Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
June 2004

Commencement Spiel

This is the season for graduations.  I went to two very different graduations.  One was for students completing graduate school and becoming librarians and the other for students completing 8th grade. Neither graduation had my children among the graduates.  The 8th graders were like family; they were in class together seven hours a day and frequently after school and on Shabbat.  The librarians were mostly distance learners; they barely recognized each other.  I learned a lot from the emotion and feelings that the 8th graders inserted in their speeches.  Since I was not asked to be a commencement speaker, I want to give my charge to future librarians.  This is the spiel that I could never give in class.

Congratulations and mazel tov graduates. This is a traditional greeting given to those who have accomplished as much as you have.  You are about to enter a new phase of your life. [Now that I’m done with the formality here’s the emes.]

Often librarians are underpaid and under appreciated.

Librarians are experts in the gathering, storing, cataloging, and distribution of information, but they are poorly respected.  I have to commend the Chicago Jewish News for choosing a reference librarian, Dan Sharon, among there top 10 Chicagoans of the year. [For the  full article go to http://www.chijewishnews.com/archives_articles.jsp?id=184185]

A reference librarian is a guide to the resources of the library.  The reference librarian not only leads the readers to information but opens the doors for further learning.  Authors sometimes thank reference librarians, but most often they are silent participants. Most students benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of librarians and their reference services, but they have no idea of the training required to do a good job. Reference librarians get their knowledge from reading and experience.  I can teach you the sources and tools, but I can’t teach you everything.  I can not teach you about the smile you need or the cheery disposition. I can teach you about libraries; I can not teach you about your library.  Dan Sharon is widely consulted because of his subject expertise and knowledge of the collection of his library.  He is widely thanked by authors for his contributions to their research.

No one can do a great job without great tools. A reference librarian will not know where a book is without the help of catalogers and the people who prepare the books for the shelf.  Catalogers would have nothing to do without the constant stream of publications.  Authors of non-fiction would have no sources without libraries.  Everyone in the field of information, consumers and producers, depend on libraries.

Let’s examine some of the tools at your disposal.  When I was in library school using the computer meant going to the computer terminal room and typing on a green screen terminal attached to a main frame.  Computer programs were submitted on punched cards.  Today you could hold in your hand more computing power than an entire major university or large businesses owned in the 1970’s.  You could own a computer with enough memory that at 1980’s price would cost more than a California estate.

As computers get smaller and more powerful, they become extensions and tools of people.  You know that because you probably grew up with a computer in your home. When I graduated college, owning a computer was a dream.  Personal computers, to use the term loosely, were born in 1975 when the magazine Popular Electronics ran a cover story on the MITS Altair 8800 in their January 1975 issue. In the November 1975 they ran an article about the less expensive Altair 680.  The Altair 8800 with a computer with only 256 bytes of memory cost $498 assembled or $395 in a kit form, had no keyboard, monitor, or data storage.  There was no way to add a keyboard or any kind of storage.  [For you Star Trek fans—the name was suggested by the daughter of the inventor based on the name of a planet in the Star Trek TV show.] The company sold about 250,000 in three weeks after the Popular Electronics article appeared.   The Altair had no operating system and no software.  The owner could only flip some switches and see some lights go on and off.  Today cell phones, PDA’s, laptop computers are common place if not ubiquitous.  They address the need for people to exchange and store data and to communicate.  Librarians have to meet the needs of an information hungry public on one hand and an information deprived public on the other.  Not everyone is literate or good communicators. 

Libraries have to be places where both the information savvy and the information deprived public can find what they need or want.  Libraries have to meet the information and entertainment needs of diverse groups.  If you thought the group of students in this college is diverse, a year from now you will realize how much more the diverse the real world is. The diversity of age, background, culture, needs, and wants may over whelm you.  Even if you are the librarian in a small private school, the diversity will be more than you ever encountered in college.  If you work in a public library the reading public will be as diverse as the city where it is located.

The Internet has made the distribution of information easier and cheaper, but much harder for librarians to control. Word processing and computerized typesetting have made book and magazine production easier and cheaper.  Books in Print  had listings for 85,000 titles in 1948. The Booksinprnt.com website provides access to over 4.26 million in-print and out-of-print books (including print on demand and ebooks), spoken-word audio, and video products.  Comprehensive acquisitions and cataloging is a daunting task.  With bibliographic utilities such as RLN and OCLC, library co-operatives, and library networks, catalog librarians attempt to create records for everything.  Increasingly catalogers have become data or systems managers as so much of cataloging is a shared task.  While computers and paraprofessionals are entering bibliographic data, librarians need to work with library system vendors, campus systems people, faculty and the general public to ensure the delivery of bibliographic data. With the increase in the number of publications and their diversity, the skill of the cataloger includes never ending learning.

Never ending learning is a lot harder than getting an assignment from a professor.  Self-directed learning means you have to learn without the help of a text book, course materials,  mentors, organized curriculum, teachers, or fellow classmates.  Never ending learning has not set time, place, or space.  Librarians need to learn from every source including: print and non-print media, fellow professionals, readers, children, friends, relatives, colleagues, students and any other person you may contact.  There is a saying that even if you learn only sentence from a person, you may call him/her your teacher.   A classroom exercise is never the same as on the job experience.  Learn from both your mistakes and your successes.   Learn to share and borrow ideas and experiences.    Contribute to the success of others and they will help you.

In the classrooms we attempt to teach critical thinking.  We hope the students learn enough of the tools to continue life-long learning.  Simulations and exercises allow student to sample, try situations, and learn the kinds of right answers that work.  Continue to experiment and explore.  There are multiple right answers to many problems.  Our goals as teachers include not the transfer of information, but rather to the set the example for kindling curiosity, exploding enthusiasm, fostering the desire for continuous learning, and to be examples and mentors for the people you meet.  Never lose the ability to be curious and develop the curiosity of those around you. Know when to hurry and know when to slow down.  Know when to be concise and when to embellish. What you have accomplished in school is to master a subject or body of knowledge.  Show the world and yourself, wisdom, for wisdom is the result of knowledge put to good use. Information is organized data; knowledge is the integration or application of information. Wisdom is the strategic application of knowledge to make a better self, organization and community.


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.

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 ©2004 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised June 21, 2004