« Worldometers | Main | Shopping as stress relief at Xmas. »

November 20, 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Curiously, the same themes emerge in the comments on the Bookseller post puffing his book: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/135106-coates-writes-good-library-manual.html
We thought our own comment quite to the point

Jenny Luca

Well said Phil. Librarians everywhere need to understand this to be true. If they don't, then it's goodbye to the profession. You're right in saying "The best librarians that I know are those who have the confidence to try things that are new." We need to morph with the changing landscape and go where information resides. The fact that data can now by accessed by multitudes of people at the same time transcends what printed books housed in a library could do. The possibilities for our profession are exciting, but we need the people with the right mindset and willingness to adapt to be doing it.

Anne Robinson

Phil, I take my hat off to you! A wonderful piece that makes me proud to belong to the same profession as you. Best wishes.

Barbara Band

Phew! An amazing blog! An one of the things that struck me was that for a bookseller to be successful, he/she needs to sell books. It is all about money and profit. But for a librarian to be sucessful, it is not merely about directing people to the appropriate information source. This may be the case in public libraries where people just want the right information in as short a time as possible. But in school libraries it is more about teaching users what information sources are available to them and giving them the tools to search and evaluate appropriate sources for themselves. It is about empowerment. Something a bookseller doesn't even touch ...


Wow. I actually read parts of this a second time, and will be sending the link to some of my friends here at my library.

I think one of my favorite statements was "We are one of the few professions before which all other professionals are prepared to show their ignorance." Boy, did I feel good. :)

Aidan Baker

Brilliant. Will send link to colleagues -- would retweet if my Twitter circle wasn't mostly a subset of yours....

Lesley Martin

Eloquently expressed Phil. I will definitely be reading this again and disseminating it to others. You have encapsulated much of what makes our profession unique.

Ingrid Hopson

these thoughts are echoed in the talks listed here
the Neiburger ones which I just listened to on Thurs, isnt it funny how stuff always appears all at once on the same topic. Or is it just our brains noticing more effectively when we have just thought, heard, see or read about something. eg you read a new to you word and then suddenly if pops up all over the place.
Anyway Brilliant link which i too will pass on

charles oppenheim

This is a brilliant, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the credo of librarians and of booksellers. It deserves wide circulation. Why not offer the same text for publication in CILIP Update, say? Or save it for your Presidential Address (I'm assuming here you do become President of CILIP of course).

The whole piece makes me proud to know you.

Harry Matlay

Yes, indeed – and let’s be all hypocrites and tell booksellers and publishers how to do their jobs... Oh yes, and tell readers what knowledge is and how to use it... Etc., etc., etc....!!!

Jayne Davidson

As ever Phil, hitting the nail on the head, and an excellent piece for us librarians to draw on if ever we forget or need to justify why we came into the profession. Thankyou

Barbara Band

But Harry, the problem is that a lot of people DON'T know how to find or use information (and bear in mind that I say information and not knowledge because the two are different). Librarians help people find relevant and appropriate information so that they can, hopefully, turn this into knowledge. As for telling publishers how to do their job ... well, considering the number of badly edited books I had to read for the recent Booktrust Teenage Award, not to mention the number of books that are published with the most appalling covers that I know will be rejected by my teenage users (even if they happen to contain an amazing story inside the covers) then yes, maybe someone does need to tell publishers how to do their job!

Harry Matlay

Barbara, thank you for your comment... Yes, a lot of people don’t know and some commercial publishers are the way you described, and will go out of business... A lot of people, however, do know and some even discern between data, information and knowledge. The market will decide and only the best, I hope, will survive in the long term. I only use academic libraries, so my experience is limited to places of learning – if you humour my indulgence, please... In these places, I find that some librarians are self-indulgent, pompous and patronising, as if they have the monopoly on knowledge. In my long career, I met some excellent librarians and their service was impressive in all aspects. To go a step further, I would suggest that librarians ought to stick to their jobs and facilitate knowledge dissemination, rather than pontificate about its origins, accuracy, mode of presentation, etc. As a researcher and university professor, I know what knowledge I want and where to get it, but I rely on librarians to deliver a fast, cost effective and prompt service...!!! I do not need, or indeed wish for, gatekeepers...

Nathan Turner

An interesting and thought-provoking piece, which I'll be sharing with several of my colleagues here. However, I'm not sure I agree with just how far you appear to be separating the roles of librarians and booksellers (good booksellers, at least). I worked as a bookseller at a couple of different (very good) stores before qualifying as a librarian, and both stores worked very hard to foster a sense of community much greater than merely selling a book and then pushing someone out the door. One of the bookstores specifically had areas set aside for browsing and general reading.
Particularly, I've found that experience in book retail invaluable from a customer service point of view; how to deal with a customer, find out what it is they want (more than merely a reference interview), saying "If you like this, you may also like this", et cetera. I firmly believe more library staff ought to have bookselling experience; it would certainly help reduce the sense of intellectual arrogance that some members of our hallowed profession can fall prey to.
Too many librarians believe that once a book/piece of information has been placed in a borrower's (supplicant's!) hands, their job is finished; in the modern world of changing library spaces and roles, that's no longer enough. I'm not saying I disagree with you in principle; merely in degree. The roles of a good bookseller and a good librarian can perhaps be argued to be opposite sides of the same coin, or at the very least closely related.

Phil Bradley

Thank you for your comments Harry, although it's a shame that you feel it necessary to be insulting in order to back them up. You're understandably missing out on a subtext of this piece, (my reference at the very beginning), and I'm looking here primarily at public libraries, rather than academic or corporate.

I am delighted that you have had good experiences with librarians, and I'm also pleased that you know exactly what information you want, and how you want to get it. I would consider this to be the norm within an academic environment. However, this is not always the case elsewhere. Other users sometimes do need assistance in choosing the right sources, or indeed having the choice made for them. They sometimes DO want gatekeepers, and while you prefer facilitators, I think we need to be flexible enough to provide both, to all users in accordance with their needs. I'm sorry if you find this pontificating or hypocritical.

James Fishwick

"I am happy to be proved wrong in this but I believe that libraries are named after librarians rather than it being the other way around."

Accoding to the OED, the word library comes to us from a late Latin and then French word meaning bookshop. "Libro" meaning "book" (possibly deriving from "liber" meaning "bark", as bark was a writing material). The word library exists in English meaning a place of books at least as early as Chaucer in the late 14th century.

Librarian is a more modern word, from the early 18th century, replacing the earlier term library-keeper.

So on a purely etymological ground Mr Coates is correct- libraries are places with books in, and librarians are there to look after libraries. "Librarian" does not mean "information professional" or "information disseminator" or "hunter of information" - it means the keeper of the library.

Of course, words change their meanings, and your vision is inspiring!

Jenny Horler

Thank you Phil for your very accurate comments. Your distinction between librarians and booksellers is good, and I shall use your summary (acknowledged) that a library is not about books, but reading and knowledge. I agree with Barbara about working as librarian in a school environment, students need all the help they can get.
Great article

Katharine Schopflin

A great article, and the question of how being a librarian changes in the academic and corporate environment changes is an interesting one. On the whole I think the approach is the same - there is no value to a private organisation to receive inaccurate knowledge, even if it is not hte information they want to hear. The big difference comes in the sentence 'It would be quite exceptional for a librarian to have to choose not to provide the information'. Because of the funding models used in some corporate environments, their librarians are forced to say 'sorry, I can't help you as I'm not funded to answer your enquiry' or 'because your department has chosen not to pay for our services'. I had to do it many times when I worked for a certain large, public-sector broadcaster. But my colleagues and I hated doing it because we knew that we could help the people in question do their jobs better if we were allowed.

Tom Roper

James, the library of Alexandria contained no books as we know them, in the form of the printed codex. Was it a library?

Barbara Band

The problem with asking librarians to "stick to their jobs" is that their jobs are continually changing - after all, as information sources and user needs change and adapt, so too, surely, should the people that manage and provide those information sources? This is certainly the case with school libraries; the job I do now is very different from the one I started in 20 years ago! And I would never consider my job "finished" once I had placed a book in a user's hands - I would want to know whether the book fulfilled their needs and whether they wanted any further information (or another book to read). As for librarians not pontificating about the accuracy of information or its mode of presentation, etc. I would have thought that we would be the ideal people to discuss such things. After all, we are the people who manage, organise and dissemminate the sources of information; we are the people who are often the front line for users looking for information and so are immediately aware when the sources available do not meet user needs. Some people are fortunate in that they know what they are looking for and where to find it; many people don't. It is part of my job to teach students how to decide what their information needs are and how to find a resource that is relevant and accurate that fulfills that need. I would also surmise that for many university students their first port of call for information would likely be the academic librarian. Not their tutor.
And btw ... did you know that the Ancient Chinese believed dragons to be the guardians of information and knowledge? So I would be careful about messing with a librarian because they might just turn out to be a dragon in disguise ;)

James Fishwick

Tom, the OED defines a book as:

"A written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole.
In this wide sense, referring to all ages and countries, a book comprehends a treatise written on any material (skin, parchment, papyrus, paper, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.), put together in any portable form, e.g. that of a long roll, or of separate leaves, hinged, strung, stitched, or pasted together."

So yes, according to the OED the Library at Alexandria did contain books and thus is indeed a library.

Harry Matlay

Hi Phil….
Sorry that you think that I am insulting… and that you perceive my honesty in such negative connotations…
Let’s agree that we are both entitled to our opinions, which can vary considerably according to experience, posturing and positioning! Such are the perils of generalization – but, I respect your point of view and accept its potential value to others. Hopefully, you might understand my frustration with your profession as well as my wish to have free choice, not just academic freedom…
Obviously, you feel just as strongly as I do and consider sarcasm less offensive than honesty: good luck mate, you need it…!!! If I chose to be offensive or insulting, I could say – for example – that your are short sighted and/or hypocritical… But there is no need for me to say it: your own words illustrate your position amply…


Very well said Harry! I could not agree more...

David Rogers

Is there really "no good or bad knowledge"? As a medical librarian, I would consider the provision of information that had no basis in scientific evidence to be a dereliction of duty.

Take as an example the many "naturopathic" books claiming that eating fruit can cure cancer (rather than simply [possibly] helping to prevent it).

Would you be happy to provide such information say, to a cancer sufferer? I know that I would not.

Phil Bradley

Thanks for your comment David. It all depends entirely on context. If a cancer sufferer wanted good, hard factual information that obviously wouldn't be 'good' information for them. On the other hand, if someone was doing research into quack cures that information would be perfect for them.

I would say that it's the role of the librarian to understand the request and choose the appropriate material based on their own knowledge and skill to match the needs of the enquirer.

So I agree with you 100%! I hope that puts your mind at rest.

The comments to this entry are closed.




My Photo


  • Subscribe!
    Add to any service

My Flickr photographs

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing public photos from Phil Bradley. Make your own badge here.