Marks of Professionalism

A couple of weeks ago an Annoyed Librarian post addressed the issue of whether an MLS was a requirement to call oneself a librarian. As is often the case, a long discussion ensued with much argument either way, and while I didn’t participate in the discussion, it did provoke my thoughts on the issue. I think I tend to agree with her position to some extent that the distinction is in the work done rather than the degree proper. However, even if we agree that the MLS is a necessary requirement to be considered a professional librarian, it’s not in my opinion a sufficient requirement. There’s a case to be made that more than an MLS and a job with the title of librarian is required to put the professional in “professional librarian.” What might this more be? Here are a handful of suggestions, but please suggest more (or critique my own suggestions).

First, I think it requires an engagement with the profession qua profession, rather than an exclusive concern with your own job and your own library. This engagement can take many forms, from writing or speaking to library audiences to attending conferences and participating in professional organizations to simply reading what others are writing or listening to what they are saying. This engagement should be active rather than passive, though, and involve seeking out opportunities rather than waiting for someone to summarize everything for you during a brief post-conference presentation. Librarians with absolutely no curiosity about larger issues in the profession or awareness even of trends that directly affect them are not acting very professionally.

Related to this would be keeping up with what’s going on in the broader library world, even if it doesn’t directly affect your job. This can only go so far, of course. For example, I follow some debates about institutional repositories or digitization of collections, but I don’t have enough mastery of the subjects to participate as meaningfully in the debates as those in the thick of the action. Still, even knowing a bit about a debate and that it exists is helpful both to understand references other librarians might make or to know where to go to increase my knowledge should the need ever arise. Knowing that librarians are doing things is sometimes as important as knowing how to do them.

These days one would need to add keeping up with technological trends as well, which doesn’t necessarily mean knowing how to tinker with the latest tools as knowing that the latest tools exist and how you might use them if you needed them. I, for example, have more or less given up trying to keep up with the latest trends in web design, though I used to be pretty competent and I can still create web pages that look okay. As I grew more specialized, it just became necessary that I depend on other specialists to do that work, while I consider perhaps how web design might be used to communicate more effectively with library patrons. As for the social software that is all the rage right now, I personally know quite a bit about it and I know what I like and don’t like, but I don’t think every librarian needs to write a blog or have a profile on Facebook, though they should know what all these things are and how they might be useful.

The key is knowing what’s going on and how it might relate to libraries. This requires considering a broad picture of the profession. How professional is a librarian who is completely unaware of professional trends or issues, or who has failed to keep up with even the most widespread trends? I recently was told about some reference librarians who through ignorance and lack of interest never used the Internet for anything except searching the online catalog, and one assumes that’s only because this library got rid of the card catalog. (I can’t imagine such a thing happening here; this was a very different library.) Considering the overwhelming impact of the Internet on contemporary communications and research, how can we consider such behavior at all professional? What’s more, this broad picture must consider professional issues to be broader than the profession itself. Trends in society and economics and communications technology are not library-specific issues, but awareness of them and some consideration of how they might affect libraries is important. For an academic librarian, we would have to add trends in academia as well.

The MLS may be necessary, but can’t be sufficient to be considered a professional librarian, because of necessity what one learns in library school becomes stale. Theoretical or ethical concerns may remain the same, but the practices and debates current in the profession inevitably affect what is taught at any given time, and these practices and debates evolve over time. Part of being a professional isn’t just stopping with what one learned in library school and then focusing exclusively on whatever job you happen to have, but continuing that learning and developing over time. In a sense, for the professional librarian, library school never ends (boy, that was painful to write), because the same behavior of discovery and awareness that should have been part of the library school experience has to remain. Professionalism requires seeing ourselves in our library but also in The Library, and seeing The Library in the world.

4 thoughts on “Marks of Professionalism

  1. Well said. I think I’ve learned at least as much in my first two years post-library school from my professional colleagues, conference activities, speaking, writing, and association work as I learned during my two years of library school. And that isn’t to say that library school lacked value, but even with my recent degree, I can’t imagine being constrained to just that knowledge.

  2. That’s true, John. I’ve been ignoring chess for a busy work schedule the past couple of weeks. Easy to do since I’m a better librarian than chess player (or at least I hope I am).

  3. And Meg,
    I understand completely. Library school was kind of a blur to me for various reasons, especially that after less than a year into the degree I was expecting a child (which fortunately my wife had to carry) and knew I needed to buckle down and get a job, so my total school experience was 1.5 years. But I realized quickly that library school itself was like prep school for the real thing. My assistantship (1.5 years in Central Reference Services at UIUC) and a couple of reference courses prepared me for the first year or so of library work, but it was the ethic of both library school and some of the librarians I saw around me that prepared me to think as a professional, rather than as just a functionary in a particular library.

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