Professional Is As…

An older post on self-promotion has been attracting some new comments, and I wanted to pull one out for more discussion here. Anonymous commenter writes:

“and one other thing: i am a professional librarian because i have the education, training, job description and the pay necessary to make me a professional librarian. it has nothing to do with how many conferences i’ve attended or how many articles or books i’ve gotten published. not everybody has the time or inclination for publishing or networking; therefore, it is not an accurate measure of who–or what–is or is not professional. ”

(The first thing that jumps out at me from the above comment is the line about pay — thinking back to my first post-MLS job and what they deigned to pay me, I don’t know that I’d choose to include monetary compensation in any definition of what makes someone a “professional librarian.”)

Aside from that minor quibble, though, it is worthwhile to think about what makes us professionals, and I do believe our profession is defined in part by its literature and in part by how we interact with one another and with the outside world.

No, not everyone is going to publish. No, not everyone has the funding to conference-hop. Yes, we all contribute in different ways. But I think that the key here is the very idea of contributing — of being part of something larger than ourselves, our day-to-day jobs, and our single institutions. Whether you choose to contribute by writing for the library literature, or maintaining a blog or web site or e-mail list, or joining committees, or mentoring new librarians, or posting to discussion lists, or commenting on other people’s blogs, you’re participating in a larger and ongoing conversation that continues to define us and what’s important to us as a profession.

I don’t define library professionals in terms of how many books they have published or by how many conferences they have attended — but I do think that we each have a professional responsibility to keep up, keep connected, and give back in one way or another. Our participation in the larger whole is what makes this a profession, rather than a field in which we happen to hold a job.


  1. Dorothea:

    In a word: yup.

    I’m sorry about the tone of those anonymous commenters in the earlier thread. That’s a nasty way to be introduced to the biblioblogosphere.

  2. Meredith:

    Hmmm… I don’t recall anyone saying that to be a professional you have to speak at conferences and write. I write because I love to and I speak because I like sharing ideas with people. Clearly for someone to be that defensive (and anonymously no less) they must feel like there IS something wrong with not speaking and writing (which no one ever said). This is the sort of nasty/bitter attitude that makes people feel embarassed for their achievements.

  3. Harrlynn:

    dorothea, you of the hamster-headed icon, you needn’t apologize for my tone. contentiousness is a large part of my personality, and you should respect it.

    ms gordon, thanks for your response to my post. as for the getting paid part of my professional quotient, if i didn’t get paid, i’d consider myself a volunteer or an amateur. getting paid is a primary concern of all professionals.

    now i didn’t say how much pay is necessary to be considered a professional, but i imagine that it would be whatever i agree to work for. and once i’ve agreed to work for that pay, i have no room to complain.

    as for keeping up, what if i’m leading?

    but seriously, how hard is it to keep up if you come to work and do your job to the best of your ability?

    being a librarian is a noble and low stress occupation that involves no sales or the intimate knowledge of someone’s health or wealth. as a reference librarian, however, helping people find whatever information or entertainment they need or want is why i became a librarian. librarianship suits my personality and my goals for life.

    can people make a good living as a professional librarian? no, not really, just as they can’t make a terribly good living as a professional actor, musician, poet or writer either, not unless they’re a star (like you’re going to be ms gordon).

    and connections? well, connections have never helped me do my job any better. connections have only helped me land jobs. but the connections of other people have also prevented me from landing jobs, so connections are pretty much a wash when it comes to professionalism.

    what’s most important about being a professional librarian is doing your job well and having your patrons know it. if they know, so will everybody else. i won’t need to promote myself.

    call me an idealist, but my personal sense of integrity allows for little else.

  4. Harrlynn:

    meredith, just because you have a name doesn’t mean you aren’t just as anonymous as me. don’t feel embarrased for your achievements, whatever they may be. do me favor, though, if you actually have any, don’t brag about them because i really don’t care. i’m not hiring you, at least not any time soon.

    meredith, as to what was actually said, that really doesn’t matter. it’s all about the implications and my perceptions of ms gordon’s earlier comments.

    it is my perception that many library land pundits think that you’re not contributing to the profession by just showing up to work everyday and doing an excellent job, that if you’re not doing all you can to get to conferences, publish, meet-and-greet and so forth, that somehow you’re not going to be able to keep up with the god-almighty, ever-changing, mother-loving, father-stabbing profession of librarianship.

    i’m here to say that these pundits, though perhaps the squeakiest wheels, are not the majority of wheels, and have very little effect on how or why i continue to do an excellent job as a librarian.

  5. Meredith:

    Who’s bragging?

    “as for keeping up, what if i’m leading?”

    I still think you’re seeing things that don’t exist and are being very rude to many people who love this profession so much that they work hard to provide the best service to their patrons AND spend their free time trying to improve the profession beyond the walls of their own library.

    Yes, providing excellent service to your patrons is MOST important for people working in libraries, but why denigrate people who try to improve the profession at a macro level? If you were doing good things at your library that I could learn from, I’d like to hear about it. That’s why I read blogs as well as the professional literature. It’s not bragging; it’s sharing good ideas so that we don’t all have to reinvent the wheel. And if you’d rather not learn anything from bloggers, then I hope you’re learning somewhere else (professional literature, continuing education, etc.). And if not, then don’t worry about hiring me, because I really wouldn’t want to work at a place that doesn’t value continuing education and innovation.

  6. Harrlynn:

    meredith, to you, i’m rude; to me, i’m amusing. see what i’m saying? i’m not going to change, and i cannot alter your perception, and you cannot alter mine. the only thing we can hope for is humility and tolerance.

    i can tolerate self promoters as long as they admit it. you should tolerate my rudeness because i’ve admitted i have no other choice.

    oh, and here’s a clue for you: most libraries don’t value continuing education or innovation; they value the reinvention and repackaging of the wheel. consider yourself lucky to be employed otherwise.

  7. walt:

    Since I inadvertently kicked off much of this (your earlier post) through a clumsy, apologized-for, comment, maybe I should comment here: I do still believe that there’s a difference between making your good work known (which, as far as I can see, is what you and Meredith and many others do) and pushing for Star status (which is “LOOK AT ME,” rather than “here’s what I’ve done/am doing/plan to do that I believe benefits the field”). But I certainly can’t offer named examples without getting in more trouble than I’d like.

    As to this particular post and its thread: I believe I’m entitled to call myself a library professional, both because of what I’ve added to the field (one or two publications and speeches along the way, a modicum of associaton activity) and of the attitude I bring to my work, which always serves libraries even if it isn’t in a library. I believe some mix of both is ideal.

    But I’m in that odd position: I use the term “library professional” rather than “professional librarian” because, as a semi-loyal ALA member, I respect the ML[I]S requirement for the latter name.

    Seems to me that most non-anonymous commenters are pretty clear that writing and speaking is neither necessary nor sufficient for professionalism–but that maybe, just maybe, just showing up for work every day (without maintaining ongoing learning and thinking about the field) isn’t enough all on its own.

  8. Harrlynn:

    walt, how could i show up for work everyday and not learn something or think about my profession, especially if i actually work in a library and, as i said, i’m consciously trying to do the best work i can do. not to mention the googlesome fact that there’s so much good information about my profession readily available at my fingertips. i don’t have to go anywhere or talk to anyone but the staff and patrons (real people whom i respect and enjoy serving), rather than submit myself to all the ridiculousness of meeting and greeting strangers who happen to share my profession.

    still, walt, i’m only seeking a middle ground where the meeters and greeters (aka movers and shakers) garner the same level of respect as the person who loves their profession and does an excellent job. one doesn’t get the feeling that that is the case. one gets the feeling that one must obsess over the profession to get ahead, that one must constantly remind people of the job they are doing, that we must continually justify our existence lest we fade away.

    to me, that’s a disgusting and untrue proposition. libraries and librarians are not ever going to be replaced by google or some other overblown search engine. if google went away tomorrow, i’d still be doing my job. i’m confident about my usefulness and don’t have to prostitute myself otherwise.

  9. walt:

    harrlyn, I don’t disagree with much of anything in your most recent comment. The comment that got me in trouble was intended to say that “the rest of us” were also important contributors to the field, and “us” certainly includes those who aren’t visibly active in the profession.

  10. Brian Gray:

    Rachel, I agree greatly with your definition of being “professional”. I think you and Harrlynn are arguing two types of professionalism: participating in the profession as a whole versus professionally completing the task of your employment within an organization. People are needed for each role, and every mix in between.

  11. Brian Gray:

    I cannot imagine including monetary reward in the definition of “professional”, no matter if you relate “professional” to librarianship as a whole or your specific organization. Money is a reward of being employed, while professionalism is a trait describing various aspects that many comments here have described (making your patrons happy, participating in discussions, continuing education, etc.).

    If you just report to work and do the job to the best of your ability, are you not concerned with improving? Even if your patrons are getting the information they want, can we not improve to give them even better service?

    You have never used a “connection” to help with an answer that you could not attain for a patron? You have never used a “connection” to access a resource that you could not use otherwise?

    Librarianship is very much about “sales”. We must promote resources and the best information all the time. We must persuade our patrons to do a search in a certain way. We advertise our activities. If we do not “sell” and we just assume that libraries are safe from being replaced, we are doing our patrons a great disservice. Patrons are already going elsewhere for poor information. Budgets are decreasing all the time, just demonstrating that others do not have the blind faith in libraries that you do. Competition is all around us, and cannot just be ignored.

  12. Harrlynn:

    brian, let me say i agree with your first response, but that your second response, beginning with your lack of imagination and ending in your quotation of sales, leaves me with way too many points of language to refute. i think i’ll just have a drink instead. mabuhay!

  13. Rachel:

    I’m starting to wish Blogger allowed threaded comments here… but anyway:

    Dorothea: Thanks — I’ve been online a long time, though, and seen (and been called :) ) a heck of a lot worse than a few anonymous comments.

    Harrlynn: If you are taking the time to read — let alone comment on — library blogs, then you are doing something to “keep up” beyond your day-to-day job.

    Walt: It wasn’t just your comment that inspired the earlier post, although that was part of it. Self-promotion and giving back are issues that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, and part of what inspired the 2002 book I wrote with Sarah Johnson (and some of the “marketing yourself” presentations that followed). And I think we’re on the same page with the difference between “LOOK AT ME” and substantive contributions, which I tried to say in that post.

  14. Harrlynn:

    no, rachel, that’s not entirely correct. i pretty much get paid to read and comment on blogs–and not just library ones. and trust me, my participation is not helping me to “keep up” with anything. if anything, reading and commenting on blogs probably keeps me down and out, my two favorite places.

    in fact, the most useful thing i’ve seen on anybody’s blog of late was the address to this fabulous music site:

    you’re welcome.

  15. Bob Watson:

    I’m inclined to think that “professional participation” is another way to say “learning and teaching” — the conjunction is necessary.

    Those who tend too much to their own gardens are practicing librarianship with yesterday’s tools. They have, in a professional sense, “died” … and their corpses get in the way of those who are still living. :-)

  16. Walt:

    The nice thing about Librarianship: we are very close to the clerical profession. Luckily, we only have to take vows of poverty and obedience…

  17. Walt:

    I am obviously a different WALT

  18. Dorothea:

    I’ve been thinking about this some more, and what’s shaken out of my scattered brain is that we’re trying to get at the difference between people who work in libraries as a job and people who work in libraries as a career.

    (Isn’t that what deprofessionalization is, really? Turning a career into a job?)

    Some of the qualities we’re trying to measure are commitment and engagement. These are viciously hard to find good heuristics for. The ones we’ve got — well, like all heuristics, they leak. People can play the game without having much real engagement with the field. And the leakage causes resentment.

    I don’t have any solutions. I do feel a little better about my understanding of the problem, though.

  19. Harrlynn:

    leaky heuristics? yea, a good plumber is hard to find.

  20. rory:

    I agree with Walt that there is a difference between contributing to the profession outside of your immediate job and self-promotion. I would add that I think it is a very big difference.

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