to be or not to be a "professional" (and does it matter?)

Blogger and librarian Ryan Deschamps @ The Other Librarian posted a thought-provoking piece last week, Ten Reasons Why 'Professional Librarian' is an Oxymoron. He introduces the list by writing

Before you comment, yes, this is an unbalanced look at professionalism. Yes, I am trolling a little bit – but with a heart that wants to lead discussion on the topic of library professionalism. Please do write a post about why these ten reason are bullocks.

On the other hand, I often see librarians and library school students that take professionalism as a given. I see this as unrealistic, especially in an era of rapid change . . . If librarians cannot personally address the following anti-professional assumptions as individuals, they cannot call themselves professional. What I am saying is that the MLIS or whatever equivalent a librarian has on their wall cannot count towards any status in society.

You can read the rest of the post at The Other Librarian.

I'll be upfront about the fact that, while I am proud to call myself a librarian and to the work that I do in libraries and archive (and enrolled in my Master's degree program in order to pursue work in this field that I love) I am not so hot about the idea of holding "status in society" as a "professional." In fact, the idea that my MLS degree (when I complete my course this December) will signify some particular status in the world -- one that sets me apart from my colleagues who do the same work but do not hold a library science degree -- does not sit comfortably with me at all.

It wasn't something that I thought about before starting graduate school: the fact that graduate school is, in large measure, about socializing workers into a particular professional identity. And to be quite honest, when it dawned upon me in the first few months of library school that this was part of the agenda, I kinda freaked out. The amount of angst among my fellow students and the faculty over defining and defending professional status makes me feel kinda claustrophobic. I hate drawing boundaries, boxing people in. Forget claiming "librarian" as a professional identity -- try making the case for "archivist," "records manager," and other sub-fields being professional identities in their own right, distinct from the already-on-the-defensive identity of "librarian." Sometimes I feel like folks spend more time worrying about their percieved status in society than they do just, you know, doing the job they feel called to do.

Being an historian, it's really hard not to look at every identity or state of being in the world as contingent on specific historical forces having created it as such, for specific historically-relevant reasons that may or may not continue to have relevancy today. Take, for example, the concept of professionalism, and of workers belonging to particular professions for which they have recieved (in order to be deemed "professional") advanced training, usually in an institution of higher education.

In our society, today, we consider "professional" jobs to be more credible -- and able to command a higher level of income, at least in theory -- than non-professional jobs. Believe me, as a pre-professional librarian (assuming librarianship is, indeed, considered a professional occupation) I am acutely aware of this. The thing is, we decided it should be this way. The notion of being a professional equaling status if actually a fairly recent development, starting in the late nineteenth century, back when people who were paid for the work that they did were considered of lesser status than, say, the "men of science," the gentleman scholars whose accumulated wealth allowed them to pursue activities like history and scientific inquiry without worrying where the next meal was coming from. Slowly, claiming the identity of "professional X" became a way to claim a certain expertise, a certain skillset, that made you a credible source of information: even if you got paid for the work you did every day. (I'm totally over-simplifying, but you get the basic idea).

So (to return to Mr. Deschamps question), is "professional librarian" an oxymoron? His lists of reasons why they we (see? I work as a librarian in two separate libraries and still have to purposefully think in terms of a professional identity) are not certainly has merits. Though the arguments in favor are often equally compelling. My question is, do we really need to worry about fighting to preserve the status of "professional"? What are the benefits (and costs!) of understanding librarianship as a professional endeavor: when we are on the defensive, seeking to draw the boundaries between "librarian" and other identities and activities, what potentially valuable knowledge workers are we leaving out in the cold? What is the value of being exclusionary? If the work we do is valuable, it shouldn't matter under what title (or identity, professional or non-) we do that work.

My thoughts on this are still muddled, often contradictory, and in constant flux and I plot my own trajectory moving forward (in work and in life). However, I do think it's important not merely to examine the evidence for and against librarianship as a professional field, but also to ask why it matters that librarianship is considered a professional identity and whether those reasons (spoken and unspoken) are reasons we feel comfortable standing behind.


  1. I think I agree with you in principle that 'professional' status is not extremely important. However, when the rubber hits the road, professional status gives us the priviledge to apply to higher paying and more responsible positions.

    It's a little like how Roman Catholic Priests claim against women in the Priesthood. 'Our position isn't really that important, so not inviting women in shouldn't matter.' Equity (whether classwise or sexwise) DOES matter to people. When there is inequity of status or distribution, it needs to be justified somehow. Merit is one way to justify inequity (ie. if 'librarians' are simply better at a valuable kind of work than others). Another way is to somehow show that librarians mitigate risk in some way.

    Still, if librarians do not continue to justify their status, especially in the 21st century, they will lose it.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Ryan!

    I really enjoyed reading your original post and your point about professional status giving us "the priviledge to apply to higher paying and more responsible positions" is well taken. That is, absolutely, the practical reality -- and the reason I ended up in a library science program to begin with. From a scholarly point of view, my work is definitely that of an historian; that is the academic work I enjoy doing. The library science component of my degree is, in contrast, intimately connected to gaining access to the type of work I wish to do in a practical, wage-earning sense.

    The question (to me) is: should professional status give us that privilege (of applying for higher-paying, more responsible positions)? If so, why? What makes us more awesome than the person standing next to us -- someone without a professional identity, but doing the same quality work? While some fields (medical doctors, for example) clearly require extensive straining before being on the job -- peoples' lives are literally at stake -- and thus some sort of gate-keeping mechanism is appropriate prior to entry in the field, I am dubious that knowledge workers and information professionals can establish any sort of meaningful gate-keeping mechanisms. Any one set of professional qualifications extrinsic to real-world experience that should entitle us to that privileged status -- at least qualifications that set "librarian" apart from any other individual who holds the same core values and practices roughly the same activities day in and day out -- with or without the MLS degree.

    Too often, I have seen the claim of professional status used in a territorial fashion, as a defensive weapon. (Much like your example of the priesthood: even if you justify exclusion based on un-importance, it's still exclusion!). This defensive, "repel all boarders!" approach troubles me deeply.