Should librarians be considered professionals?

A colleague asked me recently whether I considered librarianship to be a profession, and I had to put some thought into it before I replied. It’s a question that most librarians grapple with at one point or another – we take our work seriously, so of course we feel we deserve the prestige that comes with being a “professional.” This issue came up in a book I read earlier this year called The MLS Project: an assessment after sixty years by Boyd Keith Swigger, who argues that while one of the goals of introducing the MLS degree was to raise the status of librarians to be closer to the level of doctors and lawyers, there has been very limited success on this front. I would recommend the book to anyone curious about why the degree was created and how it has (and hasn’t) changed librarianship.

Please note that throughout this post I will be discussing the work of librarians, and not all information professionals. I’m doing this for two reasons: first of all, it’s difficult enough to decide whether librarians are professionals without including the broader group, and secondly, I feel the term information professional would be a bit confusing in a discussion about professionals. But in reality, this debate applies equally to the majority of non-librarian info pros.

My colleague sent me a link to the following article by Ryan Deschamps, which was posted two years ago but somehow slipped past my radar at that time:

Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron

As the title suggests, Deschamps places librarians in the non-professional camp. And if you had any doubts as to how much interest there is in this topic, just take a look at the 147 comments. A few days later, David Rothman wrote a response called “Professional Librarian?” In this article, he agrees with Deschamps and also points out some flawed assumptions about the professionalism of librarians in Rory Litwin’s The Library Paraprofessional Movement and the Deprofessionalization of Librarianship.

In my opinion, a serious impediment to the debate is that not everyone agrees on a precise definition of profession or professional. Rather than defining these terms, people tend to take the established professions and make a case that librarians either are or are not reasonably similar to doctors, lawyers, etc. If we can’t agree on a definiton based on a common thread that unites the established professions, perhaps the true definition of professional is “a person whose career is considered by most people to be prestigious.” If that’s the case, then the debate over whether librarianship is fundamentally professional doesn’t really mean anything, because it’s all based on public perception. Although the “Ten Reasons” are well written and well argued, I feel the final point is a bit of a cheap shot:

10.   Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian

Go to a typical university and ask the professors to name a great Doctor (‘Albert Schweitzer’), Architect (‘I. M. Pei’), or Lawyer (‘Johnny Cochrane’). No librarian stands out the same way that these great professionals do. No one outside the library field is going to come close to naming Ranganathan either.

If fame (or notoriety) is essential to professionalism, then we must be working from my prestige definition, which doesn’t get at the fundamental attributes of an occupation. And to be fair, I’m sure many people would struggle to name a famous engineer (though they would certainly recognize at least a few of the names on this list).

Of course, in-depth definitions of profession do exist, so before I declare the urge to label librarians one way or the other a lost cause, let’s take a look at one possible checklist of attributes. I found this in Litwin’s article, which cites Roberts and Donahue (I’ll put the full reference at the end of this post). Under each point, my comments are in italics:

1. Mastery of specialized theory

While it could be argued that librarians understand the organization and management of information much better than the general public, our skills are so varied and broad that I don’t think we can claim either “mastery” or that our theories are “specialized.”

2. Autonomy and control of one’s work and how one’s work is performed

This varies so much among institutions and among positions that it’s impossible to call one way or the other. As Rothman writes, “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.”

3. Motivation focusing on intrinsic rewards and on the interests of clients – which take precedence over the professional’s self‐interests

This also varies from individual to individual. I certainly know many great librarians who work selflessly to serve their clients, but this is not always the case. To be fair, I’m not sure this is always the case for architects, engineers, or doctors, either.

4. Commitment to the profession as a career and to the service objectives of the organization for which one works

From my work with library associations, I have seen plenty of evidence that this mentality exists among librarians. However, I have also heard enough stories of institutions with dysfunctional cultures to know that the “commitment to the service objectives of the organization” part is not always true.

5. Sense of community and feelings of collegiality with others in the profession, and accountability to those colleagues

This one I would say is generally accurate for librarians. Through professional associations and other networks, we tend to support each other but also make it known when someone has acted in ways that are not beneficial to the group.

6. Self‐monitoring and regulation by the profession of ethical and professional standards in keeping with a detailed code of ethics

We clearly can’t claim to meet this criterion: librarianship has no accepted ethical code (though fortunately we do have a cod of ethics).

So there you have it. Even when using a reasonably clear and detailed definition, librarianship’s claim to professional status is debatable. In the end, I don’t think it really matters whether we are professionals or not. Librarians are obsessed with classification by nature, so I can’t say the debate surprises me, but I think we should spend less time worrying about what to call ourselves and more time doing good work and demonstrating our value. I believe if we “act in a professional manner,” we will earn the respect we deserve.

Keith A. Roberts and Karen A. Donahue, “Professionalism: Bureaucratization and Deprofessionalization in the Academy,” Sociological Focus 33 no. 4 (2000): 365-383.