What's in a name? - Jo Alcock Consulting
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What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Library definition
Library definition from Collins

Quite a lot actually, when you’re a librarian. A recurring professional issue in librarianship is defining what a librarian does to a member of the public. Laura (Theatregradrecently blogged about her experiences as a librarianship student discussing her course with other students, giving a really interesting perspective.

What is a librarian anyway? We have the traditional stereotypes – the middle aged woman wearing a bun with a twin set and glasses on string around her neck. What does she do? Well she’s knowledgeable, but she’s a bit stuffy and reluctant to share information – you have to ask very nicely and you have to be very quiet when in her presence. I’ll admit that I held this perception of a librarian until I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2005 and starting trying to find out about librarianship (this fact is ever present in my mind when I talk to people outside the profession).

Now of course I recognise that things have changed since this stereotype (if it ever really existed even!) and there’s a lot more to librarians, and many diverse job roles librarians take on (see Katie Birkwood‘s previous blog posts to get an idea of some of these roles). If someone asks me what I do I’ll tell them I’m a librarian, but I don’t work in a library, I rarely look at a book, and I don’t even support users/customers of any sort. I do however work with information every day, and the projects I work on aim to drive library and information services forward.

Even if we take just the academic librarian role (as that’s what I am most familiar with), there are so many different aspects to this. Of course, there are differences in the role across different institutions, but even within the role there are often a number of distinct different functions (some of the tasks often done by academic librarians include collection management, information literacy teaching and development of teaching resources, enquiry support, research support, information management, web page development…). How can that be encapsulated by just one job title?

There are a few ways we could approach this issue:

  1. Educate public in what the term librarian means
  2. Change the job title to something else more meaningful to try to encapsulate the different elements
  3. Adopt different job titles when doing different roles

Option 1 – Educate
Wanting to educate people about what librarians do is admirable, but in practice is it feasible in the short term? My concern with this approach, based on previous experience, is that as librarians we can miss great opportunities to help support our users because they don’t see how we could help in different circumstances. Although as an overall aim I think it’s a great idea to educate people on what librarians do (I have a draft blog post started on some of my efforts), in reality I don’t think we can or should dedicate too much of our work time on this when we could be out there spotting opportunities to get involved. I think we can get too hung up on the term librarian – does it really matter if people don’t know what a “librarian” is? I’d far rather them just know how we can help them regardless of what they call us or what our title is.

Option 2 – Change job title
This option can make it easier for people to know what we do – titles like information specialist to me as an undergraduate student would have meant more to me than librarian did (I don’t even know if I had a subject librarian, but that’s a whole other issue). But there are concerns that we lose our professional identity this way, which I do think would be a shame in some ways. And is there any one title that can encapsulate all the different activities we do?

Option 3 – Multiple job titles
This is a new one to me, and I think it’s a genius idea. It’s a happy medium between the two extremes and I think it makes it clear to users exactly how we can help them, whilst also holding onto our professional identity. The example I came across was within an academic library and involved having three different titles depending on the duties they are involved in; librarian when they are in the library helping with enquiries, academic skills tutor when they are teaching information literacy skills, and information consultant when they are working within the wider university (for example on projects). I absolutely love this idea!

What do you think? Which of the options is your preferred approach? Or maybe there is a different option? I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. Please share your views in the comments.

  • Celine
    Posted at 08:49h, 22 March Reply

    “some of the tasks often done by academic librarians include…”

    *cough* cataloguing *cough*

    On the whole issue, I think that – while library/librarian comes with baggage undoubtedly – “rebranding” and changing name just looks like a slightly desperate effort to look more cool. Like William Hague in a baseball cap or Gordon Brown talking about the Arctic Monkeys. People don’t find it convincing and actually it can make us look a bit ridiculous. So I’ve never been convinced by this.

    The slow-but-steady approach is option 1, changing people’s perception of what a library is and what librarians do. The “echolib” issue 🙂

    Option 3 is an interesting one too, because in the end, the job title doesn’t hugely matter (I actually had to ask someone what my exact job title was as I had no idea) as long as people understand what we can do to help or support their work/needs.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 21:33h, 22 March Reply

      Sorry for forgetting cataloguing, I did do a little of that as an academic librarian too. Shame on me!

      Interesting to hear your concerns about trying to look “cool”, I can see this could be a real problem and back fire on the profession, something I hadn’t really considered before now.

      I also am not 100% sure what my job title is, I just tell people I’m a research librarian which I think describes it most closely.

  • Laura Steel
    Posted at 08:59h, 22 March Reply

    Really interesting post. I have to say I instinctively prefer 1 – I like the idea of keeping the ‘Librarian’ title but have it mean different things. I did the course at Sheffield and liked that it was called Librarianship. I describe myself as a librarian, even though I don’t actually work in a library, I work in an office helping to manage the college’s VLE.

    Regarding no. 3, I actually do that at my workplace, sort of. Where I work the VLE is called ELITE and when I’m on the helpdesk assisting students I sign emails ‘ELITE Administrator’. My actual job title is ‘Team Member (Delivery Team)’ which is completely meaningless to anyone outside the organisation, and probably several people within it!

  • Nicola Franklin
    Posted at 09:02h, 22 March Reply


    I can understand the idea that ‘rebranding’ could be seen as either taking up too much time/effort that could be better spent elsewhere &/or could make us be seen as desparate to look cool.

    However, I think it’s important to remember that organisations are busy creating (and hiring for) a wide range of ‘library’-type jobs titles, whether we like it or want it or not – and if people are too keen to stick to the librarian title they may miss out on occupying that space – with the end result that people from other professions fill the gap.

    This is what happened when KM first came into the picture in the mid-1990’s and people from HR, Communications, IT, etc, etc, all jumped into the breach… the same could happen with records/information governance now, with people from legal & compliance, adminsitration, IT, etc grabbing ground that could be argued to ‘naturally’ belong to information management-trained people.

    If the ‘custodian of books’ type of library work is getting less as technological means of delivery information grows, and librarians are avoiding ‘rebranding’, then what will be left for them to occupy in years to come? That is my worry and why I advocate to use whatever job title will show ‘them out there’ that librarians have the skills to do the job 🙂

    • Celine
      Posted at 09:19h, 22 March Reply

      I take your point Nicola. I was specifically thinking in an academic (and probably also public) library context because of the direction of Jo’s post.

      In some environment, information work happens in a place that has *never* been called a library so I guess it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing is it?

      My point would still be that “custodian of books” is a too-narrow definition of librarian anyway, or dated, or inaccurate. I don’t see that as my job description or “store for books” as a sufficient description of the core mission of any library where I have worked… So we’re back to slow-and-steady Option 1. Hm.

      Agree that we all need to be good at saying “we can do that” when jobs/fields open up in non-trad areas. A bit like metadata and cataloguing, I think the terminology is sometimes unhelpful (as it can be divisive) but the essential skills, knowledge and aims are the same so we should just be saying “we can do that… in fact we already do and we’re happy to learn to do it in other environments”.

      Easier said than done but saying is a start.

  • Jo W
    Posted at 09:42h, 22 March Reply

    We went through non-librarian job titles and libraries being called other things in the 90s (a lot) and the 00s in the profession. I don’t know if it makes a difference in HE. You can be a librarian in a library and be perceived as a change agent for learning, teaching and research in an innovative, multi-dimensional service, or have a groovy name and still be traditional. Some depends on wider organizational culture – we had a VC who liked the name ‘library’ but wanted us to do lots of stuff that went beyond the traditional LIS domain. Students often have such limited conceptions of libraries before HE (for all sorts of reasons) that everything is novel.
    I do tend to use a mixture of job titles and roles, but default to being a librarian, when questioned, though sometimes that is because I choose whether or not to declare my status depending on context. So option 1 with a hint of 3 for me

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 21:37h, 22 March Reply

      Thanks, Jo. Some really interesting points there and I take on board what you are saying about it being the type of librarian you are rather than your title. I definitely can see the influence that the organisational culture can have on the perception of librarians too.

  • Rebecca
    Posted at 10:03h, 22 March Reply

    Option 3 is one I’ve approached although not as a librarian. In a small business many people will cover multiple roles, and so we started using different titles depending on context.
    Actually what we ended up with was choosing broad generic titles and sticking with those, and it works for us – for now anyway. So I guess using option 3 actually brought us to option 1: my business card has a generic title, and when I am speaking with someone I explain what I do in terms most relevant to that conversation or that person.

    Having said that, it’s an on-going issue, job titles become more difficult to pin down.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 21:41h, 22 March Reply

      Hmmm, interesting. Definitely think it’s a good idea to have some ways to describe what you do to different audiences, I’m trying to build a bank of those at the moment as I do find it hard to describe what I do.

      It’s easier when you meet face to face at an event or something though, you can add context and explain more about your role. Not so easy when you just have an online profile or even a name badge/name and job title on an attendee list (I’m think of internal events in HE as well as external more general events).

  • Chris Keene
    Posted at 10:46h, 22 March Reply

    I agree with Nicola, in a information overloaded world people need metadata experts and information (data) management. If I met someone who worked at, as a random example, Rightmove.com and they said there were a metadata engineer/consultant/whatever I could immediately get why they were a critical to the success of the company. If they said Librarian I would need to stop and think about what they might do. And it’s not just the technical side. Organisations know they need well trained staff, if you spend your time training/helping others do they job better than let that be your job (title), ‘Librarian’ just doesn’t spell it out.

    I’m not technically a Librarian mind you, so probably have less attachment to the name. Food for thought, how many medical professionals have ‘doctor’ in their job title?

    Option 3 doesn’t grab me much, most people tend to do a range of jobs. The only example of multiple job titles is academics:: director of research for School of History / Professor of History.

    As for option 1, I would opt for Example, not Education. The more people interact with librarians in a positive way, the quicker old stereo-types will go away. But remember Skoda, they might make good cars now but it takes years for the old stereo-type to die. And there are still people in this profession I come across who are risk adverse and anti change (all professions have them mind) which doesn’t help.

    The computer industry is probably too large and broad to compare. Ignoring the corporate IT types (run finance system, implement change control, go home), and looking at the web/net/development part of IT… I’ve noticed that the talk if not ‘what can we all do to improve the image of the profession’ but more ‘I’m just going to try and do what I do well, get new ideas and developments out – both at work and personal projects – and let that speak for itself’. To me, that sounds like a good way of going about it.

    • Nicola Franklin
      Posted at 11:40h, 22 March Reply

      Interestingly, this whole issues seems less of a problem in the US, where the term ‘Corporate Librarian’ took off. I wonder how our American cousins managed to get this term accepted and understood, for people who work with busines information (research, intranet content management, etc)?
      Over here you almost never see it used, and instead most professional service firm environments (other than law) seem to have an almost pathalogical aversion to ‘the L word’. Did we have a stronger (more negative?) stereotype around the word ‘Librarian’ than in the US I wonder?

  • S C Appleyard
    Posted at 19:21h, 22 March Reply

    I suspect that the issue of people not understanding what is involved in being a librarian is linked to the fact that people don’t always have a full understanding of the range and value of library services available to them. However I realise there might be a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation when it comes to understanding the value of information professionals and understanding the value of library services! Having said that, this does mean that some user education about the role of librarians could easily be included with library induction and instruction sessions.

    I do think it is important for job titles to be more specific than ‘academic librarian’ and to include things like ‘research support’ or ‘information literacy’ so that those we have contact with can get a better idea of what we do at a glance. We don’t necessarily have to forfeit the word ‘librarian’ to ensure job titles are specific enough, but at the same time I don’t think it is an essential element for all professional ‘librarianship’ jobs. Post-nominals can always be used to indicate professional status.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 21:52h, 22 March Reply

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      I like the idea of using the induction/instructional sessions to educate about the role of librarians, and that ties in with Jo’s comment about the fact that many students start HE with no real knowledge of what a librarian does. In practice though, with most librarians not even feeling that they can fit all the information skills they need to into sessions, it could prove difficult. I always tried to get across the point that they could come to me for help on any of this; maybe a long term tactic is necessary, using the contact time as an opportunity to explain what librarians are and how they can help rather than just how to use the resources etc.

  • Fiona M Forsythe
    Posted at 21:36h, 23 March Reply

    What we call ourselves is always an interesting one. As one of – cough – a certain age…I have lived through a few ‘rebranding’ attempts and spent many a happy hour (!) discussing the difference between a library assistant and an assistant librarian…
    I now work free-lance; sometimes within the library sector, sometimes not. My fellow co-workers in the non-library sector are amazed when I can ‘find things out’… but I can never quite get to the bottom of the thought chain which goes something like…if you are surprised that a librarian can use a directory – what do you think a librarian does?
    I don’t know what the answer is either – perhaps all of the above, perhaps more work outside traditional library sectors.

    However, take heart, for a real laugh on the problems of ‘name calling’, have a look at this facebook page. The background is that the RSA has orgainsed an event in Newcastle called The Big Jump – now as any librarian would have been able to explain, this would result in more false drops than are decent for a body like the RSA – have a look at Kevin Smith’s comments on http://on.fb.me/gWNKUw

    And thank you Jo, I really appreciate your blog and tweets!

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