One work I’ve often returned to whenever I ruminate on issues of LIS professionalism – especially concerning the act of teaching and its links to perceptions of academic librarians – is Pauline Wilson’s seminal article, “Librarians as teachers: A study of an organization fiction.” Within the framework of LIS as an undefined profession, Wilson explores Dubin’s concept of organization fiction and applies it to librarianship; additionally, Wilson discusses the detrimental outcomes of holding on to the fiction.
Dubin defines organization fictions as “those fictions that are necessary in order that action within the formal organization may proceed” (1968, p. 494). Wilson focuses her discussion on known fictions; more specifically, she zeroes in on the kind of known fiction that hides truth. Dubin shares that such truths are disguised because they are “disturbing, so by a kind of silent agreement among members of the organization, this truth is clothed with a fiction.” (p.496)
Wilson asserts the idea that librarians are teachers is an known organization fiction promoted by librarians. This fiction is perpetuated due to the amorphous nature of librarianship as a profession (which in turn has caused librarians great difficulty in both explaining their work and crafting a respectable identity in society). Add to that the general unflattering stereotype of librarians – which applies to both the female and male gender (crotchety Caucasian old maid or bumbling effeminate, respectively), the general and enduring concern librarians have for status (especially in academia), and conflicts regarding how library work relates to the education system, and you have a solid argument why librarians co-opt the “teaching” duty into their work, and why no one outside the profession believes this (formal) role, at least as it is presented.
I’ve been a librarian for over ten years and I see librarians asking the same questions/topics on LISTSERVs and social media groups:
- how to get faculty to sign up or engage their classes/students for “library instruction”
- best practices for integrating information literacy classes into the curriculum
- how to be invited to/recognized by campus administration orteaching faculty on discussions/planning/implementation of critical thinking/information literacy/general education courses and curricula.
- should academic librarians have faculty status? (and various other related questions on how to make our teaching assessments/tools/ etc “look like” or be comparable to teaching faculty). And related even though not specific to teaching,
- should a MLIS be required to be a librarian? (a riff of “what is a librarian?” and a question that has seen more than its fair share of uncivil discourse).
These questions have persisted even as bibliographic instruction has evolved to information literacy, even as librarians created intensive professional development for pedagogy, developed scholarly communication channels for the same, have standardized and (re-standardized) pedagogical outcomes, and unfortunately, while the status of academic librarians remains nebulous and institution-dependent.
It should also be noted that Wilson’s assertion includes that holding onto such a fiction causes division among librarians and prevents those in the profession from developing a cohesive professional identity….so…
Wilson’s work partially informed my first published study, which focused on teaching anxiety in academic librarians. I’ll be revisiting this topic (and re-reading Wilson’s article) soon.
SHOUT OUT to Ms. Wilson for offering up this intriguing – and persistent – perspective of professional identity and practice!
Dubin, R. (1968). Organization fictions. In Human relations in administration. Pp. 493-498. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Wilson, P. (1979). Librarians as teachers: The study of an organization fiction. The Library Quarterly, 49(2): 146-162.