Valuing Professional Librarianship

Paul Lai, HLS alumnus, works as a manager of information resources for an online university’s writing center and as a librarian in a public library. He lives in the Twin Cities, Minnesota with his partner and their dog Giles. He tweets sporadically: @pylduck.

I was drawn to Hack Library School (HLS) while I was a student because it is a wonderful forum for collective, reflective engagement with our educations as emerging librarians. The overarching goal of HLS, as I’ve seen it, is to encourage library school students to think proactively about how our educations prepare us for a fulfilling career in librarianship and to address gaps through extracurricular learning and advocacy. More importantly, though, the blog as a whole encourages us to think beyond our individual experiences to consider how the curricula of ALA-accredited master’s in library and information studies (MLIS) programs provide or do not provide useful educations for librarians, and it helps us think about the profession of librarianship as one that we can help to shape. HLS thus encourages us to be advocates for librarianship in the broadest sense—not just with legislatures, county boards, city councils, and other funding agencies as people generally think of library advocacy but also in all facets of our work with people inside and outside our libraries.

Lately, I have been thinking not only about how my MLIS education has prepared me to be a librarian but also how libraries do or do not value professional education and training. We’re all familiar with the common doomsday narratives of the demise of libraries and books as well as of the diminishing importance of librarians in an increasingly technological information landscape. Less discussed is that librarians ourselves are making decisions that dismantle the very basis of our profession by devaluing an MLIS education and/or professional training in librarianship. Librarians are colluding in the deprofessionalization of librarianship.

As a way of addressing these challenges, I hope to encourage MLIS students to consider these issues throughout your classes and especially when you become practicing librarians. Continue having thoughtful, difficult, productive conversations about the state of the profession and discuss how to value the education, training, and particular expertise of librarians in our work. Such conversations can be difficult in workplaces where people generally try to avoid conflict, but we should remember that when we don’t speak up, others can interpret our silence as agreement with their perspectives.

I took some time at the end of 2015 to ask librarians I’ve encountered in the past two-and-a-half years some questions about how they feel their MLIS education has helped them in their jobs:

  • What is one thing you learned in your MLS/MLIS degree program that has been especially useful in your work at as a librarian (specific examples would be great!)?
  • What is something you did not learn about in your degree program that would have been helpful in getting you started as a librarian?
  • What classes in your program have proven to be most useful for your work?
  • What advice would you give current MLS/MLIS students about getting the most out of their programs?
  • In what ways do you feel like libraries continue to value an MLS/MLIS education for staff?
  • In what ways do you feel like libraries do not value the MLS/MLIS degree?

About a dozen librarians from a few different public library systems and academic libraries offered their responses, and what follows is a composite narrative relaying their advice and perspectives. Much of their advice echoes the tips relayed here on HLS.

Some Advice

  • A few different respondents recommended that all library students, especially those who are interested in public libraries, take youth services classes, even if you aren’t planning on becoming a children’s librarian, because many public librarians help children of all ages at the information desk. Librarians in some systems are also increasingly staffing one-desk model service desks (where librarians and circulation staff sit at the same desk). This advice is essentially that of the whole library approach forwarded by the American Library Association—every librarian should be willing and able to help any patron who visits the library.
  • Four respondents mentioned book-and-reference-specific types of courses like collection management and readers advisory as helpful for orienting them to what remains (despite all proclamations to the contrary) the core of libraries today: selecting and recommending books and directing patrons to appropriate databases.
  • Interestingly, three respondents strongly encouraged students to take nontraditional library school courses like statistics, sociology, social work, and organizational leadership to understand some of the workplace politics you might encounter and the types of interactions you might face with patrons of diverse backgrounds. If possible, one respondent also mentioned, take a related course outside of the library school department so that you can engage with the perspective of emerging professionals in a different field.
  • Multiple respondents encouraged students to get involved in student organizations and professional organizations (many of which offer inexpensive memberships for students) to learn more about the profession, practice your networking skills, and understand how to navigate organizational politics. I would add that this experience is especially useful for learning how to build consensus, make decisions in group settings, and use other skills crucial to workplace success that are not often taught in library school courses.
  • Many respondents also noted that their time as volunteers and interns was incredibly helpful in getting them to meet professionals and to understand how libraries work. More pointedly, one respondent wrote, “I would encourage all library school students to do internships in places that make them uncomfortable and that push them to question what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” This advice is meant to put you in a position where you have to define for yourself what our profession means, what you want to get from it, and what you will contribute to it.
  • Finally, one respondent wrote that she remembers most powerfully one professor who encouraged librarians-in-training to “be kind in answering every question—whether it was helping an elderly lady with the copy machine or doing an involved literature search for someone.” Librarianship, at the end of the day, is about relationships. Through positive encounters with patrons, we build communities and encourage curiosity in our world.

Although I am clearly someone who thinks the MLIS degree has been crucial to my understanding of librarianship, I would be remiss not to address what some respondents brought up as the less-than-useful aspects of their educations. I should also add that my commitment to the importance of an MLIS degree does not preclude alternate forms of professionalization such as rigorous workplace training programs in which paraprofessionals who find themselves interested in pursuing more responsibilities and types of work in the library can learn what they need to take on the tasks of practicing librarians.

Some Warnings

  • Three respondents felt strongly that the MLIS degree seemed to be mostly an artificial barrier—a piece of paper that was the ticket to entry into certain library jobs but not much more than that. Even worse, a couple of these respondents pointed out that the graduate degree requirement leads to a library school population of primarily middle-class students who can afford to go to college and then to graduate school, and this situation thus forms a fairly homogenous workforce of librarians. If we truly want a diverse workforce of professional librarians, we will have to address this pipeline issue. These respondents mentioned that their experiences working directly with the public such as in retail jobs, non-profit work, and community organizing were more valuable in providing the kind of background and training to work with library patrons.
  • A couple of respondents pointed out that both library programs and hiring managers seem to want library students to take mostly skills-based courses like ones on how to use an ILS system and how to assemble book lists. Skills-based courses that focus on how to do specific tasks are better suited for on-the-job training, and they are ultimately less useful than big picture classes that encourage students to ask questions about the guiding principles and assumptions of librarianship. Of course, an ideal curriculum introduces these fundamental skills for librarianship with a solid grounding in exploring why we do what we do as librarians. Having a strong grasp of principles helps us adapt to changes in computer programs, technological devices, and other such details because we remain committed to the same work of providing patrons access to books and information (in whatever format, database, or other trappings in which they may come); developing various literacies; and facilitating communications between community organizations and individuals.
  • Some respondents, including two who have been in the field for over two decades, worry about the increasing reliance on paraprofessionals. Libraries, understandably, are trying to figure out what kinds of staff positions will best serve the changing needs of patrons. However, I seldom hear of libraries making a strong push to reshape the curricula at MLIS degree programs to train professional librarians in a wider range of knowledge (for example, such as advocating for a greater focus on digital literacy courses). As a result, workplaces seem to be less cohesive around a shared professional identity, and there is less possibility for conversations about the pressing issues of our profession. Let me be clear that I, like these respondents, are not wholly against a mixed job class environment; rather, we want to ask that what seems to be the easy solution to hire non-MLIS staff to cover a range of competencies be considered thoroughly in light of the implications of further deprofessionalization.

My own two cents are that library students should begin practicing advocacy of all sorts and at all levels. Take time to think about how you see the value of your own education and experiences. How would you convey these ideas to the public, to coworkers, to supervisors, to library boards, and to funding agencies? How will you build a sense of shared professional identity as a librarian with your coworkers? How else can you help carry on conversations about librarianship?

In general, I hope you’ll think about how library organizations function throughout your educations and consider how you see yourselves as future librarians in multi-layered organizations. Learn about the social role of libraries and how they support or impede the communities they serve. As one respondent wrote, “I wish library schools required classes that explored critical literacies, that looked at system and societal-level issues and talked about the roles libraries do or could play.” Imagine yourself as a librarian both inside and outside the library’s walls and consider how your work intersects with social forces that enable and disempower patrons at your library.

To conclude, I return to my hope that we can hold on to librarianship as a distinct profession. Professionalism is a contentious term, and there is healthy debate about what defines a professional for librarianship as well as how that term can be exclusionary. Relatedly, the growth of paraprofessional job classes in most libraries has created a need to balance the work of professional librarians with other library staff’s duties. My perspective on these debates is that in order for libraries to remain a vital institution for learning and information access, librarians must be advocates for ourselves as practicing distinctive work; we must hold shared values and a body of knowledge attainable only through education and/or systematic training. Such a distinctive professional identity does not prevent us from working with other professionals with overlapping values and commitments such as technology specialists, social workers, and classroom educators. In essence, what we need is to think in terms of whole person librarianship, which allows us to understand our core work as librarians in the context of serving patrons who are whole persons with complex lives outside of our libraries. We do not need to provide for all of the needs of our patrons, but we need to understand how to connect patrons to the resources and other professionals who can help them. And importantly, we need to acknowledge that just because we encounter patrons on a daily basis who have questions, concerns, and needs that we cannot address fully, it does not mean that our work is obsolete or that what libraries need are other professionals instead.


Photo from Justin Grimes on Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0.

2 replies

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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