Tim the Toolman

We Wear Many Hats

I wasn’t a faithful follower of the television show, “Home Improvement”, but I caught enough episodes of it over the years to know that Tim (the Toolman) was the face of the show-within-a-show, Tool Time, while Al, his sidekick, was the individual who actually knew how to use the tools they talked about. While Tim was skilled in talk and sales, Al was skilled in carpentry or plumbing or electrical work or whatever the topic and/or tool of the show was. Tim though, with his access to the tools, liked to believe he was also skilled in them. The fact that he didn’t actually have the foggiest notion of how to operate the gazillion watt drill made, of course, for pretty funny physical comedy and sight gags.

I know everyone is guilty of being Tim the Toolman at some time or another. I once purchased a Kitchen Aid stand mixer and a Julia Child cookbook on baking that told me there are really only like eight different doughs one needs to master in order to be a great baker. I had the instructions and I had the tool. What more did I need? Suffice it to say, I was frustrated before getting half-way through my very first attempt at the flaky dough recipe. I swore and cried and gave up. Thank goodness my partner, Lynn, is a very good cook and thus our pricey stand mixer has hardly gone to waste.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tim the Toolman lately. Well, maybe not literally, but figuratively. I thought of him yesterday as I sat in a meeting at work and we discussed the publication of our new eJournal. I’m really excited about this and had really been the one lobbying and hoping for us to take on such a task for some time. As we talked about the review process for articles and the subsequent editing that would follow, we started to raise some questions and state some facts that reminded me of something I heard from one of the publishers at a conference on library publishing that I attended last spring. I cannot quote the person verbatim, but his sentiment was this… just because you have a lot of exposure to something, it doesn’t make you an expert in it. In other words, just because librarians know a lot about the publishing business from our purview as librarians, this does not make us publishers. Just because we have a tool that allows us to publish electronic journals, it’s important to remember that we don’t necessarily know how.

Libraries and/or librarians are hardly alone in this behavior, though. In many ways, it’s a behavior born of survival. There ARE things that we need to do in our profession to keep it relevant and we don’t necessarily have the time, effort or money to learn everything we need to know to accomplish them. Likewise, it’s quite frightening to come to grips with the notion that what we do know professionally is no longer what we need to know for the future. Do we change library school curricula or do we change the library, i.e. the make-up of the professional staff who work there? It’s not an easy question to answer, yet for librarians in particular, I believe it’s one we need to address. Here’s why…

I know of few, if any, other professions that get SO offended when people assume that they know how to do our work. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a colleague say and/or see a colleague post online how frustrated they are that students think they know how to search for information better than librarians do. We go so far, in health science librarianship, to call ourselves “expert searchers”, meaning we really  know how to search PubMed. We know it! Those 1st year med students do not know what they’re talking about. They search everything like it’s Google. Google… the bane of every librarians existence.  The tool that started this entire wave of false thinking. Google… the tool that searches the internetz. And once everyone had the tool, everyone knew how search. Curse you, Google!

THIS is why I believe that librarians, the defenders of good searching and quality information seeking behavior, need to stop assuming that we know how to do other things simply because we have the tools, too. It is offensive to those who really do know what they are doing.

Lynn worked for many years as a graphic designer for a number of different commercial printers. She started this kind of work in a day when artists spent about a week drawing, by hand, a barcode. They had to draw it on a much exaggerated scale and to very, very precise measurements to that it would work when shrunk to the normal size. She did layouts for magazines and brochures and newsletters long before things like Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign existed, or at least were made affordable to the general public. She was a professional designer and deserved to be paid in accordance with the her degree of skill and professionalism. Over time though, as PCs made their way to everyone’s desktops and, much like Google, Microsoft took over the arena for office productivity tools, her skill was slowly pushed aside. People came to the printer with their business cards ready to be printed. They came with their church newsletters nicely formatted in a Word Perfect file. It didn’t matter if the individual used six different fonts or colors that would never print the same as the monitor screen displayed them. It didn’t matter that pictures were blurry, their resolution all messed up. It didn’t matter if there were typos. All that mattered is that people had the tool, and thus they believed they had the skill to use it. And as business owners most often HAVE to be concerned more about the bottom line of profit, sometimes at the expense of the quality of the ultimate output, they are more than happy to save the money of paying a designer anymore. (And the same difficult decisions face library directors, school board administrators, town council members, and representatives in Congress.)

Blogs allow us to write to an audience about politics or sports. Bingo! I’m a journalist. Doodling software lets us draw cartoons. Ta da! I’m a cartoonist. I can buy software or go to a website to create a will and just like that, I’m doing the work of an estate lawyer. I know all about accounting because I use TurboTax. I know all about managing a football team because I’m in a fantasy league.

Hopefully, you see the point. This kind of thinking and behavior is hardly confined to the world of libraries and librarians, but as we are so in tune to it and so negatively affected by it, I would like to hope that we, as a group, can stop partaking in it. As a librarian, I want to stop offending my friends who have spent years becoming expert educators by thinking that just because I’m charged to teach a class, I automatically know what I’m doing (something that I wish the vast majority of people in higher education would admit, too). I want to stop offending my artist friends that because I can put together a subject guide using LibGuides, that I’m a website designer. And I want to put aside any notion whatsoever that just because I can read and write, that I can, by default, edit. I cannot.

In the same way, of course, I hope others will stop doing the same to me and others in my profession. We do actually have a sophisticated skill set – admittedly, a skill set that I believe needs to be revamped and expanded, but a skill set all the same.

  • Dear young student or experienced doctor, please realize that we DO truly know a thing or two about how to navigate and best use the tools that we have spent time and effort honing our skills toward. We know how and what needs to be done so that information can be better found and better accessed.
  • Dear researcher, I have personally spent 5+ years following the issue of NIH funding and public access to published literature. I guarantee you that I know the subject better than you. Let me help you. Let me do what I do best and I promise to let you do the same.

There are so many different hats to wear, but we all have only one head. True, some people ARE really good at wearing multiple hats. Some people ARE skilled in multiple areas. When this is the case, we’re all the better for working with such folks, but when it’s not – and most often, we’re not – it’s much more productive to learn to work together with others who do know what we don’t. It’s a sign of respect, not to mention a much better way to achieve success.

(These thoughts arose over lunchtime after seeing a post from a Library Director that I know who posed the question on her Facebook page, “How do you imagine the health sciences library of the future?” This is my answer. It’s a place of mixed skills and talent, not just librarians.)

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