Training-wheels culture

My students are the connected ones, the technically-minded ones, the ones unafraid of novelty. Some of them flat-out don’t believe me when I try to (more or less gently) pass out clues about the technical atmosphere of librarianship. That’s okay. They’ll find out for themselves, and they’ll remember what I said, and they won’t be as shocked by it as I was.

I read through the freeform comments on Nicole Engard’s survey about what people learned and wish they had learned in library school, and I recommend that you do the same. It’s a curious mix. There’s a raft of comments wanting more (and more practical) technology training. There’s also a raft of comments wanting more and better cataloguing training.

Wait, what? Cataloguing? Not “cataloguing and metadata,” not “information management,” not “bibliographic and other sorts of description.” Cataloguing. From a bunch of librarians who manifestly aren’t cataloguers. What gives?

I’ve been letting that question percolate in the back of my head since I read the survey responses. I’m afraid the answer is probably an it’s-all-more-complicated constellation of mindsets and external forces, but I want to push back against what I see as the easiest and most obvious conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence, which is that MARC cataloguing is the center of the library universe.

(It ain’t the center of my universe. I don’t get anywhere near it myself, and I’m firmly in the Roy Tennant “MARC Must Die!” camp. If that makes me not a librarian, well, okay. I’m sure Peter Murray-Rust would find work for me somehow or other.)

Some while ago I went to a library-internal meeting at which people shared what they’d learned at the last big ALA conference. Someone had gone to one of Roy Tennant’s ILS talks, and had emerged rather shocked by his ideas. After all, she said, structured bibliographic description can’t disappear forever!

Aha. So now we have one locus of confusion. MARC and structured bibliographic description are not equivalent, except (it would appear) to a lot of confused librarians. I’m willing to bet that some of the librarians in Nicole’s study are reacting to what they see as a threat to the larger world of information organization, perceiving MARC as a proxy therefor. This is nonsense, of course, but who’s going to tell them that in such a fashion that they understand it?

I am consistently boggled by people asking me for training on DSpace’s deposit interface. It’s a series of brain-dead web forms, for Pete’s sake. No, they’re not perfectly usable (in fact, there are some pretty brain-dead design choices in there), but they’re just web forms! If you can do your banking online, you can deposit stuff in DSpace. Training?

But I see this all the time; it’s a much larger issue than DSpace. Librarians are a timorous breed, fearful of ignorance and failure. We believe knowledge is power, which taken to an unhealthy extreme can mean that we do not do anything until we think we understand everything. We do not learn by doing, because learning by doing invariably means failure. So a librarian just won’t sit down with AACR2, Connexions, and the AUTOCAT mailing-list archive and work out how to catalogue a novel item. Nor she won’t sit down at the computer and beat software with rocks until it works.

She’ll sit passively, hands in lap, and ask for training, feeling guilty the whole time for displaying ignorance.

So what does this have to do with how often cataloguing came up in Nicole’s results? Well, I don’t think all these librarians are asking for cataloguing training because it’s vitally important to their everyday work. They’re asking because they feel ignorant about something that they have been told (hat-tip to Yee and Gorman) is the center of their profession, and they don’t feel capable of learning on their own. MARC/AACR2 is bloody complicated, after all—and the more complex something is, the more librarians shy away from learning by picking apart one piece at a time.

Fundamentally, cataloguing training is not going to help these people. It won’t help them feel confident about MARC and AACR2, because I don’t know anybody who does (and I do know some cataloguers, thanks). It won’t help them feel more confident about the future of the profession, because like the librarian at the ALA-wrapup meeting, they won’t understand that the external forces that are forcing MARC out of the picture don’t really threaten them. (“I don’t see how programmers can do any better [than MARC]!” blustered one of Nicole’s respondents. That’s not arguing from a position of considered strength. That’s flat-out ignorance, is what that is. Go sit in the corner until you’ve done some reading up on data mining.) And it won’t help them do their jobs any better.

What they need is to kick off the training wheels, honestly. Their locus of control vis-a-vis technology needs to move a long way inward. There is nothing more frustrating than dealing with fear-based apathy. I don’t mind intelligent skepticism; I’ll prove a given tool’s worth or I’ll abandon it. I don’t mind dealing with genuine problems. They happen.

I do mind, quite a lot, having to stand over a grown professional’s shoulder teaching her to use a set of essentially self-explanatory web forms because she cannot be bothered to learn by doing. And I do this a lot. Once I’m done with the repository redesign, I’m going to come up with a screencast on the subject so that I don’t have to do it so often.

I think training-wheels culture may be the source of a lot of the friction between so-called “twopointopians” and their opposite numbers. When “look, just give it a try, okay?” falls on wilfully deaf ears, strident advocacy is a natural, expected response. I myself roll my eyes at some of the more “moderate” responses to Library 2.0 and new OPAC developments and whatnot because I know perfectly well that training-wheels culture uses “moderate” responses as figleaf excuses not to change, not to learn, and not to try.

One of the things I’m trying to do with my class is encourage them to lose their training wheels. Some of them don’t have any—but a few do, and I’m hoping I can do my little bit to encourage the decline and fall of training-wheels culture.