Farmers, Cowboys, Scouts & Librarians

Yesterday’s Ado Annie song got stuck in my head. I have always loved Roger’s and Hammerstein, with Oklahoma and South Pacific leading the way. In the past few days I’ve also had a few conversations about how the heck it is I do whatever it is I’m doing. And why. So I’m pondering Oklahoma and at the same time pondering my job.

I’ve said before that I think of what I’m doing as being a scout, out on the fringes of the territory, hunting for what’s important to know, then coming back and telling the leadership what’s out there that they should know about. Some years back one of the dentists explained to me why dentists don’t become doctors. “They’re cowboys,” he said. He went on to explain that doctors work in large organizations with lots of rules to follow and records to keep to watch and prove that they follow the rules, while dentists work in private practice and can, within reasonable limits set by government and other stakeholders, set their own standards for record keeping and rules. That seemed very insightful and profound at the time.

Scouts are out there solo for the most part. Where they are going, they don’t see many folk at all, and if they did see a bunch of folk, they’d be in the wrong place. When they come back, they only talk to a couple people and then skedaddle again. [For a disclaimer, I have no real experience with tracking or scouting in real life, just having been raised by a rabid Boy Scout and reading tons of Westerns. So I’m making up the bits to tell a story, and please just go along with me, ok?]

Cowboys tend to be mostly solitary, but not as much as scouts. Takes other cowboys to manage a herd. So cowboys want some space and room, but also come back and horse around with their friends, gab and sing at night, party at the rodeo or small town bar. According to the histories, there was a lot of volatile change and risk. Cowboys would make friends, and then have to make new ones as they moved on or friends were injured or died on the trail.

Scouts and cowboys both knew where they were in one of two ways. Either they figured out the relatively vague sense of plotting a position relative to other places by the stars or how far north or south they were, or they went somewhere they’d been before and knew specific features — the shape of an outcropping, the quirky shape of a particular tree, things like these.

Farmers? Well, farmers weren’t breaking new territory but establishing stable spaces within territory that was already fairly well known. They’d mark out the boundaries, draw the maps, name the specific features and quirky trees. Then they’d build fences, towns, schools, make laws and set up the infrastructure that supported communities.

You can take this back further to the early Greeks, when they shifted from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian lifestyle. There are researchers who believe that the famous Eleusinian Mysteries were actually a celebration of becoming agrarian marked by taking the time to return for a week to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle so people would remember and appreciate what they’d gained. If people didn’t remember the hardships of the “cowboy” life, they didn’t appreciate the “farmer” life. Then you ended up with conflicts like those noted in the famous song.

Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough,
The other likes to chase a cow,
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends.

Now I am thinking of this with respect to librarianship. A great deal of librarianship is husbandry of sorts. Nurturing intellectual discovery and creation is like planting, and collection building like harvesting. I could spend more time extending the analogy, but I’m sure you get the idea: Librarians are rather like Farmers. But are Emerging Technologies Librarians like other librarians? I hazard they are perhaps more like cowboys and scouts, and which one will depend on what kind of emerging technologies is their particular focus.

As an Emerging Technologies Librarian the boundaries that are part and parcel of most of librarianship don’t necessarily apply in the same ways. It is really hard to go exploring new territory if you are paying a lot of attention to the already existing boundaries. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that connections that seem odd or off topic often circle back to my home territories. One example was the support I was giving to computer science and engineering this past year, which connected me to researchers working in game design and programming, which then gave me exactly the background and connections I needed when the hospital wanted information on serious games for staff training. You don’t know exactly how the pieces are going to connect, or if they will, and there is a certain amount of instinct required, and a tolerance for failure on the part of both the ETech librarian and their managers. One trick is to diversify. As the old saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in the same basket.

Checkerboard Egg Carton

What I don’t want to see happening in librarianship is the sort of conflict or divide that showed up between the farmers and the cowboys. Librarians, where the ETech folk are working might seem silly at first glance, but give it time to ripen, there just might be something to it. ETech folk, you’ll need those friendships and partnerships to help spread the word, build skills, and teach classes. When the wave crests for any given technology the demand will outstrip what you can do alone. Librarians, if an ETech librarian says something is going to be important, don’t pooh-pooh them, but take a moment and listen. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you right then, give your colleague the respect of a fair and courteous conversation, and a willingness to reserve judgment. ETech folk, when you are engaging with the community of users who value your work, don’t forget your librarian colleagues — keep trying to reach them as well, and bring them into the discussions with the crazy folk who fancy your stories. And librarians, if you know any of those crazy folk who might appreciate those cool toys, introduce them to your ETech colleague. They can use your help, they are trying to cover a whole lot of territory. Keep building bridges, both of you, work together, collaborate.

And when this territory is a state
And joins the Union just like all the others,
The farmer, and cowman and the merchant
Must all behave theirselves and act like brothers.


2 responses to “Farmers, Cowboys, Scouts & Librarians

  1. Bravo, PFAnderson! Well said.


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