copies that libraries would like to contain. It is a physical and financial impossibility. Today the internet is as revolutionary as was the invention of writing and the printing press, and it is inevitable that people will primarily read electronic versions. Don’t despair: some electronic media will not be hard screens but rollable and flexible like paper.

      I know what you’re thinking, but consider: I suppose some people missed the firm and stable feel of clay tablets when papyrus was introduced, and others missed the authentic and personal feel of a scribal manuscript when the printing press was introduced.

      I have a ridiculous 3000 books in my own personal library many of which I am steadily digitizing, one by one, or else finding existing digital versions to store and use. The benefits go well beyond mere space for storage. One is able to find words without relying on an index, and then identify links with other works almost as quickly. On a simple level, for example, I no longer need to have a bulky dictionary beside me as I read: I come across a new word and I simply touch it to see the meaning pop up in front of me.

      Rather than discarding books I was not long ago involved in a project that rescued hundreds of bilingual and native language readers that were dumped in wheelie bins or back areas where they were left to rot after the federal government saw fit to cease funding bilingual education in remote aboriginal areas. These were in some instances the only “surviving” artefact of an (endangered) language and story in written form. Our library was key to rescuing, digitally preserving and then making them available back to the relevant aboriginal communities, general public and linguists both nationally and internationally.

      The point is that libraries have been in the lead in preserving works, and making ever more works (creative, research…) more accessible than ever before. (As you may have gleaned from my post, I never touched hard copies of books in the last ten or so years as a metadata librarian but I was key to making accessible to the public far more cultural and research material on a scale that was unimaginable in pre-internet days.)

      And if you want a hard copy of an old classic that you don’t see on your local library’s shelf I would be very surprised if a simple request will not find you with that book in your hand within a very short time.

    1. You are probably too polite to note that your having become a librarian may make it easier for you to study Christian origins better than specialized academics. I refer to advantages over and above the ability to handle information. I point in particular to the ability to get away with less less dogmatism than the official experts who may be too constrained by dogma, theirs or others’. I cannot know since I have not done the studying of the literature, but from the depictions here of academic study of the topic, the academic environment is itself rather cult-like. Yes, more heterogeneity may be allowed than in typical cults, and in other respects the analogy with cults may be strained. But I have to wonder whether it feels as if dealing with a cult.

      In keeping with this line of thinking, I have to wonder whether you are being a bit on the polite side for not saying outright that your experience in and out of the WwCoG (along with perhaps the formal study of propaganda) may make you better skilled than many academics in handling dogmatic not-to-be-criticized garbage but handling it delicately.

      (There is much else in current society and culture, not just academic New Testament studies, that tend somewhat to have cult-like features, but that is another, longer discussion, which would also include the differences between cults and non-cults so as not to dilute the term ‘cult’ too much.)

  2. Heh…I, too, took a similar trajectory, albeit at not quite your elevation. In the late 1980s, I left the recycling and refuse collection business because my firm was being edged out by political restructuring and franchising, and my body was being slowly destroyed. I opted for education and left the hauling business to take a part-time library technician job with the regional health sciences university library while I earned my teacher’s certification, and then, master’s. Unfortunately, once I’d earned the degrees, a social and political intervention basically gutted support for education, leaving me without much option other than returning to my library technician job, only as a full-time career. I spent years in interlibrary loans, supervising circulation students and running the reserve library, and finally ending my career as a cataloging specialist responsible for the digitization of the university’s ninety plus years of accumulated dissertations and theses.

    The beauty of a job like that is one’s access to virtually any print resource held by any academic, public or specialized library in North America. The relief was that I got to watch the cruelty and pettiness of the academic world without having to directly participate much in it. Libraries are indeed a refuge from a great deal, as well as an amazing resource.

    1. Yes, immediate and free access to resources is a great benefit. And academics as a group would make an interesting anthropological study, I’m sure.

  3. Neil, for what it is worth it is obvious to me that if you had earlier in life tracked into a graduate program at one of the world’s leading research universities you would be one of the world’s formidable ones. You are doing essentially the same quality now (apart from the philology and languages) except mostly sticking to commenting on others’ work as informed comment/discussion.

    As for doing a dissertation dealing with mythicism, speaking hypothetically if that were the interest of a younger version of yourself today (if you imagine the road not taken), the problem would be to find a senior established figure who would support and permit you to do a dissertation making a mythicist case of some kind. My sense is that would be practically impossible in North America at any of the top universities, but would be possible in certain situations in Europe. (In a North American situation one could do so as part of a cross-disciplinary degree at some second- or third-tier or online school, essentially amounting to a ratified self-study, but that almost always does not end up in a position or socialized acceptance as an insider of the discipline.) The usual advice in a North American context is to postpone the original and edgy topic until after doing a “safe” dissertation which develops some non-threatening point expanding existing knowledge.

    Librarians are among the most honorable professions on the face of the earth in my opinion.

  4. I once commented on someones Facebook “Bookshelves; what are you buying bookshelves for? Money spent on bookshelves is money not spent on books!”. 3000 books is a “ridiculous” personal library?, ?, ? (headsmacks keyboard) Conan, the Barbarian Librarian. 🙂 I stopped counting at 6000 about 15 years ago.

    You and your confreres are to my mind one of the very glues that holds it all together. Without librarians; what of memory? Without memory; what of learning? Without learning; we are as grass.


    1. 3000 hard copy books on shelves; but 300 kindle and 14,000 items — more books, articles and webpages — in my indispensible Zotero database without which I would be lost and have nothing to do but watch TV.

      1. Tah for that. Downloaded. I’ll look into Zotero properly when I get my main PC’s back up and running. Everything seems to be crapping out at once at the moment. I should get a handle on the stuff scattered relatively unorganised across a dozen or so drives; but it is so much easier to reach out and pluck what I want off a shelf.

        As you describe your work, and if it is as examplified on this blog: you are probably as deserving, if not more, of Australian national honours than most who are gazetted.

        But I might be a tad biased. 🙂

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