Who or what is a “professional librarian”?

This post is sort of in response to Tina Reynolds’ post about professionalism, which was pointed out to me by @ijclark. It is a bit of a delayed response – sorry about that – but I have been gathering information (aka emailing colleagues and looking at Twitter).

When thinking about professionalism and what it means whether in a library/information context or not, the first problem that becomes apparent is that people disagree about the definition of the word “professional”, never mind about who or what a “library professional” is. For example, one of my colleagues thinks that the definition of a “professional”  is someone who has to do continuing professional development (CPD) activities outside of  the workplace; for example, teachers, doctors, lawyers and pharmacists. Some people think that a professional is someone who is qualified in a particular field. In my experience this definition is the one most often used in the field of library and information work; if you have a qualification in library/information studies (e.g. degree or diploma) you’re usually considered to be a “professional librarian”. However, there are others, and I am one of them, who think that the definition of a professional person (in any field) is someone who works in that field; so a postman is just as professional as a lawyer, and a library assistant is as professional as the Head of Library Services.

So, I disagree with Tina. I don’t think you have to do any of the things on her list in order to be a professional – but that is mainly because I have quite a different idea of what “professional” actually means.

If we take what seems to be the majority view, which is that a professional librarian is someone with a qualification (usually, but not always, postgraduate) in librarianship/information science/management this presents us with several difficulties.

Firstly, as a couple of colleagues have pointed out, separating people into “professionals” and “others” (however this is defined) is potentially divisive and “not being on our own side”. It creates a hierarchy (or at least the idea of a hierarchy) where there doesn’t need to be one. I have a postgraduate degree in LIS, and I’m chartered, but this doesn’t make me a better librarian than my colleague who sits opposite me who has no qualifications and isn’t chartered. I know being “professional” isn’t necessarily about being better, but the connotations of superiority are there, whether we like it or not. I would argue that Tina’s post (perhaps inadvertently) highlights this. Something that upsets me is when my colleagues automatically think that either I’m better at the job than they are because I’m qualified (this has happened!).  Having an LIS qualification does not make me better at anything than anyone else, it just means I wrote some essays and got a piece of paper to prove it. By the way, my colleague who sits opposite me is doing the same level of role as me, which leads me on to my next point…

When is a professional not a professional? If we take the generally agreed definition of “professional librarian” (see above), I am a professional. However, I am not in a “professional” post (by which I mean that I don’t have to have a LIS qualification to be eligible for the post). Am I still a professional? Is my unqualified colleague a professional if one day she is, due to her skills and experience, accepted for a what is considered to be professional role, despite not having a qualification?

It seems to me that it is not being in a particular role, or at a particular level, or having a particular qualification, that makes someone a professional. To paraphrase another colleague, some people who are technically “professionals” can be very unprofessional, whereas some people who are not considered to be “professionals” can be very professional in their work. People I know who are actually the best at their jobs, at being “professional”, have no qualifications, don’t network, don’t do CPD, don’t read “professional literature”, etc. They just know their stuff and know how to deal with people – which is a lot of what librarianship is about. 

In my view, anyone who has a job is a professional, and that’s the end of it. To answer Tina’s question, “Should I accept that librarianship is just a job?”, well, yes, because that’s what it is, the same as any profession (except perhaps the caring professions (doctors, nurses, social workers, etc.)) where you arguably need a greater sense of vocation to do the job well), and no better or worse for it.

And then there’s the word “librarian”. There is much confusion about who a librarian actually is. Technically, I’m not a librarian (this word is not in my job title), but to anyone who doesn’t work in libraries, I am. To a student, everyone in our office is a librarian, even though less than half of us have “librarian” in our job titles. In some places, you can be a librarian without having a qualification, in others you can’t be a senior library assistant without one, so, again, there is potential for confusion and inconsistency of thought and practice across the LIS sector.

I like my colleague’s neat summary of the situation:

Anyone who works in a library is a librarian. Anyone who gets paid (or underpaid …) for working hard is a professional.


14 thoughts on “Who or what is a “professional librarian”?

  1. Orangeaurochs (@orangeaurochs) says:

    I’ve been meaning to write a long post about this for literally years and this says practically everything I would have said. Your colleague’s statement at the end is superb!

    From when I started work, I’ve also known several clear cases of officially professional people being thoroughly unprofessional and vice versa.

    • Lilian says:

      Thanks for your comment. I think there are quite a few people who think the same, from talking to colleagues and reading various things online, which probably has implications for the place of LIS qualifications, etc…But that’s another blog post!

  2. Chris Keene says:

    When I left University my first job was as the ‘Computer Officer’ of the University Library. By coincidence others from my year group on my course had gone in to similar roles across campus. We were Computing people, just planted in different parts of the University, the guy in a social sciences research project group got more involved in stats, I got more involved with CD-ROMs and online journals, while also running email servers, web severs, file store, NT domain controllers and Windows desktop images. As you would expect any person working in a particular sector I fairly quickly picked up much of the terms, notions and processes of the library world, particularly the parts I was involved in.

    Move forward ten years and my job is still technical but much more embedded in the lIbrary world. I oversee our provision (but not selecting/budgeting) of online resources, website, repository, online discovery, and basically anything else online.

    I don’t think of, or call, myself a librarian (or ‘information profession’), and there would probably be many people who took issue if I did. I’m just someone doing online stuff in a University Library.

    Now I’m not the perfect employee, I leave things to the last minutes, can be disorganised and take on too much, but I would argue my failings in this job are not related to a lack of any particular qualification.

    I would dare to go one further. Looking at colleagues at a similar level in the University Library I work in, I don’t think I would be good at their jobs because I lack the skills or interest (e.g. if you left me to plan a training programme it would just involve a victorian style school master barking facts at a room, which apparently isn’t the current trend). Most jobs at the professional level seem to require mainly generic skills (budgeting, management, training, planning, projects) and when I compare them to those we work with in the Research Office, Teaching and Learning Unit, Careers, E-learning, I see similarities in what we do and the knowledge we need. (while obviously ours in the library is more information/resources based, it has a large overlap with the other departments).

    That’s probably the point I’m failing to make: A person with good University experience (working in a similar unit but not the library) would probably fit in to our ‘professional’ roles quicker than an information professional from outside the HE sector.

    • Lilian says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for your detailed comment! Yes, I think you’re probably right – in fact I know that in some libraries people from outside the ‘library’ sector but with the right skills and experience have been very successful in roles that would previously only have been offered to qualified “information professionals”. Additionally, people who have never worked in libraries or even HE before are successfully working in library roles. For example, some places actively look for people who’ve worked in retail, because they have good customer service skills. (Hope I’ve understood your point correctly, apologies if not!)

      • Chris Keene says:

        I’m not sure what my point really was (there were several in my head) and as ever I failed to keep it concise. I think I was just trying to say you need the right people for the right job. Our Finance/HR/Planning person came from the City and knows more about those things that anyone I’ve ever met. It may be in the future certain roles in a library require a more law based background. And our Lending Manager certainly feels that their job does not require a professional qualification – even though it’s a demanding job balancing demanding users and a lot of staff. Oh look, I’m waffling again…

  3. Andy says:

    My comment was made in response to the Harlem Shake sacking to which the “professional” reaction seemed to be, “Well of course it’s all a rather deplorable overreaction, but it’s not as if she were an actual librarian.” But clearly to all the press who reported it, she was. When roving in the library, people who want help overwhelmingly ask, “Are you a librarian?” and I’m sure that if you were to ask people browsing in public libraries what the job of the people serving them is, they would say “Librarian” and be utterly bemused to be told that it was almost certainly a library assistant, or a senior library assistant, though, in case of staff shortages and rota problems, there is a slim chance that it actually was a real, live librarian.

    Well, maybe they’re all wrong and the librarians are right. But I rather think that ‘Librarian’ is an absolutely normal word, with nothing new-fangled or technical or highly specialized about it. It is, that is to say, already firmly established in, and very frequently used in, the ordinary language we all use every day. Thus in this sense it is a word which has a fixed meaning, and so can’t, any more than can any other word which is firmly established, be fooled around with ad lib. Librarians often seem to think that they can just ‘assign’ any meaning whatever to any word; and so no doubt, in an absolutely trivial sense, they can (like Humpty-Dumpty). (This is a travesty of J.L. Austin.)

    I hadn’t seen Tina Reynolds’s original post, but it seems to me that her first five criteria, at least as they stand, are viciously circular, e.g. what is CPD apart from the kind of CD that Ps do, what is a Professional Body apart from being from the kind of body that professionals belong to, what is professional literature apart from being the kind of literature that professionals read? Her sixth, striving for excellence, seems a bit more propitious, but it would let in a lot of so-called non-professionals and exclude lots of so-callled professionals including, some of the time and depending on my mood, me.

  4. Andy says:

    I also think there are unfortunate unforeseen consequences of “professionalization” wherever it ccours, e.g. to take the present case BA not in Librarianship -> SCONUL trainee year -> MA in librarianship -> Chartership, etc. So we get fewer freaks, fewer mavericks, fewer eccentrics, fewer people of unconventional educational background, and hence less innovation, less imagination, fewer unconventional solutions to real problems and more conventional solutions to non-problems.

  5. Ffion Bell (@bibliotekaargh) says:

    This is an interesting read, and good to think about. I agree that an over-emphasis on ‘professionalism’ will usually lead to an us-and-them mentality, which is no good, as everyone who works in libraries has the same potential. Andy also has an good point, that it’s important to still offer opportunities to those who take interesting, varied routes into library work.

  6. Singing Librarian says:

    I didn’t always realise there was an ‘us and them’ culture, but it was brought home to me very clearly on my last day in my old job (a move which meant my job title would change from ‘senior library assistant’ to ‘librarian’), when I was doing the rounds and saying farewell to people. [Which was odd, anyway, as I still see everyone both in work and non-work contexts].

    Someone’s parting comment was that they were looking forward to interacting with me as more of an equal. I was flabberghasted. Clearly the most important thing to this person was whether there was an ian in my job title. Madness.

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