Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron

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.    I believe we are taught about the struggle for the professionalization of librarianship, how this is tied to sexual discrimination, and seem to rely on Ranganathan’s 5 laws every time something puts our professionalization into jeopardy.

In reality, it is the exceptions that prove the rule.    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.   Each librarian needs to respond personally to the following 10 things to claim their status as professional.

1.  Librarians Have No Monopoly on the Activities They Claim

You need to pass the bar exam to practice law.    You cannot perform surgery unless you are a surgeon.    You cannot build a bridge without an engineering degree.    Information is free.     Your 12-year-old kid can help their grandma do a Google search.

2.  There are No Consequences For Failing to Adhere to Ethical Practices

Besides the risk of being considered unemployable, a librarian has no real professional obligation to adhere to any of the values claimed by the ALA or any other so-called professional body.    There is no agreed-upon process for dealing with ethical breaches, nor an entity to report those ethical breaches.

3.  Librarianship is Too Generalized to Claim Any Expertise

The number of books in the field written ‘for librarians’ is analogous to books written ‘for dummies.’     The issue is that librarians, rather than having a specific area of expertise, actually need surface knowledge of variety of things – management, technology, community development and so on.   While one could say being a generalist is the expertise, there are larger and more in-depth areas of study like Management, Engineering and Education that could claim the same thing.

4.  ‘Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself

Despite claims otherwise, ‘librarian’ comes from ‘library’ which is a place where there are books.    It’s not an activity, but a product or service.   Thus, librarians rightfully should be treated as if they were providing any product or service.

5.  Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It

The reason why library literature is often horrible is that librarians are collaborative beings by nature.    Articles get accepted because they satisfy a minimum standard, not because they represent the best and brightest research in the field.    True professionals are much more harsh with their peer review because they have an individual interest in refusing competitors the privilege of being published.

6.   Values Are Not Enough

Common values occur in a wide variety of communities, many of which are leisure activities.    There is nothing associated with the values of librarians that differs from any other advocacy group.    Librarians do not deserve to be rewarded simply because they think information wants to be free.

7.  The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor

The main motivation for librarians to assert their professional status is so that they can lay claim to higher-paid “ALA Accredited Degree or Equivalent” positions in library institutions.   We cannot accept any librarian’s claim of professionalism without objective evidence because there is an inherent self-interest laying in that claim.

8.   Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work

The process for creating ‘professional’ librarians has long been criticized for its lack of relevance to real life library work.    It’s like saying we are great espresso-making experts because we understand the secrets of tea bag design.

9.   Competing Professions Are Offering Different Paradigms to Achieve the Same Goals

Computer Scientists and Engineers are discovering ways to make information accessible to the public using search algorythms, interface design, and social media platforms.    Current library practices are following their lead, not the other way around.

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.

So there.    I hope these ten items put a little devil on the left shoulder of every librarian who claims professional status without a good dose of self-doubt to go with it.    In reality, I think these 10 items put a special responsibility on so-called ‘professional’ librarians to step up and provide exemplary service to their communities.    Professional status means nothing to the information world – you have to earn your entitlement.

166 thoughts on “Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron

  1. Great blog post. I especially love “Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself.” I went to library school, but I’ve never worked in a traditional library.

    And if I tell people I’m a librarian, I still have to explain what it is that I do (unlike architects, doctors, etc.).


    • I don’t know if people not knowing what your field of work does is a good example. The general public does not understand a lot of things. I have spoken to and read about philosophers who were asked what they did for a living and were given blank stares or assumptions were made about what they did.

      This doesn’t negate the argument about librarians not being a profession.


  2. I have to say that I agree with a lot of what you are saying here. I was reviled by some in my library school for making comments about the ridiculousness of some of the classes we had to take and for saying that an MLS/MLIS is a glorified and expensive union card.

    I think it is a good idea for librarians to take a hard look and themselves and their work.


    • Just a quick observation Ryan, it seems a wee bit suspicious that you have identified librarians as not professionals which happens to be a career choice dominated by women. Yet careers traditionally dominated by men such as lawyers, doctors and engineers are professionals? Albeit men dominating these latter career choices is changing, women are clearly taking up greater percentage of these roles however the underlying message seems to be presumptuous about valid roles in the workplace. The “helper roles” – such as librarians helping academics, lawyers and other ‘professionals’ are considered ‘lesser than’ because of the their support role. They are not of equal value. Much like secretaries to CEOs, nurses for doctors…. did I get that right Ryan?


  3. Thank you for saying this. I agree 100%, especially about library school. I majored in library science in college (for K-12 teaching), and I learned everything I needed to run a small library. In graduate school I learned mainly about management. I have no desire to be a director.
    As Michelle mentioned, no one understands what we do all day, and folks just assume we read. It’s time librarians define who we are and stop saying we’re professionals to the exclusion of other library workers.


    • I disagree — I think we need to figure out what it is that we do differently and do it. I shelled out $36,000 for an MLS degree so I could be a Librarian. I am not a clerk. I am not a page. I am not a library technician. I know that I end up doing all of this stuff at some point or another, but I do want to differentiate what it is that I do – if we don’t need these degrees, then let’s save us all some money and move along that path. But as it stands, they are required to do this job.


  4. Actually, arguments 7 & 8 are being hurled, with much debate, at state bar associations, law schools and the ABA.

    As for 10, a Librarian for the ages is something I’m not sure about, but I daresay that a number of non-librarians have heard of Nancy Pearl and Kee Malesky.


  5. I agree that it is occasionally a good idea to force ourselves to consider (defend?) why we are professionals. But I think your points ultimately do not matter. They seem mostly inwardly focused on the structure of librarianship as compared to other professions such as lawyers, doctors or engineers. But what does it matter if we librarians can defend that we are professionals to each other? All that matters is whether our community members and our co-workers believe in our professionalism. Take point 2. Sure, there is no oversight body that takes away our non-existent license to practice, but if I act unethically in my dealings with my community members (e.g., I take credit for work done by someone else), eventually I destroy my own reputation and credibility – so there are consequences for unethical behavior. Take point 5 – if what you say is true, why do the most rigorous journals such as C&RL News and Jof Acad Lib’ship have such high rejection rates. According to your principle, every article would get accepted – and that’s just not the case – same with the ACRL Conference. The paper and panel acceptance rates are about 25% – so that would make a case for a high degree of competitiveness. I could name a dozen great academic librarians – many of them have received the profession’s top award – ACRL College/Research Librarian of the Year (Jim Neal, Dick Dougherty, Betsy Williams, etc.). If librarians can’t name some of the greats in their field of practice it’s because they haven’t take the time to study. It also seems disingenuous to suggest we’re not a profession because the public can’t name a great librarian – you could say that about accountants, veterinarians, etc. It’s much more critical for the people in your community to know who you are. If I had more time I could make a similar argument for all 10 points, but I think I’ve made a case that we are profession – but in the end all that really matters is whether those I serve think I’m a professional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here Here!!! I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I won’t even try. Thank You, stevenb. :>



  6. My response to this is don’t let yourself be defined by what others think of you or your profession.

    The relevant definition of “profession” at Merriam-Webster.com is #3 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/profession

    and librarians qualify in both categories.

    First of all, We DO have specialized knowledge that others do not. You’re right. Anyone can search Google, but can anyone just find exactly the right information they need for their project? As a reference librarian, I know how to search for information and get better results in less time than the average Google user. Or put it another way…anyone can buy a camera and make a movie, but that doesn’t make that person a professional filmmaker who can make a film worthy of distribution.

    The second part of the definition is about education. Now, whether or not you think your MLIS training was relevant or not (and I happen to think mine was), you still had to go to school for a long time to become a librarian. No. You didn’t have to go to school as long as a doctor or lawyer. But you probably did go at least as long, if not longer, than teachers, accountants, social workers, and businesspeople, to name a few “professions”.

    As a profession, I wish we had more requirements for professional development and ethical standards. That’s something that should be worked on, but that doesn’t mean we’re not professionals.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. People have heard of Nancy Pearl because she looks like a librarian not because she is an awesome librarian–she became psuedo famous because of a doll and has managed to capitalize on that for herself. Kudos to her for taking the opportunity but they don’t know her because of the work she does. And I don’t know who Kee Malesky is and I’m a librarian…


    • MJ, Nancy Pearl has influenced and affected millions of people. She created the “If All Seattle Read The Same Book” project which has been a model for hundreds of other similar projects across the country–bringing communities together to read and discuss a single book. She has been recommending books on NPR, with great wit and intelligence and, I might add, expanding the joy of reading, and creating a wonderful perception of librarians in the minds of listeners. She has long been an inspiring writer, speaker…

      OK, I’m not going to list her whole resume. The point is, Nancy was an EXTREMELY accomplished librarian, and quite well-known, long before the “shushing” doll made her even more famous. If she has done anything to “capitalize” on the success of the doll (other than offer them on her website and collect the royalty checks– I doubt they paid for a new addition on her Italian Villa.) I’m not aware of it.


  8. Stevenb: If the community thinks libraries are so important, why are they acceptably on the chopping block when compared to other city services (roads, police, & fire)?

    Rob Sage: I always question any opinion that thinks it can draw serious conclusions from a two-sentence definition in a dictionary. Get thee to a philosophical encyclopedia!

    Wendy: Casanova’s renowned skill was not subject classification…


    • I think when it comes to which community service is on the chopping block that depends greatly on the community and/or the ability of the library to either market itself or provide what is needed. I would say in most Ohio library communities, library levies pass probably 80% of the time when police, fire, and schools are not even close.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ryan, simply put, in business, any group that is not a revenue generator, is always subject to cuts. Look at any IT department. When times go bad, they’re often one of the first areas to get cut. Which, when you think about it, is kinda like cutting your heart out to lose weight.


  9. Kee Malesky is, I believe, the NPR librarian, mentioned at the end of each All Things Considered broadcast. NPR geeks like me have heard of him/her.

    Ryan, I know you’re purposely provoking, but I also have to agree, in essence, with about 95% of what you’re saying. I think we need a long, hard look at ourselves in a collective mirror…if only to say “okay, here are the things we do REALLY WELL, so why in heaven’s name aren’t we promoting THOSE?!” I think we focus on all the wrong things, while forgetting where our real value to our communities lies. Which I think is what you were also saying 🙂


  10. Okay – with graduation coming up at the end of next month I found this is a little depressing – but, then I remembered I didn’t sign up to be a professional – only to be eligible for a bettter and more interesting job (I work in a library already…)

    And maybe a few people outside the field could name Melville Dewey.


  11. Ryan: Thanks for posting this. Having just received my “union card” this winter (MLS), this was one of the comps questions I answered and with much the same reasoning you did. Of course being a comprehensive exam question I was required to spend 8-12 pages defending my answer and “documenting” my opinion with published “research”. I worked in an academic research library for 15 years including 5 years as a department head before beginning the process of obtaining my union card. I can honestly say I didn’t learn anything in library school that applied to my work or much new that I didn’t already know. But at least I’m portable now that I have my MLS/union card.


  12. Ryan, we might all have different definitions of “professional” You didn’t post your definition in the blog, so I could only go by the literal definition. Please share what you think being a professional means.


    • Hey Rob – let me be a little clear. Declaring definition is more a scientific process, not a political one. I am not after trying to defend some defined concept, but instead to learn more about a political one. In other words, part of this discussion (in my view) is to get a more clear concept of what professionalism is, how I feel about it, and where librarians stands -as a community – on the whole piece. Therefore I think it would be unproductive to declare one myself. I want to learn here, not defend a position.


  13. OK, I’m happy to bite with this one, and accept your devil’s advocate approach, if you’ll accept my ‘I’ll speak slowly so you can understand’ approach. 🙂

    1. Anyone who thinks doing a Google search finds good quality data really doesn’t know how to search.
    2. Ethical practices. Hmm. Fighting to stop books being banned, standing up against parents who want Grey’s Anatomy banned as smut are certainly ethics can lead to unwanted consequences. And of course, there’s the typical American-centric approach here – just because something does/doesn’t happen in the US doesn’t actually mean that much to the rest of the world.
    3. I think cataloging, classification and so on are fairly specialised. One could use the same argument to say that a General Practitioner wasn’t a ‘real doctor’ since they dont’ specialise in something like brain surgery.
    4. Sorry, this makes no sense. A doctor, working in a hospital provides a service. Librarians work in a variety of places, and to use the ‘it’s all about books’ is simple ignorance.
    5. I don’t have that much to do with academic librarianship & articles, so I’ll pass on this one.
    6. This is a too general comment for me; I’d be interested to see you expand on it.
    7. Any professional wants to be recognised, and many wish to do so in order to get higher recompense. Librarians are no different here.
    8. I’d agree with this – I don’t think library schools do as much as they could. I’d also say that most other academic institutions fall down in this area as well.
    9. If you’re not aware of how librarians are involved in using resources to increase the accessibility of data you need to get out a little more.
    10. I think most people have heard of Dewey, but I accept your point. How many brain surgeons could I name? Or top lawyers? Not that many actually.

    Thanks for that – it was interesting to bat it back. However, I can think of a good few arguments that would have worked a little better – maybe I’d better think about writing my own post to explore them! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1. Most of the questions I get in the course of a day at the library can be answered by a Google search, or even by pointing in the direction of the bathrooms. Only one in forty is actually meaty enough to require an actual book (let alone a database search).
      2. Fighting censorship is not unique to librarians, and anyway, the point the author is making is not that librarians don’t have to fight censorship (which, by the way, they don’t), it’s that there is no organization to appeal to when a librarian refuses to fight censorship.
      3. I learned everything I needed to know about cataloging and classification on the job, as a clerical staffer in a small public library. This is mostly because there is almost no instruction any more on how classification works; as with much of the rest of library school, classes teach us how to look up subject headings for their class numbers rather than how to create new class numbers. Same for which MARC field does what. I took every cataloging class my program offered, and I still wouldn’t claim to have expertise. Furthermore, not all librarians learn how to catalog; thus, claiming that cataloging knowledge is the specialized expertise that librarians have is flawed. Additionally, general practitioners do have an area of expertise: they provide medical services to outpatients, with a focus on interaction with the public and treating mild disease. They do that because they’re good with people; surgeons don’t have to be, as their work is on the unconscious.
      4. Librarians work in a variety of libraries, it is true. They may be corporate libraries, or public libraries, or church libraries, or hospital libraries; those, despite the differences in their locales, are all still libraries. If they are working in a different setting, chances are their actual job title is different. Hence why education programs are constantly trying to make us say “Information Professional.”
      6. I believe that the author is attempting to communicate something connected to number two, above; without a regulatory agency, without consequences for violating the standards for values, all that unites librarians is a perfunctory acknowledgment that those values exist; librarians’ stand against censorship is about as unique as a stand in favor of dessert and against torturing kittens, and frequently only mildly more substantive. Put another way, there are no unpalatable values; while lawyers and doctors can be derided for their unfeeling commitment to the principles of their profession, librarians are not perceived as being strongly attached to anything (other than their reading glasses, perpetually on a chain). Imagine a drama starring a librarian: where would the tension arise? Not providing good enough information? Not directing people adequately to the toilets? Thinking for a moment about confronting an information seeker’s wrongheaded request?
      7. I honestly don’t understand your phrasing of your point seven: if someone is a professional, they would have already been recognized, no? How can you claim that someone is a professional before they’ve gotten their degree? Additionally, I know many people in my program who will have never worked in a library before receiving their degree. Is it your belief that they qualify as professionals of equal caliber to those who have worked for many years as library paraprofessionals before undertaking the degree?
      8. The GRE subject test in English Literature plumbs the depth of an undergraduate’s knowledge of the subject; test-takers are required to identify passages from the postmodern era back to the medieval. Certainly this most academic of disciplines must be at least partly successful if anyone is to pass the subject GRE about it. What would be on an equivalent exam for librarians? (Yes, I know there is no actual equivalent, what with the degree being a Master’s; it is simply a thought exercise.) Honestly I got more respect for acupuncturist/herbalists after I learned that they have to pass an examination administered by the state before they can practice; once again, what specific knowledge do librarians have after graduating their programs but before becoming employed as professionals?
      9. Most of the librarians I know are content to create bookmarks, or, if they are truly tech-savvy, subsidiary web-page finding aids.
      10. The thing about Dewey is that he created his classification system before he became a professional; thus the thing he is known best for cannot be attributed to a librarian, except in the sense of ‘someone working in a library’ — thus undermining the assertion that professional librarians are fundamentally different (and/or more valuable) than those without Master’s degrees. For my money, it’s tough to beat Sanford Berman when it comes to great librarians, but nobody taught a word about him in my library school (certainly not in my advanced cataloging and classification class, where a guest speaker said the important thing was to connect users to information and the professor shut him down for insufficiently supporting exacting correctness in MARC record formatting), and I’m the one telling all my friends about his work.


  14. Huh? didn’t make much sense. You can not be a Librarian unless you get an MLS. And I’m a Children’s Librarian, that’s my specialty. Not sure what you are talking about in this post but guessing it was just to get a reaction. Facts seemed to be manipulated & skewed here. And btw, my library school education did a fantastic job of preparing me for my career!


    • Cyndi: If you don’t mind my asking, which MLS program were you in? I’m finishing up my MSLIS now, and I am always at a loss when people ask me if I can recommend which library schools are good. It would be very nice to be able to recommend a library school on the strength of a positive recommendation, rather than in the absence of a negative recommendation.

      Ryan: I enjoyed the list. Very thought-provoking.


    • Cyndia, I’m interested in your point that “You can not be a Librarian unless you get an MLS”. Is the fact that Librarianship is a graduate profession widely recognised by the general public (or even your patrons) in the US? For example I’ve just read a local newspaper article here in the UK where volunteers operating a part-time ‘library access point’ were repeatedly described as librarians. Would that happen in the US or elsewhere?


      • The general public calls every adult that works in a library a librarian. Very few know the actual titles or education of those that work in a library.

        The library profession has done such a good job marketing the resources that people have been forgotten. The knowledge and expertise of people is critical for the future, and now libraries are trying to readjust the perception of its user.


      • I agree with Brian’s reply that:

        “The general public calls every adult that works in a library a librarian. Very few know the actual titles or education of those that work in a library.”

        What’s more important? How librarians (however you define it) see themselves or how those who utilize library services view librarians?


    • “You can not be a Librarian unless you get an MLS.”

      Not true. I have a librarian on staff who has no MLS, but has earned his role and that title through 30 years of service, learning, and experience doing the work. I challenge anyone to tell me that an inexperienced recent graduate of an LIS program is more of a librarian than someone with 30 years of experience doing the job, serving users in a library, and learning the nuances of the field. I have a friend posting in this very thread who is one of the best medical librarians I know… who has no MLS. There are thousands of fantastic librarians working in our public libraries across the country who do not have the MLS. There are thousands more fantastic librarians working in academic libraries under other titles, doing the same work as our MLS librarians, and doing it thoughtfully, effectively, and with dedication.

      We simply use the MLS as one distinction to indicate that professionals in our field have been acculturated to and educated about our profession, and, in my opinion, we hold it too highly in that regard.


      • Like many other professions, those that cannot, will not or are unable to get the degree, which is currently necessary to be hired for most “librarian” positions, whine about the uselessness of the MLS. For example, I’m certain there are many paralegals that are as capable as lawyers, nurses as general practitioner MDs, etc. I know many clerks that resent the fact that they are not considered librarians, but the truth is, most librarians that have gone for the masters are more dedicated to the profession than the paraprofessionals. Of course there are exceptions. Because the job can be done adequately by those without the degree does not mean that there should not be a degree or a “profession” called librarianship. Why are so many librarians anxious to devalue the “profession”? I agree that library school itself does not make a good librarian, but it is part of the process of becoming a professional, along with experience and passion for serving others’ information needs. Why is it so odd that one would have to get through a few years of grad classes (that may not fully prepare one for the job as in so many other occupations) to be allowed to call themselves professional librarians? We should encourage the great “librarians” that don’t have the degree to get one to be called a librarian. We should elevate the profession not push it down so “anyone can do it.” The fact is, those of us who have shown the dedication to plow though grad school will (or should) be more motivated to define and promote librarianship as a great, and yes, often specialized and skilled service. Librarians do diverse jobs and the core defining principles may vary. Others have posted many of these principles and just because they are shared by other professions does not devalue them for us.


    • Cyndi: Professions are protected by law with monetary penalties. If I call myself an engineer or an architect without the degree, I will be taken to court. If I call myself a lawyer without passing the bar, I will be taken to court. If I call myself a librarian without the degree or without passing the exam, who will take me to court for it? What is the monetary penalty? I know a lot of librarians who have never attended a library school.

      Ryan: About point 1, I do not have to be a lawyer to represent myself in court. Lawyers are just so much better that most people would rather a lawyer do it. So I would instead ask, are librarians so much better than everyone else at what they do that most people would rather a librarian do it?


      • Paul, you are speaking of licensing, not the degree.I have know engineers without traditional engineering degrees. They could never get licensed as an engineering but by all the discussion here and the work they did, they were engineers by trade, title, and money in their pockets.


    • Cyndi – I work in a law firm (where we do legal and corporate research) with two very intelligent, talented librarians – both do not have an MLS. One has a JD and the other worked her way up from a filer to head of reference and is one of the most knowledgeable people that I know in the field of law and corporate librarianship. I worked with a lady that had an MLS and didn’t know what she was doing half the time. So I think you can be a librarian w/o an MLS.
      I agree w/ you though that there are specialties in the library field, I don’t understand why the author says there is not…


  15. Your misuse of the word oxymoron in the title is problematic. The body of your post argues that librarians do not fit into the category of “professionals” But an oxymoron juxtaposes two words which are *complete opposites* –usually so opposite as to create a sense of ridiculousness that they are paired together in any logical way (think: Civil War or Jumbo Shrimp,)

    It appears that your intention is to argue that librarians are not categorically “Professionals” (capital P). But the use of the word “oxymoron” in the title suggests that you think librarians are the *opposite* of professional; so much so that it’s a joke to even suggest it! Thus, the title sets a certain a mocking tone to the piece, which does not in any way live up to the promise of the title. You have not, in fact, provided any reasons for why Professional Librarian is an oxymoron; only reasons for why you think librarians should not be included in the category “Professional”.


    • Fortunately, or unfortunately, my misuse of the word ‘oxymoron’ – while linguistically a mistake – seems to have worked. There’s an entire other discussion about whether language precision is important (cf. discussion on definitions).


  16. Note being a librarian, I will not debate the issue apart from noting that this is largely a question of what one means by “profession”.

    However, I wish to comment specifically on 10:

    Was Albert Schweizer a great (medical) doctor and is that why he is known? The first might be disputable (I am not well-informed to judge this myself) and the second is mostly wrong. He is known for his humanitarian efforts, which, yes, happened to partially coincide with his professional work. However, this does not make him a great professional, nor does it make him famous for it. In a more clear-cut example, Einstein was a patent clerk—but…

    I. M. Pei does not ring a bell with me, and if you had asked me in another context who Johnny Cochrane was, I would have guessed that he was a musician of some sort.


    • Okay – how about Gandhi, & Abraham Lincoln as Lawyers? (Or really 80% of most politicians in the past two centuries). Schweitzer IS widely known for medical work in developing countries (and leadership in the field as well). A person might not remember the name Friedrick Banting was, but they sure as heck know and understand what insulin is for and that it was a great achievement when it was discovered. I.M. Pei is similar to Banting – the Louvre Pyramid, JFK Museum etc. are recognizable master works, if people do not know the name. If not I.M. Pei – then how about the Taj Mahal, Buckingham Palace, the White House? Librarians have nothing on this scale – and when we do have accomplishments, we’ve probably relied on other professionals to make it happen.

      Librarians as a whole have no marks that match this scale. Dewey is the closest perhaps, although becoming more and more obsolete as information technology becomes more and more prominent.


      • OK, well by your same logic, what about the Library of Congress, or the British Library. These are recognisable master works. You should stop now. You’re getting desperate and sounding a little silly.


      • We seem to have miscommunicated: I was only pointing out that the examles actually given seemed specious to me. The same could apply to Lincoln and Ghandi—without their political success, they would likely not be known to any of the participants here. Rembemer the heading “Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian”.

        However, on second thought, the basic argument is weak: A priori, the lack of known librarians could well be because there have been fewer involved in politics or other areas where it is easier to become known. The great names in a field are usually mostly known to those who have an interest in that field.


      • Wanna’ talk silly, Phil? The Library of Congress or the British Library are not the masterworks of individuals. Want to argue with Ryan? Great! But the straw men and ad hominem remarks are beneath you and are deeply disappointing to someone who has followed your work with admiration for some time.


  17. Hey Ryan,

    I think you’ve tapped on a issue that is way broader than just the profession of Librarians. These ten points (well, probably 8 of them) apply to a lot of ‘professional’ groups today. I’m thinking of people like Journalists and Photographers; people who used to lay claim to a very specific body of work that now anyone can do and pretty much every does do to some extent. The only thing those professions have over Librarian is that everyone can name at least one famous journalist (I would think…).


    • Dave I agree. Architects, which are considered a profession, requires a degree and a license, but you do not need to be an architect to know how to build a house. In fact, I would argue that most of the buildings in the world were not designed by an architect.


  18. […] The Other Librarian recently challenged the rest of us to defend our professionalism, individually and personally, with a list of charges against our claims to professionalism. Like most people I think, I’m interested in defending myself so here’s my own attempt to hoist a rebuttal to Ryan’s ten points. […]


  19. One of the greatest current librarians I know is Tim Spalding, the founder of LibraryThing. His library is just great in any sense! Another great librarian is Brewster Kahle the founder of Internet Archive and OpenLibrary. There is still and will be great librarianship but more independent of traditional library institutions.


    • I think this is an interesting discussion that highlights #9. Are Tim & Brewster librarians or are they another kind of professional that’s a competitor to librarianship? Should we be training people to become Tim Spaldings, or initiate something that invites the Tim Spaldings into librarian networks?


  20. Hi Ryan,

    i totally agree with your analysis. From my point of view (to be honest it is a web2.0-gamer-user-view) we should think about two more questions:

    1. Does the internet realy needs librarians? (i mean the actual version)
    2. Why is it so hard not only for librarians but for a lot of other groups (like dave mentioned above) to become part of their future? It seems to me that i.e. librarians mostly become followers but not developer of new cultures like the web2.0. (developing the web2.0 means not to develop software but to be there with new ideas and creativity)

    best wishes from Germany



    • I think this is a great point. Librarianship needs to be more than just a job with benefits and values. We need vision, understanding, and to ‘dig deep’ on the big questions.


  21. I agree with a fair amount of your points, but:

    (3.) Being a librarian can have its specialisms too – not every librarian is a jack-of-all-trades. Depending upon the size of your library service, it may make sense to have some librarians take a specific focus on certain areas. I’d agree that there are generalisations that librarians need to know about, but at the same time, so do other professions. For example, architects need to have a handle on building law and regulations, environmental impact, community development and technology.

    (1.) At the risk of getting laughed down, I’d also say that even though some people might not have a qualification in a particular profession it doesn’t mean they’re not capable of undertaking work related to that profession. I know a person couldn’t officially practice if they didn’t have a qualification, but it doesn’t always mean they don’t have the skills to do the work. I also wonder how many qualified surgeons, lawyers and engineers have made wrong decisions in their professional life and are still happy to call themselves professional?


  22. You know who I can’t stand? Pharmacists. They think they’re so high-and-mighty, pssht. You only ever find them in pharmacies; what kind of profession is just tied to a location like that? Not a real one!

    Even when you do go to a pharmacy, they have so many people behind the counter there that you can’t even tell who went to graduate school for it and who was just hired to smile and handle all the requests at the front.

    And it’s not like they even do any real work! They read the information you bring them about what you need, and then they bring you the specific materials based on the information you gave? That’s it? You need a degree for that?

    If they do something behind the scenes, I sure don’t see it. Do they write stuff? Nothing I‘ve ever read. It’s not like I could name a famous pharmacist to save my life; maybe one or two infamous ones, but they probably wouldn’t appreciate that. Heck, you sure never hear about them getting in trouble for all the drugs they give those fancy celebrities — at least, not until one of ’em drops dead.

    And they think they’re such hotshots! It’s not like they own ‘drugs’. Lots of jobs work with drugs! And why should I go all the way downtown to talk to some aloof quote-unquote “professional” when I can just get any prescription drugs I need right off the internet?

    No, sir, if we’re supposed to pretend that pharmacists are professionals, you can just count me right out. Let me know when they learn to hit home runs, or something!


    • What a silly reply. Can you say ‘Walgreen?’ Or the discoverer of chloroform? Morphine? Not. Even. Close.

      The sarcasm is pretty silly too, harping on the least important of the points (#10), using a straw man argument and not even doing that effectively. God help us.


      • Nobody can name the original Walgreen in Walgreen’s any more reliably than they can name the original McDonalds in McDonald’s. (And by the objective measure we all agreed to use earlier in the thread, Walgreen’s personal article is no longer than Dewey’s and considerably shorter than Pearl’s.) But if you’re willing to accept “the discoverer of chloroform” as a legitimate answer, more power to you; the greatest librarian can be “the writer of the library laws”, “the woman with the doll”, or whatever other descriptive phrase the question yields.

        (Interestingly, when another poster provided a list of pharmacists who are famous for not being pharmacists, the man at the top of the list is the same man who tops a list of librarians famous for not being librarians. I suppose professions were just less complicated, back in the day.)

        I don’t doubt for a second that they’re talented and intelligent professionals who work tirelessly to further their field, but to the general public — assumedly (and I could be wrong) the audience we’re expecting to make dismissive anti-professional assumptions about entire disciplines at once — a pharmacist is the guy at the Wal-Mart between the eyeglasses place and the fast-food counter. I could just as easily have ran with the usual obvious targets — professors, economists, environmentalists, meteorologists, authors, Presidents of the United States of America, what have you — but the long and the short of it is that no profession has everybody convinced of its professionalism, particularly in an age where any dude off the street will provide a lengthy and customized top-ten list about its shortcomings. It is the year 2010 and you’ll still run into people who insist they “don’t trust the doctors”, so anything is fair game.

        It’s a hard climb for librarians to convince people of their value, yes — but it’s an equally long climb for lawyers to work past the negative associations and sleazy-lawyer jokes, and they seem to do okay for themselves. I’m sure the personal marketing decisions will work themselves out.


    • James-

      I run the library at a hospital and serve the needs of our pharmacists.

      I’m not sure if your sarcasm is intellectually dishonest or just clueless, so let’s apply Ryan’s 10 points to pharmacists.


      Doesn’t apply because pharmacists, in every state of the union, do have such a monopoly.


      Nope. State pharmacy boards can and DO discipline pharmacists.


      Nope. It’s mostly hard science. A lot of chemistry of biology.


      Nope. Pharmacists work in research, retail pharmacies, and hospitals. A PharmD can be assumed to possess a specific skill set and knowledge base. An MLS, on the other hand, can frequently get the degree with serious deficits in his/her knowledge. Fortunately, it is rare of the incompetence of a poorly-trained librarian to kill people…which is why there is less regulation of librarians than pharmacists.


      Nope. Pharmacy publications are not only vetted by other pharmacists, but by a huge variety of other clinicians and scientists.


      Okay, I’ll grant this one can apply to pharmacists.


      Doesn’t apply. The primary motivation for professionalization in pharmacists is risk management and preventing avoidable complications and adverse reactions.


      Nope. A PharmD can be relied-upon to actually have done some serious academic work to have earned the degree.


      Doesn’t apply, as pharmacists have no competing professions.


      Here’s a list of famous pharmacists

      So, James? d/c sarcasm or take supp. P.R stat


  23. @David R. – although I know you were presenting tongue-in-cheek, your point #4 is interesting: “Fortunately, it is rare of the incompetence of a poorly-trained librarian to kill people…which is why there is less regulation of librarians than pharmacists.”

    A friend of mine has frequently said “there is no such thing as a library emergency”. I tend to agree, though I allow for emergencies that happen *in* the library (e.g. heart attacks, kids vomiting, missing children, etc.) I think the point about the relative severity of the consequences of unprofessional behavior is a fruitful discussion. We can immediately see the possible deadly consequences of a mis-diagnosis (doctor) or a mis-Rx (pharm). We can even see the life consequences of a lawyer mis-filing papers (eviction, foreclosure, loss of job).

    What’s interesting to me is that often librarians are *behind* these other professionals, feeding them information. Is there a consequence for one of us giving bad info, which then results in an injury or death? What about when that info is given directly to patrons, rather than through an intermediary (doctor, lawyer)? Do we have a clear Code of Ethics beyond Freedom of Information (which I agree is important)? We have lots of disclaimers, but what exactly do these protect us from, and whom do they serve?

    Not to be all gruesome, but I think there are some interesting discussions to be had around this idea, perhaps to help us firm up what we mean by “professionalism”.


  24. Re: Number Ten

    I can name dozens of great librarians. You may not have heard of them.

    To paraphrase Yoda on this May the Fourth, “Ohh. Great Librarian. Fame does not make one great.”


  25. I get where you’re coming from, Ryan, but I have to disagree with your basic premise that librarians are not professionals. We may not be regarded as professionals in the same way that more educated and specialized individuals like lawyers and doctors, but personally, I feel like a professional.

    I have studied and continue to study the things I need to be effective in my career. I have specialized in a certain aspect of librarianship and developed skills that my colleagues do not have, and they have done the same. My job is not “just a job” that I go to from 9-5 on weekdays — it’s a huge part of my identity as a person. At the same time, it’s not tied to a particular workplace, and I can take my knowledge and skills to many other work arrangements and locations.

    Finally, while I did seek the MLIS in order to obtain a better position in the library, I would not have done so if I had not felt passionately about the work and desired to make this a career. Until something changes, the MLS/MLIS is the only ticket to upward mobility in most libraries, and without it, you’re pretty much stuck. However, I take offense to your insinuation that I (as a librarian) would keep it this way in order to reserve the best positions for myself. If I were Ruler of All Human Resources Departments, I would pay people for the work they do, whether they have a bunch of letters after their names or not. Since I am not RoAHRD, all I can do is fight to get my staff the financial recognition they deserve for the work they do.


    • Thanks for the comment. To be clear, my intention here is to challenge librarians to come to terms with fairly standard anti-professionalism arguments, not to insinuate anything about any particular librarian.

      If MLS carrying professionals have value, it cannot be just because they are MLS-carrying professionals. Otherwise, the argument is circular – the conclusion is just a restatement of the premise. We cannot rely simply on our identity and values as librarians. There needs to be some other kind(s) of things that are valuable as well. Otherwise, I could just as easily be talking about what it means to be a confirmed Catholic, card-carrying Republican or member of PETA.

      I repeat – I am not necessarily suggesting that professionalism is worthless. I am suggesting that anyone with a blind assumption that library professionalism automatically carries merit needs a reality check. I have my own thoughts and they change each time I read another response to this post. As Library Journal suggests, I will be responding to each of these criticisms myself.


    • I agree that HR is much to blame for some of the “MLIS makes you a professional librarian” thinking. I know from talking with one HR person I know that at some institutions the policy is in place that a person lacking the degree can’t be hired regardless of all their other qualifications.

      HR departments seem bound to notions of professionalism when perhaps they should really be talking to the individuals who work in libraries. Clearly there are many in the field who don’t think the degree is necessarily required.


  26. I really enjoyed the list and agree with most.

    If nothing else, I hope that this provides some thought-provoking discussion about the future of librarianship.

    Isn’t Laura Bush a librarian? I recognize that she’s not famous for being a librarian, but she’s known as one.


  27. David – Please explain in what ways are the White House and Buckingham Palace the great works of individuals more than the LC or the BL. I’d also point you back to my opening comment where I think I made it fairly clear that I wasn’t taking this discussion that seriously.


  28. Ryan, when you say, “If MLS carrying professionals have value, it cannot be just because they are MLS-carrying professionals” I think you are putting the cart before the horse.

    Librarians do not have value because they have an MLS. They have value because they underwent an educational program that gave them knowledge and skills, and helped instill and reinforce a shared value system and code of ethics. The MLS is awarded to signify, to represent, to testify to the value inherent in the education, and hence the value of the person thus educated.


    • Yet there are many librarians who do not have an MLS. And there are many librarians who publicly claim they gained nothing from their degree beyond mobility. I believe a MLS should be important for the reasons you give. But I am not seeing it in practice.


  29. The issue of whether communities think libraries are important or not seems to me a rather different issue than whether we librarians are professionals or not. There are communities that have decided to eliminate libraries rather than fire stations. Some communities have eliminated fire stations to consolidate them. In Philadelphia the community supported their libraries and kept them open in the face of budget eliminations. I think that’s part of my point. The communities we serve don’t care if we are professionals or not – if they respect us professionally – that’s icing on the cake. But we really need their support and we get that when we serve them well and make a case for our right to exist. I just did a presentation for the Howard County Libraries in Maryland. They do a fantastic job of connecting with the community, and even with a county deficit the library budget was not cut.


  30. My first librarian gig after getting my MLIS was at a branch of a very large, urban, public library system. While there, I felt the work I was doing was WAY beneath the education I received. Basically, all I did was hand out bestsellers to old ladies. Forget about “professional”, I remember telling friends that a 16 year old high school kid could do my job. However, as I moved along in the profession, the work became much more challenging and I found myself using my library school training and other professional experiences much more on the job. I think that just might be the nature of entry-level work.


  31. Good stuff, Ryan! MPOW has been asking that “what’s the difference between professional and non” for awhile now. Why? Because (as many librareis do), both groups do very similar work. For example – reference staff. Both professionals and paraprofessionals work the ref desk, work telephone ref, and create and run programs. They both write blog posts on our website.

    What’s the difference between the two, other than one group went to grad school (and gets a higher salary)? Not much at the moment. We are working to differentiate that!


  32. I want to fully participate in this discussion at some point, but I fear I’m not yet ready. I did, however, want to throw one thing out there. I’ve felt for a while now that Ranganathan’s 5 laws are very quickly becoming obsolete on a fundamental level. At the very least, the fifth law– the one about change– needs to be expanded to include fundamental changes to the entire field of librarianship. I understand that Michael Gorman has already begun this process, but forgive me for having just found that out recently.

    Regardless of how anyone feels about the inflammatory tone of this article, there are some very important things to consider here if we want to see library’s survive at least and thrive at best in the coming years.


  33. This post isn’t nearly as provocative as apparently intended. There are better arguments to be made against librarians as professionals, but this is an old issue that doesn’t much matter. No, a non-degreed library worker is not a librarian regardless of competency – by definition. Value to the organization is another matter altogether. I think the key reason why we are not “professional” relates to your mistaken comment about why peer review in librarianship doesn’t work. Our collaborative, non-competitive ways aren’t why the literature is weak – it’s because we have no legitimate and specialized body of knowledge, nor a theoretical framework that provides for real research and expansion of what is known about “library science.” Similar arguments can be made about nursing, another quasi-profession. The key is value, and it’s hard to argue against the value of quality nursing. Our value to our clientele is what matters – and our numbers will shrink as fewer librarians are able to prove it. The “great” ones will, and will be revered by those they serve.


  34. I am a reference librarian and I consider myself a professional (with no self doubt).

    I think it is awfully haughty of you to think that librarians need to respond to your list in order to be professional librarian.

    I feel annoyed that a fellow librarian would degrade your fellow librarians. I figured a blog like this would come from someone who didn’t understand all of the intricacies of the profession. These are questions that ignorant people ask me when I say I am a librarian. Fellow librarians and frequent library users do not doubt the professional status of librarians.


  35. Kara’s response (https://otherlibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/ten-reasons-why-professional-librarian-is-an-oxymoron/#comment-16019) is interesting to me, as is SJ’s (https://otherlibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/ten-reasons-why-professional-librarian-is-an-oxymoron/#comment-16007).

    Rather than being interested in discussing the matter, Kara decides to take offense and say that Ryan is degrading his colleagues. I think that people who are unwilling to discuss or consider changing the nature of their professions help ensure the eventual doom of their professions.

    SJ’s logic is entertaining. “No, a non-degreed library worker is not a librarian regardless of competency – by definition.” Isn’t that sort of circular reasoning? SJ is saying that a librarian should be defined by having the degree BECAUSE a librarian is defined by having the degree. Where’s the value in that argument?


    • C’mon Rothman, think a little. Defining the terms in a debate isn’t circular reasoning, and it’s not making an argument. Logical reasoning begins with definitions. One cannot argue that a “librarian” is or is not a professional without establishing what one means by the term librarian. The value in this is obvious; in this case it is to avoiding digressions into the old “who’s a real librarian?” caused by insufficiently defined terms. It would be useful to define “professional” also, which hasn’t been done here and has hampered the discussion.


  36. Thought I’d add my two cents:

    3. Maybe only true for public librarians??? I’m a nursing librarian. I can say with a fair amount of honesty that I specialize in that. Don’t ask me to do the patent searching my husband does. Don’t ask him to do systematic reviews searching that I do.
    5. As mentioned earlier, I am a nursing librarian. Ever work with nurses? They tend to be collaborative too. Could this actually be a feature of us in the female-dominated professions?
    7. Many professions don’t have a monopoly, and it is one that changes based on jurisdiction. Midwives, for example, aren’t the only ones legally allowed to deliver babies.
    8. Does any professional school adequately prepare students for the job market? Is there a reason they put doctors through that whole residency-thing? I think this is often used for the culture differences between school-life and work-life, rather than any true lack of intellectual preparedness.
    10. I can’t name a great occupational therapist, chiropractor, accountant, actuary… Just because the profession doesn’t make for great television doesn’t mean it isn’t a profession. I think many of our ‘professions’ are easily defined by the public due to their portrayal in the media, which is often highly inaccurate.

    Oh, and when I went to see what professions are regulated in my jurisdiction, I see “Real Estate Agent” is one of them. I would argue that all these points apply to that ‘profession’ too, although somehow they managed to get the government to agree this requires protection. Why the hell aren’t us librarians doing the same???


  37. I think Amanda makes an interesting point about the collaborative nature of certain professions. Is it gender-tied? I don’t know. I do know that this collaborative nature is exactly why I love this profession. And exactly why I want us to stand up and make clear statements about the power of collaboration and the importance of those other things we’re exceptionally good at – searching, organization, accessibility, etc. So that, for example, Amanda’s skill with systematic review searching and her husband’s with patent searching are acknowledged for the skills they are, but are also put into a larger context of quality, accountability, and – dare I say it? – professionalism.

    The fact that this conversation keeps happening (seriously, once/year for 15 years I’ve heard this go round and round…) implies to me that there is a basic concern/fear/self-doubt skittering around our profession about our roles and our value. I understand Ryan and others to be saying that facing this concern and discussing it openly are worth some of our time. I would agree, but also argue that navel-gazing is a waste of time and sniping at each other gets us nowhere forward. Honest dialogue, with a good dash of realism and respect, would be my preference.

    I would argue that we can do all we like about firming up our professional standards, codes of ethics, etc. – all good things – but ultimately if we cannot demonstrate our value to the many communities (broadly termed) that we serve, this is all for naught.

    Commence flames.


  38. Wikipedia is a terrible reference source to use to win this sort of argument. It puts a heavy emphasis on fame, gives more attention to people who were/are alive in the Internet era and gives a disproportionate amount of coverage to people involved in popular culture. Those who make contributions that have not been widely recognized by an Internet audience will not have sizable Wikipedia pages.


    • Not sure of your point. Nancy Pearl is involved in pop culture (action figure) and alive in the Internet era yet has less information on her than I.M. Pei who is not a pop culture figure and 93 years old. Also, if I am looking for ‘naming’ of great people, then wikipedia is great, because it is a social tool and therefore a measure of what ‘people in general’ (rather than a particular canon) think about great people.

      Once there, I think it is reasonably fair to measure ‘greatness’ by ‘the amount of stuff informed people have to say about a particular individual.’


  39. It all hinges on how you define the word “profession”. In the strictest sense, only law and medicine qualify. But in layman’s terms and in the dictionary definition, “a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science” librarian definitely qualifies as do many other fields. I think part of why this is so often debated in librarianship is because we draw such a hard line between “professional” and “non-professional” librarians (those having an MLS and those not) and the “paraprofessionals” get pissed off because they think they do the same work for less pay. And sometimes they do.


  40. 1. Librarians Have No Monopoly on the Activities They Claim
    You have conveniently chosen as examples three professions upon which states place legal requirements. There are numerous professions where there is no such legal requirement placed upon individuals to practice their calling. Narrowly construing the word “profession” to include only callings that require a license or permit is a neat semantic trick, but disingenuous.
    Also, any librarian who states that “information is free” and believes it needs to go back to library school.
    2. There are No Consequences For Failing to Adhere to Ethical Practices
    An unethical librarian runs the risk of alienating patrons, coworkers, and – as you pointed out – losing their job. Widespread ethical violations would have the consequence of undermining the profession. Violations of patrons’ privacy also have legal consequences (at least they do here in Michigan). There is no professional sanction for librarians who choose to act poorly because, as we have already established, librarianship is a profession where there is generally no requirement for a license or permit, and thus no state board to hand down such sanctions.
    3. Librarianship is Too Generalized to Claim Any Expertise
    The same could be said of the study of law and medicine – both very broad areas of study. Perhaps you are not aware that there are different types of librarians? Catalogers, web librarians, youth librarians… Furthermore, it should be noted that expertise is gained not in the completion of the degree, but through years worked after the degree. While general knowledge benefits every librarian, so too does specialized knowledge – specialized resources non-librarians would consider obscure and standards like AACR2 and Z39.50 are two examples that come immediately to mind.
    4. ’Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself
    You’re only 4 points into your 10 and are already reaching by making statements only tangentially related to your original thesis. This is nothing more than an etymology lesson. Libraries have certainly evolved to be more than just “places where there are books”. As a result, to be a librarian means more than just knowing how to find books.
    5. Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It
    This argument, even if true, goes nowhere in support of your thesis that “Professional Librarian” is an oxymoron – it’s an argument about the quality of library literature. Are you implying that in order for a calling to be a profession it must have peer reviewed journals? There are plenty of professions where being published in peer reviewed literature is not considered the pinnacle of scholarly achievement. (One thinks of law, where the most well known journals are edited by students…) One could argue that library literature is of lower quality than other professional literature because library literature is in its infancy.
    6. Values Are Not Enough
    I do hate sounding like a broken record, but this has nothing to do with professionalism. And who says that librarians feel they deserve to be rewarded? I, and most librarians I know, value libraries because they give the public (or students, or whichever demographic) access to specialized, organized information, as well as access to professionals trained to anticipate and fill the information needs of the demographic they serve. In the public library world, libraries are also repositories of popular materials that the public can access for pennies on the dollar.
    7. The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor
    Again, this does not move towards supporting your initial argument. With that said, this statement can be made of every profession – all professionals have self interest as a motivating factor. Lots of professionals wish their profession was more prestigious, elite, and paid more. It doesn’t mean they aren’t professionals. It means they are greedy.
    8. Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work
    In order to excel and master any profession one must spend years working in that field. Law school, for example, is highly theoretical. It is not until the bar exam that students begin studying in earnest the black letter law of the state that they intend to practice in. After passing the bar, a young attorney must then begin at the bottom of the ladder and clime their way up. Similarly, librarians just out of library school have years ahead of them before they gain true expertise. Library schools do not produce great librarians – years of work and dedication to the profession do.
    9. Competing Professions Are Offering Different Paradigms to Achieve the Same Goals
    Doctors follow the lead of biologists, chemists, and pharmaceutical companies. Lawyers follow the lead of legislators. So what? What does this have to do with the professionalism of librarians? All you have illustrated is that there is overlap between the library profession and other professions, and room for collaboration between librarians and computer scientists, etc.
    10. Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian
    You contradict yourself by naming a great librarian. Even if I was willing to concede that “no one” outside the library science field could name a great librarian (and I’m not – lots of people know the name Melville Dewey), conceding this point hardly supports your initial assertion about the profession. It just proves that librarians are not visible or popular in our culture.


    • Brava! Took the words right out of my mouth.

      I think the crux here is the term “professionalism”. What does this mean in the context of librarianship? It appears to me that Ryan is suggesting (or trolling) that “professionalism” only applies to those industries, such as law or medicine, that have a codified, tangible structure for critiquing “success”. Could the profession benefit from peer review journals? I don’t really know the answer to that, as it appears that the field has benefited thus far, without the need for peer review. On that point, there are a number of instances where peer review has been detrimental to the sciences, as competition at the reviewer level has caused some important research to be overlooked or hidden (such as Luca Turin’s attempts to promote his theory of smell to the journal, “Nature”). One would hope that a collaborative process would not only encourage information sharing, but information correction as well. That has certainly seemed to be the case in the museum field.

      I, admittedly, am not a librarian. I am a museum information technologist who deals with library, museum, and archival materials. As such, my role is extremely similar to those of more traditional types of librarians, and thus, I feel that the same questions – and this rebuttal – applies to myself and to anyone who works in the cultural heritage sector.


  41. Interesting post, definitely thought-provoking. However, I’m tired of the attitude which I read here in your post and see elsewhere. If the profession of librarianship is to be viewed in a more positive light, then statements such as yours need to be given the attention they deserve: very little. As with other professions traditionally seen as women’s (nursing and teaching, for example), librarianship is often diminished and belittled because is has not been seen as valuable, worthwhile, world-altering, or other grandiose reasons. Instead of playing devil’s advocate, why not find a more positive means to promote and value librarianship?

    When I read your post, I thought of my aunt. A militant feminist in the 1970’s, she continues to make sharply observant comments about men and women. If she read your post, her response would be, “Why is a man in a traditionally female profession knocking the field in which he chose to work?” Yes, you freely admit to a bit of trolling, and that your post is unbalanced. Arguing about the value or not of librarianship is not the exclusive domain of women. But these statements are discussed quite a bit already. Do something different, and find a way to positively promote the profession.


    • Is librarian seen mainly as a female role?

      When we look at librarian in the stricter sense used here, my associations go to men. Notably, the only fictional librarians that I recall of the top of my head are male. (Of those I can actually pinpoint, there are two: Giles of Buffy and Terry Pratchett’s Librarian. However, there are many others that are less prominent in my mind).

      In a wider sense of “works in a library”, I would agree that it is mostly seen as a female role, just as women tend to dominate points of customer contact in general (waitresses, checkout clerks, receptionists, whatnot).


    • Thanks for your reply, Lisa. I think your paraphrase of your aunt is unfairly insinuating that I have sexist motivations behind my post.

      That is bullocks, Lisa. Total ad hominem, unfair, clueless, red, herring bullocks. On day one someone I consider a well-informed, gender-conscious, library-loving feminist female librarian immediately agreed with almost all of the points and followed up by letting me know that this was an important issue. (I apologize in advance that this may come off as a ‘some of my best friends are feminists,’ but I don’t see this person as a friend moreso a colleague I admire and respect). Nowhere am I asking _women_ to answer for professional status – I am asking _librarians_.

      But to answer your aunt’s question in so so many ways:

      – to encourage discussion about the nature of ‘profession’ in librarianship and whether or not this status is still relevant in the 21st century. (it did that)
      – to use controversy so that a greater group of people will be drawn to that discussion (it did that)
      – to naval-gaze so that I can offer my own assessment as a professional (it did that)
      – to positively empower others to promote their profession in the best way that I can (it did that)
      – to inspire professionals to see these criticisms as a challenge to improve their level of professional values (I do not know if it did that, although I have been inspired by many of the librarians who responded)


      • There were no sexist implications, Ryan, and I apologize if you interpreted it that way. The library profession is awesome, wonderful, and I love being a librarian. I am, however, deeply tired of the profession being belittled. And while there isn’t sexism behind your comments, I wonder if there isn’t a subconscious dislike of the profession which you chose, but yet are currently trying to skewer.

        One final comment: Before you post a comment, make sure to proofread and edit what you write. “Bullock” is a young, castrated bull. “Bollocks” is the term I believe you intended to use. Professional librarians also know how to use reference materials such as dictionaries.


  42. by the way,

    in hannover/germany the bibcamp (library-barcamp) just startet a couple of minutes ago. If some of you would like to discuss your ideas live via twitter you can use the hashtag #bib3 – i know its in german but it’s live during the whole weekend and it’s gonna be very interesting – i promise…

    best wishes

    christoph 🙂


  43. The difficulty with posts like these, that are self-avowedly “trolling” or posing “provocative statements” is that they sometimes seem to confuse garnering attention with actually moving their issues forward. In a time when laid off and newly-minted librarians are struggling to find enough work to make rent, it can sting when bloggers with stable jobs feel able to make a list like this, telling everyone on the internet that librarians are crap with very little framing as to why they’re telling everyone librarians are crap.

    While I’d entirely agree that MLS education needs improvement, that we need to confidently articulate our core values and skills, and that we are not always doing a great job of distinguishing ourselves in this new Googlezon era, my personal preference would be dialogue through constructive criticism that supports each other as colleagues, rather than poking each other with sticks just to see what happens. That is a personal preference only.


    • I think that is an unfair characterization of my post, Amanda. I didn’t say this was a troll – that I was ‘Yes, I am trolling a little bit – but with a heart that wants to lead discussion on the topic of library professionalism.’

      I think constructive criticism is great. I also think that, by garnering attention, there has been considerable and fruitful discussion this issue. Not every discussion needs to build on what already exists. We need to check in emotionally from time to time too.


      • Ryan, you said in your own blog entry you were trolling. Now that someone makes a comment based on the motivation you stated, you cannot take it back.

        You trolled to get discussion. Now that you got it, do you not lose value in your own post if you step back and say that is not what I meant?


      • Yes Brian, *that’s* how you do a proper Troll. 🙂

        Fair enough point. I was thinking about the entire post and then complained about the word ‘Troll’.


  44. Yes, anyone can do a Google search. But most people don’t. When I ask, “Have you tried Google” the answer usually is “No.” And if a student of any age has been told NOT to use Google, they have no idea where next to turn — except to their local librarian.


  45. Anyone else resent the implication that just because they don’t have a piece of paper they’re somehow “unprofessional”? I really hate this kind of discussion because of how it puts down the many people who manage libraries without the qualification. I’ve nearly finished my MSc, fully acknowledge and recognise the importance of thinking through the issues involved, but don’t particularly feel that there was anything that would make me “more professional” in my approach to my work. If you believe in the importance of CPD, I really think that should be more important than a piece of paper that allows you to start a professional career.


  46. Points for admitting you’re trolling upfront, but here’s the deal.

    Last week, I just worked with a class of 20 education program grad students, fresh from a school law class who could not, in their own words, describe the word “copyright.” Forget, “public domain” and “fair use.” This is stuff educators use daily too, whether they know it or not.

    Six months before that, I watched this same, very tech-savvy class struggle with searching ERIC and created a list of “relevant” web pages to their profession using, well, kind of crap, actually. The other eye-opener? I did this assignment, looking specifically for resources for one student who has a field I don’t have as much background information in. It took me 15 minutes to create a professional webquest of resources for multicultural math. It took him two hours to find a hodgepodge of blogs, games, articles and some really good resources for *general* math.

    That background in place, let’s get to the top ten.

    Librarians Have No Monopoly on the Activities They Claim – Well, duh. That’s not our job and in fact takes away from the job we’re supposed to have in passing along information. Given the right time, tools, and a modicum of reading skill almost everyone can perform up to moderate car maintenance and repair. A good mechanic is going to be able to do it faster, more effectively and with less stress on everyone’s part. Part of what you pay for is that expertise and – dare I say it?! – professionalism. Math Guy is always going to be able to crunch numbers better than I can. So what? I can find tools to help him do his job more effectively, thus saving us all time. Discovering copyright basics involves a little time on the internet and a modicum of information savvy. So what? That looking up process takes time the teachers could be spending on students, professional development or just on having a life. It’s easier and more efficient just to shoot me an e-mail or post me something in Facebook.

    There are No Consequences For Failing to Adhere to Ethical Practices – No, there is, and we’re seeing it now. Crappy librarians create a trust gap. That means less trust in the field and less thought of it as a real job. My niece just begged me to come down to the school and have a Come to Jesus talk with the (I’m hoping) paraprofessional who know how to fix the computers, but not how to order periodicals.

    Librarianship is Too Generalized to Claim Any Expertise – No shit, and if we did, again, we would not be doing our jobs! Only librarians in specialty libraries can afford to become subject specialists. The rest of us live in multi-disciplinary land and need to adapt to whatever question the patron has about what they want. Information is a huge area. We can’t afford to be niche.

    ’Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself – That’s your assumption. Sadly, it’s shared. I’m going to be a librarian even if I get booted back to doing receptionist work. I am employed as a student and security guard while I’m getting a teaching certificate to go with my MLS (which I just discovered is not the way anyone else has ever done it, but what the heck?). My employment does not change the fact I keep a reference shelf, have “clients” I currently assist for free to maintain my skills and that I wear what I am proudly. The rest of the world can cope. (This is also why I refuse to be a “media specialist.” New shingles or a different format does not change what you painted the interior.)

    Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It – I have to say you’re right there, but, trust me, other fields are not as savvy as you seem to think they are. Education and Library Science are wedded disciplines and suffer a lot of the same flaws. There’s better stuff for Education in part because there is more of it. Frankly, if anything annoys me about librarianship, it’s the moments of complete inflexibility that stifle growth. I wouldn’t call this terminal, but I’d consider large doses of penicillin and bed rest. (I can also say this for degrees like Business and Management with the same confidence. Unlike most librarians, I started my working life in the private sector working for small businesses and the financial industry.)

    Values Are Not Enough – I could write and essay here. Basically, I think you’re right, but the point is so missed the point is almost not useful as a springboard for discussion. If you want more information on that, please let me know and I’ll get to work.

    The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor – You’re right about the schools, and, believe me, out of three schools I have dealt with to get a dual Masters, only the hippie school has enough mental flexibility and willingness to deal with a student that wasn’t taking a traditional career path that I feel comfortable actually participating with their program in a very full and open manner. I think it may be less of a conspiracy to keep students coming in and being trained a certain way then it is these schools and the ALA with them have no clue how to deal with – I hate to say “diversity” because that implies this is a race or gender problem. It’s not that we don’t need more men and color around here, but what I’m getting at is being made to feel unwelcome because your background is different.

    Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work – Yup, but you could say that about Education, Business or Management. I got a better Information Science Education from dealing with my writers. Best thing the schools can do is hone a mindset and offer some good ideas for how to do things once you enter the field.

    Competing Professions Are Offering Different Paradigms to Achieve the Same Goals – Collaboration is sadly lacking around here. Again, I’m coming at librarianship from a private sector background and there are a lot of things I take for granted I should be doing that seem like rocket science to some of my librarian classmates. I’ll admit, they learned to research better. They know more. They speak better. I can get butts in the seats and have no shame in soliciting participation. I have a feeling this going to keep me employed. Again, I think it’s not deliberate, just clueless.

    Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian – I can name a great librarian who is more important than Dewey. Ms. Baker was my school librarian and she remains a badass I want to live up to. She’s more important than Dewey for the same reason you remember the name of your first grade teacher more than who won the Oscar for Best Picture three years ago. It’s not about the fame anyway.

    I wouldn’t call what I do self-important. It’s not about “self” at it’s best. It’s about patrons. It’s about living in a world where a week of the New York Times contains more information bits then most people in the 1700’s came across in their lives. It’s about being able to mine that giant trove of data to pick out things in a quick, digestible manner so that people can go about their lives better prepared or just happier.


  47. In 2008, Libraries Unlimited published my RENEWING PROFESSIONAL LIBRARIANSHIP as a Beta Phi Mu Monograph. A number of reviewers have found it a very useful work for continuing the effort to justify our professional existence. Since it is held by over 300 libraries you will not need to buy a copy. However


  48. I am among that last of a dying breed: A paraprofessional librarian with 31 years of experience working in libraries. I have college courses in library science, many on-the-job seminars, workshops, etc. which have earned CEUs, and an extensive education – just not an MLS. But I wouldn’t presume to have the knowlege to run a large public or academic library these days. I know my limitations and I know that my peers with an MLS had coursework appropriate for those kinds of responsibilites. On the other hand, many library positions these days that require an MLS could easily be handled by a well-trained & educated parapro.


  49. Bravo Ryan!!

    It is amusing to see how offended many of my fellow librarians are that someone would question the notion that we are members of a “profession.” Many pursuits, scholarly and otherwise fall into this same quandary. For example, does one need a Ph.D. in anthropology to be an anthropologist? Does one need a Ph.D. in history to be a historian? Does one need a Ph.D. in English to be a literary critic? I think not. One certainly doesn’t need an MFA to be a writer or painter. Like “historian” or “anthropologist” the term “librarian” is something of a slippery one.

    Doctors, accountants, laywers, pharmacists (and even plumbers and electricians) are required to jump through a series of hoops and demonstrate a certain level of knowledge before they can truly call themselves members of their respective “professions.” Of course this doesn’t mean that people can’t provide their own first aid, prescribe their own does of aspirin or even change a few parts on their home toilet. However, all of these professions are held together with a single common bond. Much needed regulation. Doctors can be charged with malpractice, CPAs may lose their license, lawyers can be disbarred, pharmacists can lose their right to practice and plumbers and electricians can also be stripped of their license. These jobs aren’t regulated simply because of “greed” but because I’m pretty sure that few of us are clambering to head back to the days of unregulated medical practice.

    I’ve never heard of a librarian losing their “right” to practice librarianship for failing to adhere to any of the ALA’s professional standards. While librarians are occasionally fired – it’s certainly not the same thing as losing the right to practice your “profession.”

    The YA librarian at the local public library might certainly be a committed “information worker” with a strong sense of “professionalism” but that certainly doesn’t mean that “librarianship” is (or even should be) a regulated profession. Further proof of this is found in the rapid rate at which libraries are outsourcing. Companies are providing technical services and even managerial support for libraries at a growing pace. These companies, when hiring, are not interesting in the ALA’s stamp of approval but rather raw technical proficiency. Something that having an MLS/MSIS/MSLS in NO way guarantees.

    Also – reason 7 is, for the most part, spot on! I think many librarians are interested in having their “profession” recognized simply for monetary and protectionist reasons. There’s not an honest librarian in the world who won’t admit that most well-trained, educated, paraprofessionals can do there job any day of the week.

    Having said all that, librarians certainly do fill a special and valuable role – preservationists, information literacy educators, etc. Arguing, however, that non-MLS people need to “kiss the ring” because of our “special skills”makes very little sense.


  50. I can name a few great Librarians. They might not be famous, they may not be wealthy or loved by millions, but they had a profound impact on my life.


  51. I haven’t read all the replies yet, but one thing comes to mind as a distinguishing factor when I explain to others how I differentiate professional from para-professional and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the list mentioned here. I was one of those who pooh-poohed the idea of MLIS while working in a library as a page with master’s degree in literature at minimum wage. After receiving my MLIS, of course, I had a different take on the whole thing. Making more money was a big incentive for supporting getting the degree for me, but in getting the degree I made a commitment over and above the one I had prior to the degree. I made a commitment to consider the role model associated with the title, a commitment to supporting lifelong learning not only for myself but for everyone, a commitment to not make assumptions but rather “look it up” (research) and provide supporting statistics when possible. I could go on, but suffice it to say that with the “commitment” to the field came the “professional” standing, not just the degree. For para-professionals, being a librarian (one who works in a library) is often about a “job” rather than a vocation. It’s more like “a calling” for those that choose to make the commitment to be a professional librarian, though, as in any field, the degree is only one step of the journey. We practice our academic skill set and learn from our day to day experience, all the rest of the numbered items are of consequence only in this regard.


  52. What we don’t know if infinitely greater than what we do know. There will always be a need for guides to clear the path to new knowledge no matter how much we think we know.

    Naming a “great” librarian, is like naming a great teacher. It’s personal. Librarians connect with people on an individual level. My favorite librarians are not famous. The experience of getting to know them is what makes them so great. They bring a richness to any conversation.They challenge my mind. They teach me how to think. They introduce new modes of thought. The best ones do this effortlessly.

    Great post, Ryan. You really know how to start a conversation.


  53. a non-librarian library worker bitching about librarians. sound a bit unprofessional and hints of sour grapes. btw, is there such thing as a professional manager? btw, i don’t work in a library and do manage myself.


  54. David’s comment from last year really hits the mark.Wanna’ talk silly, Phil? You seem to want to. Both the Library of Congress, the British Library, the NYPL or your local community public library are not only not the “masterworks of individuals” but of a collective group. Want to argue with Ryan as David said? Go for it I am surprised at your snide hominem remarks. I do not share David’s admiration of you. Your remarks are not only disappointing but ignorant of what libraries and what librarians do. I have worked in both public and academic libraries. Their roles and goals are different. You would not know only 4% of the tog the top 100 academic journals are online. Or what the terms “Information Literacy” means and why it is important. No you would not of known that either. As my departed grandmother used to say “Some folks you just have to pray for.”


  55. It may just be a cultural thing but I’m at the Library and Information Science school in Borås, Sweden and there are a lot of things we do diffrently from what I read in your post. In both or introduction course and then as a focus of another librarian ethics and values with a lot of focus on professional issues that we may encounter and there are consequenses for failing but most of those are becouse a lot of the things are actully illegal (failing to share information: discrimination, sharing dangerous information: aiding ….. , sharing confidentional information:punishable by the personal information act and so on) and maybe the one I disagree with most, librarian is defined by a place. I assume (prehaps too much) that you are talking about the public librarys and their hospital, school and other equivilents? While databases are called what they are called the are in many cases defined just as libraries, storing of information in an organised manner with at least one overseer. One of the big stars on library heaven is Dewey and another is Valfrid Palmgren one of our own I might add. And we are specialised in a knowledge, Information organisation and retrieval, that is our job. We should not be libraries in ourselves but be the expert on usage and building of knowledge infrastructure.

    Like I said a lot of this are not recognisable to me but that may very well be beacouse it IS diffrent for me here than it is for you wherever you are =), all the best


    • It’s hard for me to say whether it is a cultural issue or not. As a social experiment, try this: Go to Wikipedia and search Melvil Dewey. Click CTRL-A to select-all, CTRL-C to cut-and-paste and CTRL-V in your favorite text editor or wordprocessor. Find out the number of words in each of these articles. Now go to Albert Schweitzer, Florence Nightengale, Margaret Mead, John Dewey, I.M. Pei and so on and do the same process. It gives you a more objective sense of the scope of librarians like Dewey versus the heroes of other professions. I also recommend asking librarian friends to name a librarian whose library work/research has ventured beyond the scope of the field of librarianship.

      Again, the issue of legality and consequences for professional misconduct is an important distinction. We all have to obey the law. Citing obedience to the law as an example of professionalism is insufficient in my view.


      • sir, Iam a student of MLISC 1st sem student. So it complicated for me. But I wants to know about this.. so please give me a knowlege of this topic in my email…


  56. I work in a library and agree with most of this. Frankly, my experience of libraries is that those with library degrees can be some of the least skilled staff in the organisation (if you have a library degree and that doesn’t describe you, congratulations, but I don’t see that very often). Often find that the best ‘librarians’ are simply library assistants with (far superior) degrees in other fields. I think the field of libraries would be far better served by just hiring smart people with the right skills and aptitude, and then giving them on the job training. I did a library degree and I’ve never seen a course which was that out of date and padded out.

    Certainly there are some specialist skills. Someone working in cataloguing obviously has some specialist knowledge they need to acquire, but we need a greater variety of roles available to people in libraries, and we need to stop calling every role a ‘librarian’. All the time I see jobs advertised for “social media librarian”, or “learning librarian”, or “customer service librarian” roles and the like. In a big library, these jobs are really specialised and don’t actually involve a huge amount of specialist ‘librarian’ skills. Drop the librarian part, because all we’re doing is counting out the real learning and customer service and social media savants from applying, and instead we’re hiring people with library degrees who also happen to have a tiny bit of experience in social media, or customer service, or teaching. If it’s a customer service manager job, libraries should be able to hire the best customer service manager that they can find. Obviously they also have to be able to handle the library stuff, but it’s not rocket science. All we’re doing is creating a culture of mediocrity. Bleak.


    • More generally, I have in many different contexts made the experience that formal qualifications are less important than intelligence, attitude, and willingness to learn.

      (I also fear that formal qualifications will be even less worthwhile in the future, considering how “higher” education appears to use lower and lower standards, both with regard to admission and to graduation, as time goes by.)


  57. I am a librarian with an MLIS, although I no longer work as a librarian. I also have a law degree and am a practicing attorney. When I share my background with others, they are far more impressed that I am a librarian than that I am a lawyer.


  58. Not because your work is done now by robots you’re not anymore a doer of the task. Is it just for your to say in the future that doctors should not be professionals because the operations are done by machines and not anymore by the doctors of today.

    If we will go back in time, It’s librarians who managed the chaos in information storage and retrieval. Simply because the most valuable to human up to this day was/is able to manage by the Librarians – DATA.

    To fact, it is the Library that was established first before any institution did. It collected the information to one location (Alexandrian Library) so that people knew where to go to learn. To contemplate, it was even known before as the only place where you find books – which was quote and quote known as the only source of information. I always believe that if it’s not through the library learning is quite not what we see it today. Academe and Universities owe their foundation to Libraries. Why? Because It is at the seat of the library where learn-ed people meet and converge to formulate their IDEAS. Library promoted one of the ways and means to learn – READING and provided all the support to achieve it.

    We should not contest Librarians value because they have proven their worth. We would perhaps not as learn-ed as we are now if the Library was not established. However I do not have contention on the argument that currently the work of Librarians are deemed being AIDED (not replaced) by computers. Being said that it is about time that the Librarianship and its services evolved.

    You may be an adult and knows how to go by yourselves NOW in searching but it is inevitable that we have our school for the young and starters that needs a location where they will learn how to search for information that will bring them to learning – to gain knowledge and eventually wisdom. But before they can manage to do so let the LIBRARY do its task.

    For you who is a Librarian and now in identity crisis, don’t be. I wrote a paper entitled “TAKING THE CHALLENGE: FROM LIBRARIAN TO A BROADER ROLE OF INFORMATION SPECIALIST”. I stated there the history of Library because it will give us appreciation of what the Library has given humanity and how a Librarian should take the challenge back of being the MANAGERS OF INFORMATION.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s