The Importance of Professionalism

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Katie Clausen.

“Suits” by Paul G under CC license via flickr.

In one of my courses we are analyzing ALA’s “Core Values of Librarianship.” We take on one core value every week, reading articles and discussing how these values define us as librarians. It is important to understand the policy that makes the foundation of our profession, even though it can be….well, boring. But if we take the principles and apply them to our everyday lives and jobs, it is easy to see why we need these standards. They are, as the ALA states, “the foundation of modern librarianship.”

Last week, we tackled Professionalism, and it was quite the dialogue.

First of all, The American Library Association’s core value of professionalism states that the ALA “supports the provision of library services by professionally qualified personnel who have been educated in graduate programs within institutions of higher education. It is of vital importance that there be professional education available to meet the social needs and goals of library services.”

Let’s break it down. What does professionalism mean? Why do we need it?

1.) Professionalism in our speech: Speak with confidence, and maintain appropriate language. We are models for our communities, and in order to sustain professionalism, we need to be positive examples in our speech. It is not acceptable for the public to hear librarians curse, name call, or use improper grammar. This doesn’t mean we have to be robots or never have any fun. I love talking to kids using “abbrevs” or joking around using some of their lingo. But there is a boundary; patrons deserve respectful, courteous language from us at all times.

2.) Professionalism in our attitude: There are all things we don’t want or don’t like to do. Picking up the toddler room (with its used band-aids stuck to the floor or peanut butter on the toys) is not my favorite thing to do, but I don’t scoff and drag my feet while doing it. I hold my head high and just clean it up. If we are having a bad day, we need to maintain a calm demeanor. People are good at sensing each other’s attitudes, and patrons need to see positivity and warmth in librarians. If we have positive attitudes, our patrons will want to come back.

3.) Professionalism in our dress: This goes without saying. And for all of you who are applying to graduate programs, this is also important! If you have any kind of interview, whether it is for acceptance to a program or for a part-time job or a full-time job, dress matters. This does not mean you need to spend tons of money on clothes though. I often go to resale shops or places like Dress Barn (or Plato’s Closet for both girls and guys), and I find professional pieces that I can wear with different outfits. If you are thinking, “What? We are librarians! We should be able to express ourselves however we want!” I understand. I loved one of my childhood librarians who wore huge, hoop earrings and tie dyed skirts! But I don’t remember seeing too much of her thighs. It’s great to wear creative clothes to express personality, as long as they are appropriate.

4.) Professionalism in our character: Be respectful towards others, both while we are on the clock and off. Librarians are respected leaders of the community, and it is likely we will see your patrons outside of the library walls. We need to watch how we behave, and how we represent ourselves. Speak and act from your professional stance. We all have opinions about things—religion, politics, ethics, art, values—but as librarians, it is important to try and maintain objectivity. I don’t mean we can’t put up political stickers on our cars or blog about our opinions we should not do so with anger or cruelty towards others with an opposing view. Our opinions and contributions matter—and they define our character. Let’s be authoritative and professional.

5.) Professionalism online: This one really matters and it is relatively new point of discussion. If you think about it, everything online is documented and searchable. If we put our thoughts and opinions online, it is ALWAYS possible for people to find it. This means that when we blog, update, tweet or post photos, we need to be aware that people (colleagues, professors, potential employers) can find and see it fairly easily. Do you really want a potential employer to see a picture of you from college, holding a beer and dancing on a pool table? No, you don’t. It could cost you an interview or a job. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to become a teetotaler and lock yourself in your room, but it does mean that you should analyze your photos, your social networking, and your blogging. Take down pictures that are unprofessional, or ask whoever put them up to take them down. It looks much better to have pictures of you with your dogs, your family, or with your books!

It may seem strict but professionalism matters. But it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun! We love stories, and stories are all about adventure. We can be adventurous, we can be silly, we can be quirky! But we can do it under the umbrella of professionalism. In order to be considered professionals, we need to act like professionals in every aspect of our lives. Let’s represent the body of knowledge we call library science with dignity and character.

What is your definition of Professionalism for LIS? How does this play out in our every day education, work and personal lives?

Katie Clausen (@katiekangaroo) hails from Minnesota, where she actually enjoys the snow! She earned an M.A. in Children’s Literature from St. Olaf College and an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Simmons College in Boston, MA. She is currently attending Dominican University in River Forest, IL for her Masters in Library Science, focusing on Youth Services while working in The Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican and in the children’s department at Oak Park Public Library. 

17 replies

  1. Katie, I agree with many of the underlying themes in your post but it kind of worries me that this sounds so cut and dry… like you either are or are not a professional and there’s this whole checklist of behaviors that you have to constantly appraise yourself by. Librarians aren’t automatons, we’re humans–and I know I couldn’t conform to this description (I don’t think I would want to, either). Don’t get me wrong: I hope that librarians are reasonable, generally pleasant people who think about the kind of image they are projecting to patrons. Of course I do… but ultimately I think we all just need to use our best judgment about our own behavior. Professionalism is not a black and white issue, it’s a myriad of gray issues. I also think if anyone’s egregiously out of line or makes consistently poor choices they will be weeded out anyhow.

    I do agree with you that we should analyze our blogging, social media, and online presence, because people will be making constant judgments about what they find there. I am conscious of the image I am projecting, especially online, but if I was worried about being too safe, I don’t know if I could even put a sentence together on my blog. I consider myself a professional but I am also self-deprecating and lighthearted and snarky. I don’t take life too seriously, I like to call things as I see it in this crazy library world and I’ve found that I really gravitate towards librarians/library students who do the same. If people don’t like that so be it, but I am not cruel or unreasonable in any criticisms I make. I think your underlying point of assessing our own behavior is right on but my own opinion is simple: we need to be cognizant of how we are presenting ourselves and content to live with the consequences. Own it and be smart and find your own comfort level. This is important to me because I want to love my profession and I can’t love it if I’m constantly worried about being “un-librarianlike.” Know what I mean?


  2. Check you out Katie! So happy to see you posting for HackLibSchool 🙂 I think I’m on the same page as Brianna on this one; not because I don’t agree with the overall points you’re making, just because I think that the most professional one can be is what they’re most comfortable with. For instance, I don’t know you very well but whenever I’ve seen you you’re so poised and well put-together; and that seems like the professional MO you’re comfortable with. But then, I’ve been successful “professionally” with my grammatically incorrect blog and calling people “Dude.”

    I wrote about this in a post earlier this year; I hope it’s okay to link it!:

    Basically, there’s room in the profession for all kinds. People can smell a fake from a mile away. I think whatever you do, if you do it with authenticity, you’ll go far.

    Thank you for bringing up such a topic to be debated!


  3. I agree with you have said on the definition of professionalism. We do need to use proper grammar, do our share of duties (whether we like them or not) with professionalism, and keep our public online presence professional. On your point 4, “Professionalism in our character”, I’ve written a post on that myself ( It’s something that is really important to remember because in many ways our personal attitude can affect patrons the most. It affects both service and collection development. And I agree, at interviews we need to dress professionally, likely with a suit, but I see no problem dressing down a bit to nice pants and a sweater while on the job.

    As for our education, work, and personal lives, we do want to be as professional as possible as students. It’s practice for later when we are on the job. However, with family, we don’t have to remain professional. They are the ones we can relax around. We need a break after being students and/or professional all day.


  4. I agree largely on your first three points. This is how professionalism is typically viewed and it works for the majority of people. However, the fifth point is where I find disagreement with. I’m conscious of how I am presenting myself, but I stand behind every picture, tweet, and post. This is a personal issue, and I agree with the statement Brianna made it being made up of grays. I’m not embarrassed by a single thing of me on the internet (okay, kind of the poetry from when I was 12. It is dreadful!). I can be found through an easy Google search, my name’s unique spelling doesn’t allow me to hide much. Personally, I’m perfectly fine with a potential employer seeing a picture of me drinking. If I was doing a keg stand? No. But I’ve also never done a keg stand, nor have I danced on a table. There is a picture of me from the waist up, a cardigan covering my breasts, and showing off my new rib tattoo. I took this picture at 19, it is out and about on the internet (Facebook, Tumblr, literary tattoo blogs) I’m okay with that. I love my tattoo. I won’t walk into work like that, and if a potential employer sees that and it costs me an interview, it really isn’t the kind of co-workers I want. I get people say ‘beggars can’t be choosers,’ but I’m not begging. I’m working hard so that I get to be a chooser.

    When I think of how I represent myself online, I see two options 1) “Clean” everything the best I can and censor in the future 2) Own everything I do and say that ends up on the internet as well as be conscious about it. I’ve chosen door number two. Perhaps it is knowing where we stand before getting into a situation. Asking ourselves — Where are my personal lines drawn? What kind of librarian do I want to be? Am I comfortable with a potential employer/professional contacts/professors/etc seeing this?


  5. I think that it is possible to have a balance of being yourself, while still being professional. My twitter account isn’t all library-related, I post about things that are personally interesting to me as well. I had wondered if I needed to make it private but decided that I am not a horribly offensive person, I just watch what I say. I am aware that people are looking up what I say online since I am out on the job market. But here is my key thing: I will not be someone that I am not. This is the key thing I would stress to anyone going into job interviews. Sure, wear that suit, but be yourself. Don’t be overly stuffy, it’s okay to talk about your interests. Many times, the search committee will want to know who you really are.

    There are also times when ethics do come into play at my place of work. Sometimes I have to help people research things that do not align with my world view, but I do it because it’s my job. That I think doesn’t change really because it is part of our core values.


  6. Isn’t that particular excerpt of the ALA Core Values reflecting the belief that library work should be performed by “professionals,” i.e. people with graduate degrees (as opposed to paraprofessionals)? Not that ALA or most librarians would disagree with your points but it seems it’s a different definition of “professionalism” than you are using here.


  7. Wow! Thank you all for the eloquent and analytical replies, as well as links to other articles! I agree with Brianna that this issues is not black and white– there are many shades of gray under the umbrella of professionalism, and it is a complex issue. I should have been more clear that this blog is not meant to be a cut and dry list of things librarians must do or they aren’t professionals. Rather, its intention is to be a few guiding principles to be aware of when thinking about what it means to represent the profession of librarianship and ALA’s Core Values. Sara, of course I think it’s awesome that you call people “dude,” and Brianna, it’s fabulous that you are snarky and lighthearted and that your online personality reflects that! I am quite strange, myself. I have pictures up on Facebook of my family doing an annual Christmas play in our living room. During this play, I play Mary, my older brother plays Joseph, and my sister (who is six feet tall) plays baby Jesus. It has always been this way– since she has gotten taller than me, I now carry her piggy back style through the living room as my brother has strange things like Twins blow up baseball bats and vacuums. It’s just a tradition with our family. BUT, it is a Christian story, which would be offensive to some people, right? So should I take it down? This is where the professional judgment comes in. I don’t think I should take it down. BUT, part of the reason I don’t think I should is because I have privacy settings on my Facebook, so the public can’t see it. Only my friends can. Maybe this is being too worried, but I am very aware of how I present myself, in person and online. Brianna, I also completely understand that you can’t CONSTANTLY worry about being “un-librarianlike”– you just have to type your sentences, do your job. And I guarantee that you are being a professional because you ARE thinking about it.

    I also agree with Amy that a suit is great for an interview, but so is a sweater and pants. So is any outfit that expresses your personality. My point is that it probably shouldn’t be too revealing, as we are working in a public space that is meant to make a diverse groups of people feel comfortable.

    I do think there is the potential for a slippery slope. Is it professional to have pictures of you drinking from college or now? I don’t think so, but that’s MY opinion. Is it okay to let the occasional “Damn” come out of your mouth in front of a patron? Again, I don’t think so, but I own that as MY opinion. But I do think we should be aware of what we say and do, in person and online. And where do we draw the line on what is appropriate? Maybe we can’t draw it. It is simply up to each individual to decide what is appropriate and professional. But employers do check out potential employees online, and your attitude, dress, and character DO matter.

    Thanks for all your posts, everyone!!!


  8. Excellent post, and thought-provoking!

    Speaking as someone out in the library world who occasionally hires, I have a little more food for thought.

    Professionalism does matter, but you can certainly have a personality and be professional!

    To ensure the future of librarianship we all need to be rock stars, since you might not realize that the patron in front of you is the University President’s son, or the sister of the mayor. As a librarian, you need to do your job well, and ensure that your patrons think of you first when it comes to getting information in a friendly and efficient way. You’re on PR duty all the time. (And that may include your off time when you’re innocently shopping for groceries and a patron spies you selecting yogurt and asks you a reference question.)

    Dress, though, is an entirely different story. It’s probably wise not to show too much thigh, whether you’re male or female, but your institution’s sense of dress may vary. Some places require suits. Some require skirts. Some just require that your clothes are clean. If you can, scope out a library before you decide to work there, either in person or by stalking pictures that might accompany staff lists on library web sites. But you can never go wrong by wearing a suit to an interview. Plan to remove the jacket if it seems too stuffy, and you’re instantly less formal. You can go wrong by under-dressing at the start, even though the librarians’ dress might not be formal. And try to keep tattoos covered at the outset, but if they peek out from your sleeves once you’re hired and it’s ok for the formality-level of your library, we probably won’t care.

    Wear the suit – if it’s too formal for our environment, we’ll just chalk it up to you being serious about the job!


  9. I second that! I think professionalism is beyond clothing and goes deep down to soul and values. It is in our conscience that is determined through our sense of right and wrongdoing. Thanks for sharing the overall aspect of profession values. I appreciate this post 🙂


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