Ego non te absolvo

Lifelong learning isn’t only for other people

I found myself drawn into odd conversations with librarians, archivists, and other information professionals soon after I started teaching library school. Not the conversations about how terrible I am and how bad I am at what I do and how whatever I’m doing in the classroom is automatically the wrong thing—those conversations are standard, and I am as inured to that angry dismissiveness as anyone can be. No, the odd conversations I landed in over and over again went something like this:

“Oh, you teach at SLIS! What do you teach?”

(I give a précis of my course list.)

“Oh.” Pause. “You know, I never learned practically anything you teach.” Expectant, lingering pause.

Once early on I innocently took that as professional curiosity, a cue to offer a casual but practical suggestion about where to learn something I happen to know that would likely be useful in my interlocutor’s job. When I say I don’t know something, after all, that’s the response I’m hoping for. (I have galloped back to my hotel room from any number of conference receptions to subscribe to a recommended weblog before I forget its name. Perhaps now that I have finally bought myself a tablet computer, I can keep it with me to subscribe on the spot!) My position also gives me plenty of advance word about worthwhile learning opportunities, so why wouldn’t I pass them along? As it happened, though, my interlocutor’s immediate recoil told me my response had missed its aim by a country mile. I stammered, caught myself, and changed the subject with an audible wrench, as conversational suavity has never been a distinguishing characteristic of mine.

I learned to dread repetitions of that conversation because I couldn’t avoid them, yet I never came closer to understanding what the desired response was. One or two interlocutors even embroidered on their knowledge gaps at some length, obviously hoping for a specific response I couldn’t work out how to give as I stood there feeling more maladroit by the millisecond. These were nice people, I should mention, and progressive professionals to a one. They were not trying to undercut my work with the assertion that because they hadn’t learned what I teach, what I teach doesn’t matter and I shouldn’t be teaching it. I know that style of passive aggression entirely too well, as often as I see it, and these conversations were not that.

What on earth did these pleasant, progressive professionals want me to say, then? I let that question stew quietly away in the back of my head for a long time.

After the latest such conversation, some time ago, light dawned at last. My interlocutors felt guilty, inadequate, even sinful, for not knowing what I teach! How sad and awful, and what kind of monster am I not to have immediately reassured them? Nobody needs to feel that way; it is a short but perilously rocky road from there to full-blown Impostor Syndrome. Librarianship is learned, not innate, and I cheerfully grant that learning it takes a good deal longer than the two years that we who teach library school have to boost people to librarianship’s barest threshold. Learning librarianship takes a whole career, in fact, especially considering its rate of change and breadth of collective expertise. So there’s no shame in needing to learn. How can there be?

I felt enlightened for all of fifteen seconds until the obvious hole in my new understanding demanded filling: if the problem was lack of learning, why was offering learning opportunities unwelcome? What was the desired response, if it wasn’t that? An answer presented itself quickly: my interlocutors wanted reassurance, even absolution. They wanted me to say “Oh, it’s all right, nothing I teach really matters to you or anybody else, you’re absolutely fine without it. Ego te absolvo!” In other words, they wanted permission not to learn.

This answer horrifies me and I want it to be wrong, though to date it is the only answer I have that fits all the facts. It’s not even the implied insult to the utility of what I know and teach, though I am human enough to resent that a bit; I don’t teach anything I consider wholly useless or unnecessary, and if asked to do so, I have the professional autonomy to refuse and would absolutely use it. Moreover, I happily hold up my end of conversations about matching a given learner with a career-appropriate topic or working out where to start with something complex or difficult, because not every topic is equally useful or accessible to every learner and librarianship’s directions to its own lifelong learners are overwhelming and punitive. As I replay the many odd conversations I’ve had, though, I sense that my interlocutors weren’t any more interested in potential topics to learn about than they were in potential learning opportunities. They truly wanted to be told—by an educator, no less—that it was fine not to learn, even to refuse learning outright.

I cannot give that answer. I just can’t. It is not fine for a librarian to refuse learning; it is, in fact, wholly unacceptable in any information profession. Ego ergo non te absolvo. The ALA Code of Ethics backs me up in Article VIII: “We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.” I am grateful for and believe in ALA’s strong stance on this, but I don’t need it to bolster my own personal resolve; I recoil at the very idea of members of the information professions alleging that lifelong learning is only for other people. We are better than that, and it is for us (if not us, who?) to set the example for our patrons.

So if you happen across me at a conference or at random, please do not hold this particular conversation with me. It will only end in tears, probably mine. Ego non possum te absolvere; instead, I stand with St. Augustine’s “tolle, lege,” and the more who stand with me, the better for librarianship.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”