All due respect

Writing books is an isolating art and an isolated craft. It is a surprise when we encounter our actual readers. But a recent meeting was both gratifying and melancholic.

I had just delivered a speech to school librarians in Melbourne, Australia. It is always an awkward moment when you step off the stage, mentally mangled, to chat with members of the audience.

On this occasion, a young woman held back until her fellow audience members had gone, then approached me and pulled out a tatty, dog-eared and heavily highlighted book. It was one of mine and she wanted me to sign it. Digital Hemlock was written in 2002. It was an angry book about budgets being put before people, and cut-price hardware and software before authentic education. The book divided critics.

I probed how she - and this book - had arrived in Melbourne on this day. She explained that she had read it when she was still at school and it inspired her to become a teacher librarian, so that she could lead a "revolution" in information literacy and learning.

Her dreams had not been realised. She was hesitant about the future and threatened with redundancy. Moving from contract to contract, she had never gained permanent employment. She still believed in learning, literacy and contributing to an informed citizenship. But she was battling to retain appropriate employment so that she could share her skills and knowledge.

What an extraordinary woman. I was humbled that something I wrote had had such an impact. But I was filled with worry rather than pride.

Teacher librarians are not alone in their fear for the future. In the 1980s, the quality of nurses and nursing was attacked. Experience in a hospital was claimed to be more valuable than the expertise gained through a university degree.

Now the role of libraries and the professionalism of librarians is being attacked. "Volunteers" can (supposedly) replace them. All they do (supposedly) is shelve books and ask people to be quiet, rather than enable information literacy in an age of digital displacement. A degree is not required.

The professions of librarianship, nursing and teaching are female dominated. They are occupations where not only is abstract knowledge required but also methods to translate these abstractions within distinctive and often challenging environments. Perhaps resulting from these two facts, they are the professions that politicians and media pundits question, undermine and marginalise. They are professions denied the stature of professions.

It is ironic that the occupations that order and apply knowledge are experiencing a disordered and volatile workplace. It is a social and cultural tragedy that remarkable women with degrees, motivation, idealism and ambition are denied credibility and respect in a knowledge economy. Nurses, librarians and teachers commit to professionalism and public service. Let us hope that they can receive respect from a public that deserves this service.

Tara Brabazon is professor of education and head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Email:

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