Joe Hodnicki, over at the Law Librarian Blog, pointed out post from Ryan Deschamps blog (The Other Librarian) where Ryan challenges librarians to personally rebut the 10 reasons he lists why librarians cannot claim professional status. Ryan’s list of ten reasons is thought provoking, and meant to be a little over-the-top, but does note some of the challenges that librarians face when defending their profession. He’s received nearly 100 comments on his post (some of which go through a point-by-point rebuttal), so he’s definitely hit a nerve with librarians. As many of you may remember, I recently modified a Will Rogers’ quote and said that “I’m not part of any organized profession… I’m a law librarian.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge that librarians face is that we are such a diverse profession that it makes it very difficult to throw a rope around what we do and how we are defined. The term “librarian” has been watered down so much that it could mean one hundred different things to one hundred different people. It would be like defining the term “teacher” and placing everyone from “Sunday School Teacher” to “College Professor” under that term and asking everyone to justify “teaching” as a profession. I almost hate to reprint the list of ten reasons here, but here they are…. I’ll discuss a few of the “professional librarian” issues following the list:

  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

When Ryan says “Professional Librarian”, that narrows the field down, at least in my opinion, to those who have a Masters’ Degree in Library Science (MLS, MLIS, etc.) and work in a specific area of librarianship. I’ll take specific issue with reason number three above that Librarianship is too generalized to claim expertise. My expertise is “law librarianship”; I have a MLIS and a JD (as do about 1/2 of those who are members of the American Association of Law Libraries – AALL); I work as a law librarian in a law firm, and; my expertise is in legal research and knowledge management. However, all of these are ‘voluntary’ skills and accomplishments, as there are no laws, regulations, or ethical requirements that prevent anyone that happens to work in a library, regardless of qualifications, to hold themselves out as a librarian.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this discrepancy is the fact that the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington does not have a Library Degree, nor was he ever trained as a professional librarian. Billington has done wonders for the Library of Congress since his appointment in 1987, but the fact that he’s done great things does not diminish the fact that the highest post in the country with “Librarian” in the title is held by someone that is not a professional librarian. This would be like appointed someone that has never been a lawyer to the US Supreme Court. There’s no law preventing a non-lawyer from becoming a US Supreme Court Justice, but it has never happened. I could be wrong here, so correct me if I am, but I believe that the Librarian of Congress has always been a “political” position and has never been held by someone with a library degree.

I’m being a little unfair in this example, as Billington’s position is primarily one of obtaining funding and essentially being the equivalent to a Chief Operating Officer (COO) of a large organization. To be a COO in a law firm or accounting firm does not require you to be a lawyer or accountant. But on the other hand, COO’s of law firms or accounting firms don’t take on the title of ‘lawyer’ or ‘accountant’ either. Therefore, this tends to advance reason number four above that ‘librarians’ assume a place of work (the library), rather than a profession.

There are a number of valid issues raised by Ryan and his list of ten reasons, so I’m only scratching the surface with this post. I’m pretty confident that I could personally defend why I hold myself out as a professional librarian while admitting that the profession (especially through its professional organizations) needs to do more to enhance the reputation of the profession. Although it is frustrating to work in a profession that is constantly being asked to defend why it is still relevant in the age of Google, I still love being a law librarian and continue to do my part to keep the professional relevant and vibrant in this exciting time of ever expanding access to information.