Am I a librarian? - Jo Alcock Consulting
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Am I a librarian?

Am I a librarian?

Apologies in advance for what may be a very confused post, I’ve had lots of thoughts running through my head that I wanted to write down!


I'm not one of these (though I did use this in my presentation at my first library job interview!)

Well, you’re reading Joeyanne Libraryanne so I’m guessing that after reading the title of the blog post you’re thinking, “erm…. Yes, you’re a librarian! Aren’t you?”. Well I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve been mulling over a few things recently, partly due to the struggle to define what I do whenever I meet anyone, and partly because of some excellent blog posts to do with the CILIP Future Skills project which have really made me think (if you haven’t yet read Tina‘s post, A plea to CILIP, please do so – it’s excellent).

The main argument in Tina’s post is that to be a profession, we need to have skills that set us apart from other professions and define us as librarians. I totally agree. But what are our librarian skills? Well, I guess managing information is one, but isn’t that something most people do in their jobs? Then there’s understanding the needs of our users and delivering appropriate services for them – but again doesn’t that describe many jobs? So what is it that defines us as librarians?

The more I think about it, the more I doubt my identity as a librarian. All my work is involved in some way with library and information services, but does that make me a librarian? I have my qualification, but a qualification doesn’t define someone (I don’t think anyway). It definitely benefits my job that I am a qualified librarian and have worked as a subject librarian in an academic library so I can understand the needs of many of the people we work with, but you could do my job without the qualification or library experience (it’s not a requirement in my job description). Really, my job is a researcher who specialises in supporting library and information services. That’s not a librarian. So I have a slight identity crisis.

I’m heavily involved in professional organisations to support other LIS professionals (and para-professionals), as evident with my committee roles for CILIP and ALA. This year I’m an ALA Emerging Leader and I’m working on my CILIP chartership but is this the right path for me? To highlight the difference between my role and that of a librarian, here are my chosen areas for development which I’m focusing on for CILIP chartership:

  • Research skills
  • Formal communication skills
  • Face-to-face networking
  • Presentation skills
  • Event organisation
  • Project management
  • Leadership

All of these are a key part of my job role, and all are skills I develop through my committee involvement too, but when you look at them as a skill set do they say librarian to you? I don’t think so. I think that describes any academic researcher. And even the marking criteria for chartership, again they aren’t really specific to librarians:

• An ability to reflect critically on personal performance and to evaluate service performance
• Active commitment to continuing professional development
• An ability to analyse personal and professional development and progression with reference to experiential and developmental activities
• Breadth of professional knowledge and understanding of the wider professional context

Then we cross the murky waters of an information professional and what defines that. Maybe I’m not currently a librarian but I am an information professional? I’d like to think so, but again that could describe any researcher really – we all collect information, analyse information, and repackage it for our user/client’s needs. I differ from Tina in my views on this topic – I think the commonalities between librarians and information professionals mean that they should be part of one profession, whereas I know Tina feels they should be separate (and I do question whether my views are totally objective!). I think it’s interesting that in the UK we have the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, but in the US it’s still the American Library Association. Where do information professionals fit in the US? Do they still come under ALA?

I’m still figuring out my identity, as well as working out what I want in the future. I love being part of this profession and don’t want to leave it (not for the foreseeable future anyway!), but the things I really enjoy about my job aren’t necessarily specific to this profession. I could do a lot of what I enjoy doing in a different field. I could be a psychology researcher for example, and I could still be working on developing all the areas I’m focusing on for chartership, just with a different subject context. In one sense this is probably a good thing (i.e. the skills I’m developing are transferable), but it does lead me to question where I fit. I can still see a lot of potential for things I can bring to both CILIP and ALA so I don’t plan on leaving either organisation, and I very much hope I can still gain my chartership, but I do think I need to accept that I’m a researcher specialising in library and information services, rather than a librarian.

What do you think? Does it matter?

ETA: As I’ve been drafting this post, Simon has posted on a very similar topic – worth a read.

ETA2: Previous posts of my own on similar topics – What makes a librarian a librarian? and What do I do?

  • C Oppenheim
    Posted at 11:57h, 19 March Reply

    A librarian can have skills which are common to other professions, and still be a librarian.  It’s the BALANCE of those skills which makes one a librarian rather than an accountant or a Parliamentary researcher (say).   I would add some more skills to the skill set, e.g., ability to identify people’s underlying information needs (as opposed to their expressed wants), and an understanding of copyright law (well, I would say that wouldn’t I). 

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 12:10h, 19 March Reply

      Thanks Charles – very good point about the balance of skills being the key matter.

  • alysontyler
    Posted at 13:35h, 19 March Reply

    Lots of interesting questions. I think the nature of many jobs in the knowledge economy (is that term still used? It was when I was uni!) is that the skills are transferable but there are some unique identifiers that say ‘librarian’ or ‘researcher’ etc. Like yourself, I’m a qualified librarian, but not currently working in a library as I work for a policy division of the Welsh Government, so I’m a civil servant. However, no one can take my librarian qualification away from me, and I’m happy to be called a librarian although it does not define my job, it’s what I once was, and may one day be again! My current job title isn’t very good for a definition (Libraries Development Adviser), so the bland ‘civil servant’ has to cover it. I’m actually also a qualified (and practising) yoga teacher. I have to obtain 15hrs CPD a year for that, which is not a problem, and I think ‘yoga teacher’ is fairly well defined. I wonder if our definitions can be flexible depending on the situation – so ‘researcher’ or ‘librarian’ might do if you were chatting to a stranger on a train, but if you were in a meeting/conference with librarians and researchers you might want to be a bit more accurate. I think by the sounds of it you’re more of a researcher in the library world, but it doesn’t mean you can’t tick the library box on occupation forms!

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 16:58h, 19 March Reply

      Thanks for the comment Alyson – it’s interesting to hear from someone else in a similar situation. I’m definitely proud to be part of the library profession, and agree there are different levels of definition depending on who you are talking to. Whenever I say I’m a librarian I think people instantly think of the stereotype (e.g. “Oh, you like a quite life do you”) – I’d like to help banish that and could when I was actually working in a library but now I’d have to be talking more theoretically or from past experience rather than in my current role. 

  • Rachel Preece
    Posted at 16:41h, 19 March Reply

    I completely understand your view. I’ve been thinking about my job role recently and, in all fairness, there are a lot of aspects that do not need specific librarianship skills. I work in an FE/HE College where there has been an increase in vocational courses. The nature of these courses often involves non-academic-style assessments, e.g. they don’t have to research and write an essay on a topic. The number of what I would call in-depth enquiries I receive on the enquiry desk is virtually nil and that means I’m no longer using my information seeking skills – one of the skills I would attribute to a librarian. I also do a lot of design work (both poster and web page) and support in developing e-learning.

    Some of my work involves cataloguing and classifying which brings me back into traditional library territory. My concern is that now, in order to identify a person as a librarian, you have to focus on these more traditional skills. I agree that librarians and information professionals have a number of inter-related skills and roles so, between them, does it really just boil down to a name? Can you only call yourself a librarian if you work in a library? Does the name librarian infer enough that you are a professional? When I’ve described my undergraduate degree I break down the content into three areas and can only label one of them as ‘traditional library skills’ (the other two are information theory and management skills).

    I’m happy to be seen as an information professional as for me that name encompasses far more transferable skills that the name librarian does. However, a librarian was what I wanted to be when I was little so that it is how I introduce myself.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 17:05h, 19 March Reply

      Thanks for your comment Rachel, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has all these thoughts and concerns about professional identity! You raise some really interesting points – I guess thinking about it even when I was a librarian by job title I didn’t exactly do very much of the ‘librarian’ skills so maybe it’s not just those of us outside libraries that have this dilemma.

  • Katie Birkwood
    Posted at 20:38h, 19 March Reply

    Hmmm… I suppose that a lot of people inside and outside academia do manage information, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t room for, and a need for, specialists in information management (i.e. librarians).  I think a lot of people who have contact with people managing information would testify that’s it’s not always being done well!

    I think a firmer emphasis on librarians being people who know how to organise and retrieve information (yes, in service of our users and organisations) would be a very good thing.  I think there are few librarians for whom ‘enabling people to find stuff’ isn’t, in some form or other, part of the job. (Happy to hear the counter-examples!)

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 08:53h, 26 March Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Katie. According to your definition of ‘enabling people to find stuff’ (which I agree with), that’s not something I do and therefore wouldn’t be classed as a librarian. But I think I’m OK with that now.

  • Mace Ojala
    Posted at 23:05h, 19 March Reply

    This doesn’t help my identity crisis at all, i’m afraid :/

  • Tina Reynolds
    Posted at 13:27h, 22 March Reply

    Hi Jo,

    I think perhaps I didn’t explain myself properly. I disagree with you because I don’t think that there are commonalities between librarians and information professionals; I think they are the exact same thing. As far as I am concerned, librarian is the catch all term and that information professional etc. is just calling librarians by another name. I’ve only ever been an Information Officer and a Senior Information Officer and my MA was in Information Management and yet I still strongly identified as being a librarian. I think that CILIP should be an umbrella body for people with library-related skills. I guess if people wanted to be picky, they could move me out of the profession (no conservation, hardly any C&C, mostly research, not really bothered about books, mostly do database stuff, don’t care about information literacy) but that isn’t what I’m trying for.

    I think that information people are librarians and they belong. I reckon researchers and KM people, IU people and maybe a few other subsets can get bundled in too. But, and this is a big but, we must draw the lines somewhere and draw them in big fat marker pen. You are in or you are out. I hope that someone far brighter than I can manage to come up with some nice core skills that draw us together instead of pulling us apart. I also am really keen to have an associate membership for those who do not fall within the boundaries but have an interest in the body.

    I’d also say that my chartership looks even less librariany than yours: 
    – Writing skills
    – Assertiveness skills
    – Work/Life balance
    – IT skills
    – Reflection

    not one of which is even vaguely confined to librarians. That, I feel, is a fault with chartership, not with us. I can see why you’ve brought it up but I think that most portfolios are the same…

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 08:54h, 26 March Reply

      Thanks Tina – it’s reassuring to know that my portfolio won’t be the only one without lots of traditional librarian skills included.

  • Mark
    Posted at 13:51h, 22 March Reply

    Interesting post and comments–I’m glad I stumbled upon them. Years ago, my job title changed from “Librarian” to “Information Resources Supervisor” but many of my coworkers still use the former title when referring to me. One of the comments here listed “Writing skills” — I assumed writing responsibilities as part of my job. (I am now certified by the American Medical Writers Association, and passed the BELS exam as well.) My point being, I have numerous job duties that fall outside the realm of “traditional” library work, but I still consider myself a librarian.  This doesn’t really answer your “Does it matter?
    ” closing, though–I’m just happy I’m employed!

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 09:12h, 26 March Reply

      I definitely see people who work in libraries (or resource centres or whatever other name they referred to as) as librarians. My question is more concerning people such as myself who don’t work in a library at all (I have an office on a University campus but it’s not in the library and I only visit the library to sort admin forms). 

  • Linsey Chrisman
    Posted at 23:53h, 22 March Reply

    I think the ‘does it matter’? question is important. Personally, I find all of the discussion about what defines us as a profession fascinating, but I don’t think it’s important in that it will change the way that most employers or the general public understand our profession. To paraphrase @orangeaurochs:disqus  on twitter earlier, I think sometimes our profession can be a little too concerned with professional status and with defining ourselves. I don’t think that the value of a profession is the same as its definition, or that value follows from a clear definition. You could have a very well defined profession that nobody really values. I think that our users judge us not based on professional standards or definitions, but on whether we provided something of value to them. 
    I’m a Children’s Librarian in a public library, and I often wonder whether it’s a strength or a weakness of public libraries that we are so many things to so many people. Users of my library come for so many different reasons – Baby Rhymetime, a quiet place to study, a book group, to borrow new fiction, law books, access to computers. When you stop and think about it it’s a bit mad that all of these uses are converging on the same place and the same staff, but that’s what we do and honestly, I can’t see a future for public libraries that relies on drastically reducing our scope. 
    I wonder if our profession is a bit like public libraries – many things to many people. Like public libraries, the profession as a whole has adapted to many different situations, to changing technology and changing needs. I think you can definitely see that as a strength.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 09:14h, 26 March Reply

      That’s a very good way to think of it Linsey, thank you for sharing.

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