The “P” Word

In the first year that I was in library school my early classes were frequently preoccupied with the question “Is librarianship a profession?” And the answer was, of course, “yes!” But the yes wasn’t a confident one as much as a desperate defense of the profession as such. In fact, the early classes were more successful in putting me on the Proud Professional Librarian path than they were at teaching me anything valuable or practical about doing the work of librarianship, being that I already been working in libraries for six-plus years. Indeed, it seems that librarianship has been preoccupied with this question for approximately 150 years. If you spend that much time wringing your hands about it, perhaps it’s not really true?

Okay, for the record, I actually think that librarianship IS a profession, and we have every reason to be proud of what we do and what we offer to our communities. However, I don’t want to overstate things. Most of us are professionals in the same way that a plumber is professional. Providing a much needed and basic service that requires specialized skills and knowledge. We’re not professionals in the same way that a research scientist or nuclear arms negotiator is.

Much of the self-conscious hand-wringing comes, I believe, from the academic side of librarianship. Typically, academic librarians hold faculty status — tenure-track, or not — in their institutions. But there frequently seems to be a sense that they’re not “real” faculty. This may come from the librarians themselves, from the teaching faculty, or the administration, but it is a common occurrence that can be overt, or simply bubbling under the surface of the academic community.

I’m not going to define what “real faculty” means, as it is a logical fallacy to argue from purity. My boss is a real faculty member in that she is a tenured faculty member of a university, even though she teaches nothing. I am not a “real faculty” member because my job status is “classified staff” (but more on that later).

I’ll be honest, at this point, I only want to be a faculty librarian for the pay and status. After twelve years’ experience, two years past earning the MLIS degree, and moving 1,600 miles to get a better job, I’d really like to have “Librarian” printed on my official business cards. I don’t.

I don’t give a good gosh-darn if I’m ever tenured. It’s not because I’m not engaged in my profession — I try to be — it’s because I’m going to do the same things that tenure-track faculty do whether or not I’m technically tenure-track. In librarianship, I don’t see the tenure label as much more than a merit badge. Sure, technically, tenured librarians have more job security, but academic librarianship doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an unstable work environment.

I’ve written a fair amount about going to professional conferences and networking. I’m going to keep going to these things as much as I can for as long as I can. By 11:00 AM, CDT, October 6, I’ll have two conference presentations under my belt, and I hope and expect to do more over the years. This blog, I hope, will inspire me to do more formal writing that would be publishable in one of our profession’s journals. That hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time.

By the way, if someone’s looking for a co-author on a professional paper, I’m happy to jump on-board.

By most standards, I’m not a professional. Some, especially at my last job, even think I’m “unprofessional.” It makes it very hard to get a professional position when that is the case. Regardless of the type of work I’ve done, my education, the years of service I posses or the number of “meets…” or “exceeds expectations” performance evaluations I’ve been given I am not now, nor have I ever been considered a “professional.”

If I were to draw an allegory to public libraries, I’d be an assistant branch manager. But according to my institution, I’m not a professional.

The job I currently holds gives me a large amount of authority over a public services unit that includes the circulation desk and course reserves for a major U. S. research institution. It is my job to see that the department is staffed and operating smoothly and my patrons have access to what they need when they need it, so long as it’s available. It is a serious management job that requires skill, tact, and finesse, and can’t be successful if it doesn’t have a team willing to step up and take on extra loads from time to time. It cannot be done by just anyone. You have to like working with people from all walks of life and be able to shrug off the difficult ones. I have to be willing to move directly from giving an employee their yearly evaluation, to directing a patron to the parking and transportation office, to leaving my desk to go to Library Marketing and Communications meeting (all of which I’m doing tomorrow). If I were to draw an allegory to public libraries, I’d be an assistant branch manager. But according to my institution, I’m not a professional.

At least, not yet. It may change in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

When I was applying for jobs, still, I had a version of my cover letter that described the work I’d done and responsibilities I’d held over the years as being professional-level work regardless of what my title was. I got a few interviews out of it, but not a job.

Because I’m not a “professional” librarian, there will be colleagues that will never see me as an equal. Unless my job classification changes it will be very difficult to get a bigger job at a different institution because I’ve never been a “professional” librarian before. It is classist. It is elitist. It is myopic. Once that hill has been crested, though, there will be another with the question about my tenure status. Presumably, it would end there, unless they want to know if I have a PhD, or not.

For a profession that tends to draw politically leftist and socially liberal people (even Marian the Librarian was a progressive feminist in 1912 Iowa), this preoccupation with professionalism betrays a frightful paranoid conservative strain lurking under the surface. How many professional librarians see working a circulation desk as beneath them? Most, it seems. How many Reference and Instruction librarians hate working at the reference desk? Too many, in my experience. How many administrators see public services librarianship as “professional suicide”? I don’t know, but it happens.

One of the reasons that I’m still not a “professional” librarian is that the professional librarians in my last job did not respect the work that classified staff was doing and did not think it was appropriate to bring one of us in to learn the professional aspects of the profession, regardless of our interest or education in the profession. As such, I’ve never been allowed much time to perform as a reference librarian (even though they resented doing it, themselves), and I surely couldn’t be allowed to work with the instruction librarians to learn at their feet. Being so, it took me two-and-a-half years to get a different job because I had no formal teaching experience, little reference experience, and no experience managing full-time staff, and there was not a blessed thing I could do about it because I was not a “professional” librarian, already.

Similarly, I couldn’t make the change to public librarianship because I had not already done the work. They did not want to hear about my years of experience or transferable skills. My experience was not sufficiently appropriate and therefore I was beyond consideration. In other words, “Not one of us!”

I love being a librarian. And I love being a member of this profession. I am, indeed a proud librarian. To anyone I’m talking to on the street, I’m a librarian. I think of myself as a librarian. My friends and family refer to me as a librarian, but due to antiquated and classist attitudes within the profession — therefore with the people who matter — I am not now, and have never been a professional librarian. And that is a problem not just for me, but for the profession as a whole.

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