I am aware that I am a walking contradiction. One the one hand, I have a passion for using and consuming online information. On the other hand, I am in love with the natural world. Is there any way of reconciling these things? I started writing this a few days ago, on the day of the autumnal equinox.
Following an incident I tweeted about on the previous weekend, one of my former co-workers and current FaceBook friends joked that I should be a Park Ranger.
I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has daydreamed about working as a ranger. One attraction would be the location: spending extended periods of time in very beautiful places, really getting to know them, experiencing how they change with the seasons. Even more rewarding would be helping to open people’s eyes (especially younger people) to a different way of looking at the natural world. I am aware that the job would have its downsides: rangers also have to do that which could be considered menial and tedious. But then so do librarians some times, and I can live with that, even if I don’t love it.
[Anecdote which prompted me to start thinking about the similarities of librarians and rangers]
... This ranger was able give me information about this place which helped me appreciate where I was and what I was seeing. She gave meaning and context to this place. She reminded me of a good librarian.
I think that the best moments for a librarian are not all that different from a ranger. It’s when we get to see one of our users eyes open to some of the truths of our information-based world. It could be having them see that the library provides access to some amazing stuff and it’s not too difficult to use. It could be a realization that librarians are usually damn good at what they do.
I could look at other parallels between librarians and rangers. Looking specifically at access and navigating our respective spaces, the ranger uses roads and signs and maps and guided walks/activities and good camping/hiking/birding advice. The librarian uses the internet/intranet and the library catalogue and signs and library training and good research advice.
When things go bad, the ranger helps rescue those are lost, applies first aid and enforces the rules which are necessary to preserve natural environment of the protected space. Librarians can untangle the research mess which can trip up people in the library, we can apply emergency treatment to citation lists and are obliged to work within the constraints of copyright law.
The big difference between rangers and librarians is that rangers are custodians of a part of the natural world, and librarians deal with an artificial world, the library.
Traditionally, librarians weren’t just custodians of the library, but we also built it – decided what things would or wouldn’t be in the collection. Now that’s changing. We don’t control our collections as much as we used to. Yes, we still decide what books or journals we need to get in print, but the print collection is only one part of what a library does. I spend most of my time working in our online collections. My library only has limited control of these – beyond the decision to subscribe to a database/package or not, and maybe some basic configuration options – we don’t control these, our vendors do. The online collection also influences the print collection. If we can access text online, be it looseleaf service, journal or law reporter, that will make it less likely that we’ll get it in print. Finally, the library has to deal with resources completely outside its control. Despite our best efforts, we know that people are going to go to Google or Wikipedia first for business research and Australian law graduates usually prefer Austlii over anything in our online collection.
My point is that library resources which librarians have little or no control over are becoming the more important ones. They are the ones which are growing. In that way, our artificial world is becoming more chaotic and organic, closer to the natural world which the ranger deals with.
It’s probably too late for me to change careers to be a park ranger, and to be honest, on most days I’m happy as a librarian in my day job. It’s nice for me to be able to visit the Blue Mountains national park on weekends and just enjoy the place, without any of the responsibilities incumbent on one of its custodians. I imagine that it would be something like that old stereotype of librarians, those people who get to spend their days in a very peaceful place, who are able to read for pleasure all day.