“Professional Librarian?”

I’m reading, re-reading, and loving this post from Ryan Deschamps:

Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron

Deschamps’ 10 Reasons are:
1. Librarians Have No Monopoly on the Activities They Claim
2. There are No Consequences For Failing to Adhere to Ethical Practices
3. Librarianship is Too Generalized to Claim Any Expertise
4. ’Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself
5. Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It
6. Values Are Not Enough
7. The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor
8. Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work
9. Competing Professions Are Offering Different Paradigms to Achieve the Same Goals
10. Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian

Go read the whole thing. Even if you don’t agree with him, you’re still likely to find it meaty food for thought.

I strongly suspect Deschamps’ post is in response to this piece by Rory Litwin:

The Library Paraprofessional Movement and the Deprofessionalization of Librarianship

It will probably come as no surprise that I don’t care for Litwin’s piece.

A little fisking follows to supplement the things I like about Deschamps’ post.

Litwin writes:

Most librarians support the requirement of the master’s degree for professional‐level work, but many find the issue difficult to discuss when it is restated in terms of fairness toward working-class library workers, who are pursuing their rights.

Seeing “working-class library workers” literally made me snort aloud. Class has no meaningful or useful place in a discussion about where we are and where we need to go, especially when many degreed librarians make far less than many “working-class” people in many lines of work. I dearly wish that I could say my libraryfolk friends with multiple masters degrees and years of experience had as much income as my plumber, but they don’t. I also distrust anyone (and I mean *anyone*) who uses the term “working class.”

While it is difficult to say exactly what will be required of students who go through this certification program, one can assume that the academic standards of graduate education will not apply…

When the standards are as hugely varying as they are in library schools, they aren’t really “standards” at all. Like most, I know some paraprofessionals with greater knowledge and skills than some degreed librarians. Let’s stop pretending that the degree necessarily says something about the skills and knowledge of the person holding it…because it doesn’t. (See Deschamps’ #8.)

Litwin pretty much admits this:

There can be no denying that many paraprofessionals are more talented, more experienced, and even better educated than many MLS‐holding librarians. There are also libraries that fill their professional positions with non‐MLS holding librarians who, after years of working closely with their communities, can serve as positive examples for the profession in many respects. This is all true.

If you put aside Litwin’s condescending tone ([sarcasm]”I CAN, Rory?! In MANY respects?! Wow, thanks!”[/sarcasm]), we seem to agree.

The problem with framing the question in these terms, however, is that it overlooks the value of the professional status of librarians itself, both for the institutions in which they work and for the world of libraries as a whole.

Think about this for a minute: Litwin is comparing “library professionals” with “library paraprofessionals” but DOESN’T think that comparing skill-sets or experience isn’t a good way to frame the comparison. I call shenannigansWhich is a nicer term for the subject of this book.

After telling us that we’re overlooking “the value of the professional status,” Litwin gives several paragraphs on sociological theory and completely fails to support his assertion.

A profession that is dedicated to sharing knowledge is unlikely to create effective barriers to its knowledge base, a factor undercutting the profession’s defense of its degree of autonomy.

Two things here: The first is that Litwin is saying the failure of librarians to create effective barriers to knowledge is a bad thing. The second is that I reject his assertion that there is a significant difference in the level of autononomy of an employee in a library depending on whether he/she is classified as a professional or a paraprofessional (or, as Litwin writes elsewhere in his piece, salaried or paid an hourly wage). In my experience, the autonomy of an individual employee is largely based on the management philosophies of those they report to and the credibility the employee has earned. Perhaps this is different in academic libraries.

A librarian in technical services, according to Gillham, is a manager, meaning that the department is left without an autonomous professional presence and the attributes that accompany it (code of professional ethics, graduate‐level education, intrinsic reward of service, etc.).

So…now it seems that one cannot ascribe to a code of ethics or experience intrisic reward of service without an MLIS? I’m calling shenannigans again.

Litwin’s article isn’t *all* bad. If you remove the unsupported (or just poorly-supported) assertions about libraries, it is an interesting review of sociological literature on “deprofessionalism.” *With* the library stuff, it is pseudointellectual gobbledygook that provides no useful insight or guidance. (See Deschamps’ reason #5.)

By contrast, Deschamps’ piece is clear, succinct, and lays out the reality of our circumstances in a way that cuts through all the shennanigans.

Since I’m giving Litwin such a hard time, though, I’ll try to find some nits to pick about Deschamps’ post.

[Insert 30 minute pause here]

Deschamps’ #5 is “Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It”

I disagree that so much of library literature is mediocre because of the collaborative habits of libraryfolk. Rather, I think it is largely because of Reason #8, “Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work.” The degree is frequently not academically demanding, so it doesn’t produce a lot of academics.

Deschamps’ phrasing of his Reason #7 (“The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor”) could, I think, be improved. I might rephrase it:

“The Primary Motivation for the Whining about ‘Deprofessionalization’ is the Fear of Losing Work or Having Needlessly Invested a lot of Effort, Time, Money, and Psychic Energy becoming a ‘Professional’ Librarian.”

But these are nitpicks.


18 thoughts on ““Professional Librarian?”

  1. “In my experience, the autonomy of an individual employee is largely based on the management philosophies of those they report to and the credibility the employee has earned. Perhaps this is different in academic libraries.”

    That’s how my library runs, so, in that example, no, not really different. What you can demonstrably do = more important than any letters after your name. And our library would grind to a halt without our non-librarian employees just as much as it would without our librarians.

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  3. David,

    Great post! You always seem to find excellent articles and/or arguments about librarians career path.

    Can you clarify the following statement:

    “The degree is frequently not academically demanding, so it doesn’t produce a lot of academics.”

    Are you stating library schools do not require students to publish? Perhaps it is a lack of projects that could be used in the job field? I am just curious what you were referring to when you said not academically demanding.

    I agree library degrees do not adequately prepare students for library work since I do not feel I was prepared for certain day-to-day tasks. However, I do recall several projects which were centered around creating a finished product that could be used (and sometimes was) in the ‘real world.’ Some of the projects included creating websites, podcast/videos, and strategic plans.

    While these projects helped, I do wish library schools would require all students to take basic accounting and marketing classes. If there is a class on “thrifty spending” then that would also be an excellent addition. But I digress.

    Thank you,
    Alisha (alisha764)

  4. Hi Alisha. 🙂

    I want to try to be careful in how I phrase this.

    A lot of people I know with a library degree were surprised at the absence of academic rigor. To be sure, what one takes away from a program has a direct relationship to what one puts into it- but I know an awful lot of people for whom the degree was just busywork that didn’t challenge them. The coursework so often seems so *easy* compared to a number of other masters degrees I’ve seen people earn.

    Of course, some tell me that I shouldn’t compare the MLIS to, for instance, my wife’s masters degree in Art History because the MLIS is a “professional degree,” and shouldn’t be expected to be as demanding as an academic(?) degree. If that’s the case, I can’t figure out why the masters degree exists at all.

    I think that because it is a “professional degree” and frequently (depends on the school, I suppose) doesn’t demand the same level of academic work as many other masters degrees, it can hardly be surprising that the scholarship produced by graduates of such programs can be disappointing.

    I took two MLIS courses. The program had admitted students who didn’t have a basic grasp of the English language (for which I fault admissions, not the students struggling to do the English-language coursework). The group projects that we were assigned were less challenging than what I remember from my undergrad coursework. For that matter, much of it was less challenging than what I remember of 8th grade. I would chalk this up as just my own experience but for the fact that I hear an awful lot of similar impressions from people who went to library school in different places and in different decades.

    I am now prepared to receive brickbats. 🙂

  5. Hi David, I just wanted to clarify that I hadn’t seen Rory’s article until after I wrote the ’10 reasons.’ I can’t say that I’ve had a good hard read of it either. Not sure that I will be able to respond to this for the next while.

  6. I went to library school many (*cough* 20!! *cough*) years ago and I recall one of my professors pointing out that “The vast majority of you did not come to library school to be academics; you came here to LEARN A TRADE.” He had a point, at least in my program as it was structured then; the curriculum was not long on theory or on doing research in the field of librarianship. The academic rigor didn’t come unless or until one chose to pursue a Ph.D. Not to take away from the building blocks and the ability to approach information from a library world view it provided, but at the time the master’s degree amounted to a union card that simply allowed access to a particular category of jobs.

  7. Great discussion David. Here are my thoughts…

    Library school did not prepare me to be a librarian, I did that myself by doing every part time job, volunteer, practicum, opportunity I could grab before I graduated. So I came into the post MLS workforce with some sort of skills from previous experience. The problem is that way too many library schools are theory related. Library school is not the only graduate program to suffer this criticism. My brother got his MBA in finance from Kellogg. One of his biggest critiques of the program (which is one of the top in the U.S.) is that it was extremely heavy on theory and light on real world prep. However, unlike library schools, many good MBA programs are extremely selective and they don’t accept applicants without prior years of experience in the real world. Is this the difference maker? Is this something library schools should consider? Probably but it is unlikely they will change because it is all about money and quite frankly a top ranked selective library school just doesn’t bring in the donation dollars like a top ranked B school. So, library schools settle for the tuition dollar.

    Autonomy…I believe that much of it is management style and employee credibilty. However I can see in academics, medical, legal and special institutions the degree is essential and without it you don’t get the opportunity for autonomy. I know of many non-MLS people who are better in the library than those with degrees. So, for me personally it is not a sense of who has the degree as to what one can do, but in some insititutions without the degree there is no opportunity. It sort of reminds me of teachers. In some states teachers in private schools do not have to have their state certification while the teachers in public schools do.

    Regarding scholarly publishing and writing I am going to use my brother again. He does not write articles, book, or anything remotely scholarly. His writing while in graduate school consisted of typical papers. He was not taught professional or scholarly writing. Like many others in library school, I was not taught how to write a scholarly piece nor encouraged to do so, and the same is true once I got my librarian job. In my years as a medical librarian I have met many medical students and residents who were not taught how to write scholarly articles. I know of a residency program that only required one paper at the end of the residency that was “suitable for publishing.” It did not have to be submitted or accepted for publication, it just had to be “suitable” and that was very open to interpretation.
    So if the schools aren’t teaching how to write scholarly publication then you would think that is something one would/should need to learn in their career. Depending on the work environment, this may not be the case. Unless the person is in academic tenure (or something similar) instution there is little incentive to publish and little help or mentorships. Look at nursing. There is more and more nursing literature being produced these days, but how many nurses are actually publishing vs. those who are working in field. I have run into many mid career nurses who are conducting their first study and writing their very first scholarly article. There school nor their jobs prepared them for it. Additionally for many nurses conducting a study or publishing an article does little for their careers. Unlike academia, their is no tenure, they aren’t promoted or demoted based on their scholarly output. Writing an article is a scary thing for the first time and if you don’t see a reason to do it, why do it.

    The MLS degree and library schools have a lot of problems but many of them are shared by other professions and schools. I think we are hyper focused on ourselves and we may need to pull back a little to see how other professions are dealing with the same type of issues and how they are dealing (or not) with it. I also think we suffer from an image problem, librarian conjures up shh-ing images to many people. Of course many people think of butt crack with plumbers and injury lawyers as ambulance chasers. I think I would rather somebody think I am shh-er than my butt crack.

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  9. “I think we are hyper focused on ourselves and we may need to pull back a little to see how other professions are dealing with the same type of issues and how they are dealing (or not) with it. I also think we suffer from an image problem…”


  10. I’ve seen this discussion as an ongoing thread for the past five years or more. We continue to criticize library schools and our own profession. What I’ve failed to hear from anyone is, “I’d love to study more and take a standardized certification test like a CPA or medical boards.” Until we all are willing to make the effort to create credibility by actions rather than words, this conversation will continue to repeat itself ad naseum.

  11. Sandi-

    I’d love to study more and take a standardized certification test like a CPA or medical boards.

    I’d like that to REPLACE the degree.



  12. I wouldn’t like that at all, for the silly reason that I’m really good at taking tests and there are things I need to learn that I’m pretty sure (my) MLS will teach me. Give me a test to pass and I’ll tend to take the easy way out. (Though with stuff like medical boards & bar exams, don’t you *also* have to have some sort of relevant schooling to be allowed to take the exam in the first place? You’d just toss that out, David? Such a rebel.)

  13. Marianne-

    Yes- I’d toss it out. While the programs are of such radically inconsistent quality, the degree doesn’t mean a whole lot.

    Then again, I’m also the sort who thinks anyone who passes the bar should be allowed to practice law. I have yet to meet an attorney who claims to have learned how to be a lawyer from law school.

    As with library school, earning the degree seems a painful and expensive way of buying the union card. Why not simplify things and pay a fee to take the exam, and have a passing grade on the exam reward the test-taker with a union card?

  14. I consider myself a “professional,” but in a looser sense than Ryan implies with his 10 reasons. I’m a professional in the sense that any educated person working in a business, non-profit or public-sector position might be — i.e. an educated person who has developed an area of expertise, that, while not necessarily exclusive or elite or standardized (as in lawyers, engineers, doctors) is still, at the end of the day, a skill set that most of the clients I serve don’t possess.

    I think this is a different, but still valid, type of professionalism. I know people working in IT who pursued humanities degrees and then either taught themselves IT skills, or did a brief technical college course in programming; I don’t consider them non-professionals because they don’t have a degree in software engineering. Similarly, I have worked in a special library with librarians who did not have the MLIS, and they were far more knowledgeable than I was at that point in my career; some were library technicians, and others had just kind of fallen into it and picked up the skills and knowledge.

    So I don’t think you need an MLIS to be a librarian (though I do think it’s the best way to enter the profession for most people). Similarly, I’m always really uncomfortable referring to the support staff I work with (who, frankly, often behave more professionally than some of my librarian colleages) as “para-professionals.”

    I also take issue with the variable quality of library schools. A lot of the time, it is stupid assignments. When I started library school in 2001, after working for two years at an online publisher, our first assignment in our computing course was to type a recipe into Word and format it properly. I AM NOT JOKING. Apparently it’s not democratic to make those students who lack computer skills acquire them on their own time, instead of wasting time for the rest of us.

    I think ALA’s accreditation process leaves a lot to be desired. I sat through their reaccreditation visit to our school, and I don’t think they really examined the curriculum – the number of courses listed in the calendar that don’t actually get taught, and the “fit” of the profs for the courses they’re teaching (the prof for my management course had never been a manager; the prof for my collection development course had never worked in library collections).

  15. I’ll chuck in my two cents on the matter.

    I think that there are two things going on here with the views toward library school. First is the notion that you learn the job in library school and the second is that you learn information science (if you want to call it that) from an academic standpoint. Truth be told, as many have said on this topic over the years, you can learn many aspects of librarianship from being on the job and, to me, that is part of the redundancy of library school for many who have worked in the filed prior to the MLIS. For that reason, I sought out the classes that were geared more to the information science aspect of librarianship and found those classes to be academically challenging and have found it strange when I read articles and posts from people who found library school to be less than they had hoped. Maybe that has something to do with the school but maybe it also has to do with the classes that you choose and the track that you choose in your coursework

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