The Problem with Professional Development Books in Library Science
I’ve been doing a lot of professional development reading lately. I live in the Washington, D.C. area, so fortunately (or unfortunately, if you’re a librarian looking for work), there are a lot of librarians in the thirty-or-so-mile radius. This means that the public libraries generally have at least a few books on library science and related topics. Some libraries reserve these for staff members, limit checkout periods, or otherwise make them less accessible to the general public or to librarians who are not employed at their library.
In the last couple of years, a library near me has switched from limiting checkout periods and keeping the library-specific professional development books in the reference area to giving them the same checkout length as the rest of the collection and interfiling it with the same. It’s been great to have better access to so many of these books, but often, these texts have further reading sections. I really enjoy my field, so I want to learn as much as I can, but not all of these books are available at my library. And they’re expensive.
I’d like to have my own copies of these books. I end up taking extensive, word-for-word notes of them. My wrist and hand cramp pretty badly and I typically find myself wishing I could highlight in the book, instead. Of course, I can’t — it’s a library book. But I also can’t justify buying these materials for $60+ each.
So why not ask the library where I work to buy a bunch of professional development books? Like individuals, institutions have limited resources with which to work and should, naturally, focus their budget on the public which they serve. There’s an argument to be made that to best serve the public, staff ought to be able to pursue professional development to the greatest degree possible. We can’t spend every hour doing professional development — that leaves no time for customers. But, even if this was a reasonable response and libraries decided to earmark a significant amount of the budget for professional development books, access is still an issue. Certainly, they won’t purchase enough books for every staff member who wants one to have one.
What’s more concerning to me is how the overpricing of professional development books (and text books) throws up more barriers. We continually ask ourselves, “Why is librarianship so white?” We know systemic racism helps to perpetuate continuing poverty in communities and individuals of color. Certainly the graduate school degree required for most librarian positions is a decent chunk of money. (And that’s not to mention the undergrad degree generally required to get into grad school.) But then there’s also class materials, text books, and eventually professional development books.
There are professional development books for loads of fields. Many of them are also expensive — but many fields also have books with more standard consumer pricing. You can find a wealth of materials on ecology, foreign investment, law, psychology, and more at your average book store. Library science, on the other hand, is harder to find. Most of the books worth reading are published by Libraries Unlimited or the American Library Association. Probably because they’re so highly specialized and specific, the average bookstore just doesn’t carry them. So you’re left with either purchasing them from the publisher — or maybe Amazon — and forking over a hefty stack of dollar bills.
Buying used is an option, I suppose. But used books, especially when purchased online, are a bit of a gamble. If they’re in good condition, there’s still a good chance titles like these are already highlighted. For me, this would be a major distraction. And frankly, if lower-cost options for these kinds of texts are out there, I’d rather leave them alone to be available for students who need them for class and are probably in tighter financial situations than I am. Plus, even with the used discount, the books can still be pretty pricey.
I’m fairly privileged in many respects. I’m white. I’m educated. I’m paid fairly well (though I admit the cost of living for my area is pretty outrageous, so “fairly well” doesn’t always mean a lot around here). I have a disability, but it’s invisible and mostly managed. I’m straight. All of this combines in various ways to give me a bit of a head start. I’m convinced that many of these facts also influence my financial situation which means I could, if I really wanted to, buy at least some of the library science books I want. Then I’m left to ask, what about people who truly can’t? Why are we making professional development materials — and consequently jobs and promotions — so inaccessible?
I don’t mean to devalue the work that goes into the publication of these materials. The time and energy that goes into writing and researching them is valuable. But what good is it all if no one reads them because the cost is so prohibitive?
The high cost of professional development books in library science is not the only barrier to a diverse field, but it doesn’t help. Meanwhile, communities expect their librarians to be professionals and experts. I want to know how can we be when our professional development materials are so expensive and otherwise inaccessible? Lowering the cost of these books won’t solve everything, but it would make the field just a little more attainable for at least part of the population. Publishers should reevaluate the cost they impose on professional development books. They should consider how these contributes to a lack of diversity in the field, particularly in higher-level positions. The question is — do they care enough to find a solution?