What makes a librarian a librarian? - Jo Alcock Consulting
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What makes a librarian a librarian?

What makes a librarian a librarian?

There have recently been some very interesting posts about the difference between librarians who hold a qualification (mainly the American MLS as discussions have been primarily from those across the pond) and those who don’t have a qualification. There seems to be ambiguity about the term librarian and when it should be used, something which causes me no end of confusion as a not yet qualified “librarian”.

It all started with a post by someone who felt that the Library Journals Mover and Shakers should only include qualified librarians:

… why are non-librarians getting these acknowledgements? I’m very much for non-librarians bringing their expertise and excellence to libraries; but shouldn’t there be a clear distinction between the work that we do and the work of non-librarians.

Personally, I don’t agree with this view – to me a Mover and Shaker is someone who has had an innovative idea or put into practice something that has made a drastic difference to either their own library or the library world in general, regardless of who they are. This year, Tim Spalding from LibraryThing was named a Mover and Shaker which I think is great – he may not be an information professional but he’s made a massive difference to libraries and fully deserves the recognition.

I believe the original commenter feels that whilst non-information professionals do deserve recognition for their efforts/achievements, Mover and Shakers should only be qualified “librarians”, whilst others should be represented in a different category. Why? Why should only qualified librarians be able to become a Mover and Shaker? Why does a period of study at a library school mean you deserve greater recognition?

I guess maybe I hold this view because I’m not yet a qualified librarian, but to be honest I think I would feel the same even if I was qualified. You see, despite being a typical “academic” type, I really don’t think qualifications mean as much as experience in the real world. OK, so without my Undergraduate degree I couldn’t have got my first library job and until I complete my Masters I won’t be able to progress to the next level, but aside from the letters after my name I don’t feel I’ve gained many relevant skills from them. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed the courses and I have found out some interesting things, but almost all the skills and knowledge I use and will continue to use as a “librarian” have been learnt through experiencing them in the workplace. Yet I can’t be called a librarian until I’ve got the qualification, which isn’t so bad for me but really sucks for those who’ve worked in the field for numerous years and for whatever reason have not taken their qualification. Also taken from the original post:

Those without the MLIS do not have the requisite training or ‘right’ to call themselves librarians

This makes me quite sad to be honest. I guess strictly speaking, my blog shouldn’t really be called Joeyanne Libraryanne as I’m not qualified yet and haven’t earned the right to call myself a librarian. It seems to only be in the profession that there is this distinction. Our users tend to refer to anyone who works in a library as a librarian, and why not, it makes logical sense! However, as a recent post by Pegasus Librarian shows, even users are now getting confused about whether or not they can call us librarians due to bad experiences from library staff correcting them. Whenever I meet people at conferences and events I always feel really awkward when they ask what I do, I don’t want to offend anyone so I try to avoid using the L word but without it it’s very difficult to describe what I do.

The ironic thing is, despite certain librarians being fussy about making sure non-librarians are not thought of as “real” librarians (yes sadly this is true but fortunately not from personal experience), in my experience most of the UK general public think of a librarian as someone who stamps books and shelves them, whereas in the library world they would probably more commonly be known as a library assistant.

I’m pleased that CILIP seem to have recognised that experience is just as valuable as academic qualifications with their route straight to Chartership, and I just hope that maybe in the future other members of the profession will recognise this too.

Now, anyone have any suggestions for a different job title that could be used universally to eliminate these difficulties and also shake the librarian stereotype people have? I’m all for killing two birds with one stone!

  • The Liminal Librarian » Blog Archive » Who is a librarian? Links
    Posted at 13:10h, 05 April Reply

    […] What makes a librarian a librarian? – Joeyanne Libraryanne […]

  • william c.
    Posted at 14:19h, 05 April Reply

    Hello, Came across your post via Pegasus Librarian.

    I will confess that, as a librarian, I’m bothered by people who assume the title without having the degree to back it up. To explain that feeling, an example I can think of off-hand is whether a person, when they’re out seeking medical care, would rather be seen by a Doctor of Medicine or by, say, a Physician’s Assistant. There is overlap of duties between the positions. There may be differences of professional experience and exposure. One position does not always negate the need for another. But when I’m getting help, I want to know who is giving it. I want to know if they’ve gone through all the hoops to get where they are, because – as with novel writing – effort isn’t quite as interesting as accomplishment.

    This isn’t meant to sound snarky, but I can think of plenty of areas where the distinction in title allows for additional credibility. There are security guards, and there are cops. There are people who affect and appropriate cultural characteristics, and there are people who grew up among them. There are library staff, and there are librarians. Because we’re talking about knowledge, which is gained to be shared, it seems selfish for librarians to grasp so tightly to a title. But why wouldn’t we? We went through the hoops. We accomplished the goal. And just as there are differences of focus between a student and a scholar, there is a difference, however subtle, between library staff and librarians. I’m proud of what I do and of accomplishing what it took to get there.

    Anyway, maybe this is all moot because it sounds like you are, yourself, more than half way to the same place. But I enjoyed being able to share the thought.

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 15:17h, 05 April Reply

    Thanks for your insight William, it’s good to hear other people’s opinions.

    In a way I can see where you’re coming from (particularly with regards to some ofthe examples you mentioned), but to be honest I just don’t see what (aside from a string of assignments and a whole load of debt!) you gain from having a librarianship degree that somehow makes you better equipped to help your users.

    I’m sure all librarianship degrees are very different and I’m sure there will also be differences between UK and USA with respects to course content, so maybe I’m just on the wrong course, but I really don’t feel that the modules I have completed have helped towards advancing my skills or knowledge in a real world librarian job. I had hoped that working full time whilst studying for a professional postgraduate qualification would mean that I’d be able to put theory into practice and work on assignments that related to work I was doing, this just hasn’t been the case. My course has taught me some of the history of librarianship but I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I’ve learnt on the course and been able to put into practice at work. The only thing I could maybe think of is more practice finding research to support my assignments, but I did just as much of that in my undergraduate degree in Sports Science! Maybe if I had taken time out of work and studied full time I would have had more skills development than from a distance learning course, I don’t know.

    For me, the only real distinction I can see between a non-librarian and a librarian is the determination to complete a degree course in Library Studies, so if that’s what you believe it takes to deserve the title then fair enough but as for being equipped with skills and knowledge to be a “librarian” I don’t feel the degree makes much difference.

  • william c.
    Posted at 19:25h, 05 April Reply

    Hello again Jo,

    No, I’m not trying to argue that the skills between the two aren’t shared. As in any field, there are titles that may reflect more or less than an individual’s experience. But, as with the examples, it’s the distinction of having gone through the trouble to make it official. It’s turns the hobbyist, if you will (I don’t like that term’s connotations within this particular discussion), into the professional, and I think the added value for the individual user is it that provides them a level of credibility – at the very least, credibility by association with the University where they completed the degree, if not in turn by the university or library that hires them.

    You rightly point out that this is a field, like others, where the more time you invest in it, the better your skills, and that isn’t degree dependent. But if we ignore the academic distinction of degree-holders (librarians) versus non-degree holders, then I feel we lower the value of the profession as a whole. Hospitals hire PA’s because they’re cheaper than Doctors in terms of salary and malpractice insurance. More libraries are looking for library staff to serve in librarian roles for similar reasons: not having the terminal degree makes you less expense to keep. But do you want to give over an entire hospital to PAs? Or your local police force to folks who haven’t gone through the final steps of training that make them accountable to the expectations that the elevated training or degree provide?

    Or instead of looking at it from the perspective of individuals, you could see it in how libraries, or universities, are measured as being competent and credible supporters of research. From a service perspective, your library, when it hires librarians, is elevating its standing to meet an expected level of credibility and reliability. The same expectations of credibility are found in almost every field and industry – academic work, research, medicine, construction, contracting, etc. Degrees are an indicator to help users match their expectations to the level of service provided, and I don’t think the distinction is wholly trivial. If it were trivial, wouldn’t all libraries be judged as equal? Don’t they all have equal access to the same materials through electronic avenues and interlibrary loan? The difference, I’d argue, is in the time invested by the institution in building its immediately available collection; in building up its credibility as a point-of-contact to begin with. With a greater number of librarians providing services, users can hold libraries more accountable to the quality of information provided, more accountable to the methods used, and are provided a clearer means (via accreditation and professional associations) to respond and act if those responsibilities toward credibility are somehow not met.

    Does this mean library staff are undervalued or depreciated? No. Would users always, if ever, know the difference? Maybe not (and plenty of degreed librarians are poorly skilled. I’d never suggest the road doesn’t travel in that direction.) But the system as a whole benefits when it acknowledges that degreed librarians provide something library staff can not, which may only be that willingness to have gone through the system of education – the same system mirrored in most academic fields and professions. The end result, for users, is that they have a common, measurable standard of expected quality.

  • Mims
    Posted at 19:37h, 06 April Reply

    Some of these comments make me laugh. I’ve worked in a rural public library of almost 10 years. I have, during that time, been taking classes toward eventually earning an MLIS. I am an middle aged with grown children…I throw that info in so those reading know that I am not just out of high school. I’ve worked in several different fields and one thing that remains consistant across the board is those who are not confident in their own lives and abilities most often want to tear status away from others. If one is sure of his or her OWN ability, confident that he or she is the BEST they can be – don’t worry about the other person. We have a LIBRARIAN amongst us who never went to college let alone earned a MLIS, but she has been working with us (before many of us) for over thirty years…she knows all the ins and outs, she is a great person and a valuable resource. WE will be the losers when she leaves. I am sure that she has forgotten more than some of these indignant pieces of fluff have even learned. So even though she does not have a degree, in our eyes she IS a Librarian!

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 10:55h, 07 April Reply

    Interesting you should say that Mims, one of the people who influenced my decision to become a librarian was a school librarian I did some voluntary work experience with. She had worked at a University library and then moved into school librarianship. She’s an inspiration to me, the kids at the school love coming in to the library and she even has some of them working towards library assistant certificates at the school. She’s implemented a new LMS, organised the space to make it easy for the school children to work as well as find books to help them with their studies, or just advance their reading skill. Funnily enough, despite having worked in libraries for many years, she’s never taken the qualification (mainly due to cost) – I don’t think this makes her any less of a librarian though.

    William, what about those chartered librarians in the UK who have gone straight to Chartership without having studied for a librarianship degree? I’m not sure how familiar you are with this but those who have considerable experience in libraries can submit a portfolio to CILIP and can become chartered. Do they deserve the title of librarian?

  • Rowan Williamson
    Posted at 11:59h, 07 April Reply

    What a great discussion! My first instincts were of ‘course you you should have the recognition you have earned whatever your qualifications’. My second ‘was why did I bother Qualifying?’

    There is a difference between failing to recognise achievment, skills and experience, and virtually accepting that all our professional qualifications are irrelevant by saying anyone can do our jobs and so we are all the same. I think a distinction can be made without it being insulting. A midwife would not be insulted NOTto be acknowledged as a doctor, although her skills are valuable and there is obviously a cross over in roles. A Library Assistant may expect that their work is recognised and they are rewarded, be it financially or otherwise, but that is not the same thing as saying ‘you did a good thing, call yourself a Librarian’.

    Another factor is that handing over the title and ‘status’ also means handing over the job. Increasingly public libraries are reducing the numbers of qualified librarians in branches and replacing them with their unqualified assistants. While many of these may be able to do the job, how do employers know what they are looking for when they are not Librarians themselves and they perceive everyone with Library experience as a Librarian. We are handing them the excuse to undermine the whole profession.

    Most other professions have a far higher status than Librarians, and while this may or may not be justified, it is not a coicidence that most have professional bodies who have a high profile in defending their professions and making clear the distinctions in actual levels of training and practice that define them. It is true that a Library assistant may progress to librarian without qualifying and make a good job of it, but a well read legal assistant might make a great solicitor. It does not mean that the Law society would allow that. And it doesn’t mean that we or CILIP should be so quick to aquiesce in this devaluing.

    If our qualifications are teaching us so little, we need to be addressing that so we can offer something of use to those assistants who want to progress NOT circumventing the whole thing and allowing councils on an economy drive to promote them to once qualified posts while paying less. It is not just our status we risk, but the exploitation of our colleagues. That is what a professional qualifications framework is supposed to be about.

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 12:44h, 07 April Reply

    Thanks for your input Rowan. I agree that achievements as a Library Assistant shouldn’t result in becoming a librarian (although going back to the issue of the Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers I still see no reason they could not receive this). My beef is more to do with when users or library staff refer to themselves as librarians (it’s easier for the general public to understand this way) and professional librarians feel the need to jump in and justify the fact that they are not technically librarians yet. I feel this confuses users and in a way demoralises library staff, reinforcing the fact that they don’t yet deserve such a title, isn’t that a bit petty?

    Having said this, my views are mainly down to the fact that the profession is so confusing for anyone not working within it. When I completed my undergraduate degree and started looking into library work, I spent hours trawling the internet and searching through folders in my University Careers office, but I just could not find clear information on the profession or how to enter it. As you rightly point out, if CILIP (and ALA and any other professional library bodies) were to make it clearer to all what a librarian’s role is and what it takes to become one, and also what a library assistant’s role is, then I feel this would definitely help matters. Having said that, I’m neither a library assistant nor a librarian so I’d still be pretty stuck!

    I whole-heartedly agree that we need to be addressing the issue of what is included in library courses, as well as what it takes for a course to be CILIP accredited.

  • Lyndsey Goddard
    Posted at 16:11h, 07 April Reply

    It’s just easier to say “yes” when a user comes up to you to ask “are you the librarian?” If you say no, you just cause unnecessary confusion. However, that’s because they think that everyone who works in a library is a “librarian”. They don’t care what qualifications you have, and most don’t even know you have to be qualified to be a librarian, or even that “Librarian” is a professional post. I’ve given up trying to explain that I’m just a Library Assistant, that the Professional Librarian spends a lot of time in meetings and teaching information literacy sessions (which I am unqualified to do) and that a Library Assistant will generally be their first point of contact for assistance and enquiries. When I get my Masters I will be a professional librarian, but with so few professional posts available, I wonder if the time and money spent gaining a qualification will really be worth. I keep asking myself whether two years’ work and £5,500 would be better spent on a new bathroom…

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 18:59h, 07 April Reply

    I know what you mean Lyndsey (I too would love a new bathroom!), I hope it will be worth it though. It may take a while but there are jobs out there. I’m quite lucky in a respect that I do get to do information literacy sessions and do similar work to the librarians (I suppose in a way I act as their assistant), the main difference being that they have budgetary responsibilities and liaison with academic schools (oh, and they get paid a lot more of course!). Out of interest, where are you studying for your Masters?

    You’re right though, in general anyone who works in a library is a “librarian” to users, in fact one time I remember being very confused when a student told me that the “librarian” over in the shelves (a shelver) had told him something and I couldn’t think who he meant. So I guess in that respect even I’m guilty of the prejudice against non-qualified library staff even when I myself am one of them!

    In a way I guess it is a shame that as a profession it isn’t recognised that we do work hard to qualify and keep up to date with new developments in our field in order to better serve our users. If I had a pound for every person who’s looked at me in utter confusion when I told them I’m doing a Masters in Library and Information Studies so that I can become a qualified librarian I think I’d have almost covered the cost of my fees!

  • Tim
    Posted at 17:49h, 11 April Reply

    Googling my own name turned up this blog, and I’m happy to have found it! I hope you don’t mind if I leave a comment.

    Ultimately, it’s up to librarians to decide who gets awards from librarians. It makes sense to me that both librarian-only and non-exclusive awards should exist. In this case, I think LJ has always made it clear it was noticing “moving and shaking” in the library world generally, not just among librarians, and nobody can deny that non-librarians sometimes “agitate” the world of libraries.*

    I do want to make one objection. You can have “librarian.” I am not one, at least without the modifier “personal”.** But I am not conceding “information professional”!

    I certainly am one of those, as are, for example, all the information architects out there. Librarians are not and have never been the only people concerned with “information,” nor the only people contributing to its progress and study. (Plucking two examples from thousands, take John Seely Brown, author of _The Social Life of Information_ and David Weinberger, author of _Everything is Miscellaneous_, neither of whom are librarians.) Certainly anyone asserting this would get egged at a conference of information architects. 🙂

    *The whole argument reminds me of the furror that errupts every time Time Magazine picks someone nasty, like the Ayatollah Khomeini, as the “Person of the Year,” as if it were a contest of “Nicest guy of the Year.” Sometimes evil is important.
    **I get sensitive about this point. LibraryThing is for cataloging personal libraries. On the site we often use “library” in this sense, ie., “add a book to your library.” It’s been expressed to me—in a very nasty exchange with a dogmatic (indeed Communist) librarian—that we should never use the term “library,” and that personal collections were simply junk unless touched by the librarian’s magic finger. I exagerate, but not by much. 🙂

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 13:22h, 13 April Reply

    Hi Tim, I’m glad you found the post and found it interesting. 🙂

    It’s great to hear your views, and I take your point on being an “information professional” – but then do you need a particular qualification to be considered and information professional rather than an information worker? Or is the difference simply between an “information professional” and a “qualified information professional”? It’s all very confusing indeed!

    I found your point about the term “library” very interesting and did a quick search for definitions of the term library. As expected (and hoped!), it seems the definition regarding a collection of books is just as valid as the definition of the library as a public building. Did those who had libraries in their mansions all those years ago need a librarian to catalogue their books before they could call it a library? I think not.

  • Tim
    Posted at 17:39h, 24 April Reply

    On “information professional” I’m arguing that your using it in an inside-baseball sense. It means something specific to you, but not to others. While not everyone knows what “librarian” means exactly, most will understand that, on some level, people like you get to decide that. With certain caveats, I’m happy to concede that. I’m not in favor of deprofessionalization of librarians.

    But there are people out there who’d naturally describe themselves as information professionals or information workers or whatever who have no idea that librarians think this is “their term,” and would resent the idea that you get to decide who is or who isn’t one. If these terms have meaning within a library context, great, but your context is not others’ context. It feels to me much as if libraries were to declare that only their technical people were “programmers.” In a pig’s eye! 🙂

    Yes, unfortunately, the root etymology of library is “shelf or chest of books” and before that “bark” (for writing on). But etymology is just etymology, not meaning. Meaning’s a wrestling match!

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 17:49h, 24 April Reply

    Thanks Tim, you make some very interesting points.

    I’ve come to realise through this post and the comments made that despite being against the use of the term librarian for only those who have a qualification, I myself am guilty of similar things – what a hypocrite!

  • Frank
    Posted at 04:06h, 27 April Reply

    I am a qualified librarian whose work is pretty much that of a library assistant. It’s pretty much a dead end position but the pay is good. I feel a bit of a fraud in calling myself a librarian when almost all I do is stamp books and deal with occasional desk queries. I sometimes get depressed about the nature of my job but lack the energy to strive for higher goals as the position is stress free. I wonder are there any other people in similar situations who are not really using their qualification due to being in a comfort zone in their job and worrying about the level of responsibilities that taking on a real librarian job might entail.

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 10:22h, 02 May Reply

    I’m a firm believer in job satisfaction, so as long as you enjoy your job then why worry? I personally am looking forward to more responsibility but everyone’s different so I’m sure there are other people in your situation.

  • Ben Elwell
    Posted at 11:57h, 01 July Reply

    I know I’m a little late, but I have only just spotted this blog and thought I would wade in on this discussion.

    First I should explain that I am not a “librarian”, but instead work behind the scenes in a technical role, supporting the LMS and associated systems (hardware and software), as well as being web admin.

    I have to agree with Jo in her comment that experience counts more than a degree ever could. I considered doing a course to become a librarian, but after looking at the courses available, I really couldn’t see the point. Most of the courses appeared to be quite out of date in terms of the topics covered. I’m not trying to devalue the qualification, but in the same way my physics degree does not automatically make me a professional physicist. I worked in many areas of the library before settling in my technical role, and during that time I learnt more about the profession than I could have done from any course.

    Nowadays, what is a “librarian”, or a “library” for that matter? We are in a period of huge change, and the definition of a librarian is not all that clear any more. Most people still imagine a grey haired old lady with glasses on a little chain around her neck telling people to be quiet. Our libraries are now called “Learning Centres” to try and get away from the old fashioned image. This in itself causes confusion – I have heard many students directed to the Learning Centre comment “ok, but where is the library?”. I know I am heading slightly off topic here, but I think it highlights that many positions within the library are becoming more important than before, and that the classic “librarian” is no longer the only ruling figure in the profession. I know I am biased, but the technical roles are becoming more important as libraries transition to more online and electronic content.

    You are welcome to keep your title of “librarian” – I will continue to judge people by the quality of the work they do and the ideas and developments they bring to the profession, rather than any title or letters after their name.

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 08:51h, 02 July Reply

    Thanks for your comment Ben, it’s good to hear from a “techy” point of view.

    It’s amazing how many people have visited the Learning Centre but think of it as the Library and then phone us to ask how they get to the Learning Centre. Many a confusing conversation has been had!

    I’m very excited about the future changes in libraries, but I do think it will take a lot of radical change for our users to understand that we don’t just provide books and sit behind our altars (enquiry desks!).

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