You might not see a lot of universities advertising on the ALA Job List for positions whose job title is “Thinking about What the Hell We’re Doing Here” – but, according to an interview with the philosopher Peter Ludlow, maybe you should:
About ten years ago I interviewed Noam Chomsky, and the first question I asked him was why, with all the irons he has in the fire, he dedicates so much time to engaging with philosophers. He said his concern was really part of a more general concern – that “it should trouble us that we’re not thinking about what we’re up to, and those questions happen to be the domain of what philosophers pay attention to.” I feel that there are just too many human enterprises that are not being subjected to critical thinking, and the problem is getting worse rapidly. It isn’t even that we need “philosophers” for this. You could get by with someone whose job title is “thinking about what the hell we are doing here.”
I think this illustrates very nicely why it’s super important for library practitioners to be engaged in peer-reviewed research: if people aren’t thinking about what the hell it is we think we’re doing, our individual libraries, and the profession as a whole, will suffer.
Here’s a claim I know not everyone agrees with: thinking about why we do what we do is intrinsic to being a good practitioner. But it is true. It’s just very unlikely that you will consistently be able to do good work in your library unless you’re also actively researching, by which I mean not just creating one’s own scholarship, but keeping up to date by reading relevant literature as well. What this involves, I think, is having a fundamental curiosity – a desire to know, a capacity for wonder, whatever you want to call it – about what it is that we’re doing. This is what it means to be a professional librarian.
An analogy that I think illustrates this point is Megan Oakleaf’s dictum that if you’re not assessing, your students aren’t learning. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back and think that your teaching methods are effective. But unless you’re assessing, you don’t really know that. You might just be doing what you – or other people – have always done.
To me, research serves a similar function. If you aren’t keeping up with the literature, you’re missing out on opportunities to improve on what you’re doing, and it’s very likely that you’ll become stagnant and stuck in your ways. This is not good for the profession or for our students. So I’m admittedly somewhat suspicious when people aren’t actively engaged in research; it seems to me to betray a lack of curiosity – a lack of concern for thinking about what the hell it is that we think we’re doing – that I think is pretty unfortunate. I’ve seen various grumblings from librarians throughout the internet that research distracts librarians from doing their “real work” – benefiting their users through focusing on their work in their own library – but I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. Reflecting on what you do is part of being deeply engaged with what you do. It’s as simple as that.
For more on this topic, check out a recent College & Research Libraries News piece by Trudi Bellardo Hahn and Paul T. Jaeger. The piece is a bit light but they make some good points about the benefits of publishing and have a great references list with related articles on the topic.