Tackling Librarian Values

When the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the American Library Association’s (ALA) “Core Values of Librarianship” came and went without any scholarly or professional attention, University of Windsor librarians Selinda A. Berg and Heidi LM Jacobs, decided to look into questions about the document on their own.

The result was "Valuing Librarianship: Core Values in Theory and Practice," a special issue of the journal Library Trends, released earlier this year. Berg, a librarian at the University of Windsor and the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, and Jacobs, who works as an information literacy librarian at the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library, jointly answered questions for a Q&A about the issue.

The development of the Core Values Statement was controversial, but discussion about it has been modest since adoption in 2004. Why do you think that is so?

When we first discussed the ALA Core Values of Librarianship statement in 2009 or 2010, Heidi was surprised that she’d never heard of it before, especially in her MLIS. The more we looked at the document and talked about it, the more shocked we were that it wasn’t engaged with more fully or discussed within the profession as a living and controversial document. In some ways, it makes sense that there weren’t more discussions about it: how could you challenge that values like democracy, access, diversity, and so on weren’t core values of our profession? There is also, we think, a risk that the approval and formal adoption of a policy document can be seen as a form of consensus or the end of a conversation. That might have been the case with the Core Values statement. 

What spurred your interest in turning the passage of 10 years into a special issue?

The Core Values statement was a document that the two of us kept returning to in our conversations about the profession. In many ways, the Core Values statement seemed like a missing link that could connect many conversations across the profession. There were larger professional conversations that we thought could and should be happening about many of the values but they weren’t happening. We wondered why and wanted to do something about that.

The issue came out of our own desire to engage with the Core Values document and connect with these values in both theory and practice. One particular summer day, we were walking for coffee and talking about the Core Values. We both have a very distinct memory of that conversation. We were talking about what it meant that things like the public good, democracy, social responsibility, diversity, education and lifelong learning were approved “core values” of our profession but rarely discussed in any substantive way.  One of us said, “someone should do a project about that.” We looked at each other and smiled.  

Did you encounter any obstacles in finding authors for the issue?

We actually had a long list of demands for the authorship. We wanted to introduce new voices to the Library Trends readership and we wanted to engage authors who reflected the diversity within the profession: researchers from different sectors; scholars with diverse identities, researchers taking on different lenses and approaches.

While we did not have a lot of obstacles finding authors, we did have a few challenges ensuring the authors were addressing their value as a Core Value and not talking about these 11 entities as more general concepts or ideas.  A lot of the authors initially struggled with thinking about their assigned value as part of the ALA document and what being included in that document meant for the profession and for the value itself. And we knew that would probably be the case. 

We wanted to make sure that this issue probed, problematized, complicated, unpacked, and challenged the idea of having a set of Core Values for librarianship while showing how complex and vexed the particular Core Values were.  In other words, we wanted authors not just to describe how their value fit in with the profession but rather to ask challenging, critical questions about the value as a Core Value.  For example, Alana Kumbier and Julia Starkey took on the value of Access and, rather than just describing how Access was important for librarianship, they asked some really vital questions about access (what is access, what does access really mean) through discussions of disability justice.  Maura Seale considered the rhetoric around Democracy and the Public Good in the context of race issues and the Ferguson Public Library.  In so doing, these authors —to name just three—grounded these often too-abstract concepts in real-life scenarios facing librarians and contemporary society.

This problematizing approach was a challenge and we actively wanted it to be a challenge for the writers, for us, and for readers.  It was important for us that the authors were asking themselves and readers difficult and often unanswerable questions. Eventually, it seemed like these difficult questions were the places where the authors were really able to shine, break new ground, and write some fantastic pieces. 

The values themselves seem to match the attitudes of most librarians. What is it about putting them into a document that can stir people's passion?

Ironically, it almost seemed that putting these Core Values into a document did not stir people’s passions—or maybe the document just diffused them?  Perhaps once you say “democracy is a Core Value of librarianship” and formalize it in a document, you cease to ask people how, why, and where we work toward upholding democracy in our everyday professional work.  We did wonder if the Core Values statement might have created some passivity and complacency in the profession in terms of putting those values into practice. The authors often talked about going into the writing of their article with skepticism about the document. The authors did not take the values as is and just accept them, but rather they delved deeper into them, really interrogated what they were and how “core” were they to the profession. I think that is why you see the range of articles in the issue from celebrating the value as core to the profession to really challenging and critiquing the value as core to the profession. 

Where does the conversation go from here?

We have no doubt that the conversation will continue. In the last three years, we have seen more of these conversations about the Core Values emerging in the published literature, in conference talks, and between librarians. There is an increasing interest in understanding the meaning behind the Core Values and what it means for us as a profession and as individual professionals. We’re excited to see that happening.

The content of the issue really highlights the profession’s desire to articulate the values and meaning behind our work. We hope the conversation goes many places!  All of the contributions to this issue raised a lot of vital issues and asked a whole new set of questions and we would both love to see those questions being addressed in a range of new venues.