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.

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Things 20: The Library Routes Project

I blogged about my route into librarianship for Thing 10, so for Thing 20 I had a look at other people’s blog posts about their ‘library routes and roots‘ to see how their routes compared with mine.

So I’ve done that, and it seems that quite a lot of people’s roots into the library and information world were fairly similar to my own – degree, no idea what they wanted to do, work experience/graduate traineeship, postgraduate qualification in LIS, struggle getting first job, getting first job, etc. Unlike me, some people were sure from an early age that librarianship was the career for them, and, also unlike me, some people started out in other careers before they realised that library work was actually what they wanted to do.

The nice thing about reading about other people’s library roots/routes was that most people who are now working in LIS seem to really like it, and feel that they’re in the right job for them. It’s good to know there are people out there who are happy in their work!

I’m still not entirely sure what the right job for me is. My current job is the first library job since doing my traineeship that I’ve enjoyed (most of the time!), and even now I don’t feel massively fulfilled in my work, or particularly valued by the organisation I work for. So, I wonder if I’m really in the right career, or whether I’m just working for the wrong organisation!

Because of the way my career path has gone I quite often feel like a failure, even though I know that taking the steps down the career ladder was the right thing to do. I worry the profession doesn’t want people like me anymore – I’m not dynamic or extrovert. I’m rather like a stereotypical librarian, in fact. How ironic that this might now mean I’m in the wrong career!

Thing 18 is still on its way!