Redefining the “professional” in our profession

March 19, 2012

A recurring theme in both library and non-library literature is “why do we need librarians” when “everything is free on the Internet”, and further, “why do librarians need a Master’s degree?”  The drumbeat to our demise is getting stronger: deep budget and staff cuts all over the country show that sometimes the perception is that libraries can be expendable.

Although I feel that the mantra the “everything is free” is erroneous, it is understandable that, when the majority of people can Google a topic and get millions of results (many of them good enough for what is needed), people would bypass more authoritative resources and, hence, the professional librarians.  This article, “Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron”by the Other Librarian, brings up several good points (also read the comments).  I was particularly drawn to:

#3:  Librarianship is too generalized to claim any expertise

#8: Accredited library schools do not adequately prepare students for library work

These two things in particular are part of what could be holding us back. 

As part of the SLA Professional Development Advisory Council, one item we will be working on is our professional competencies, a great document that still has relevance, but a document that is almost 10 years old.   If you think back to all the changes in 10 years, you can see that we haven’t done the profession a service by not updating these sooner.  How do we become competent, and how are we judged by this? Wouldn’t the profession be better, and taken more seriously, if we were all required to obtain expertise above and beyond the MLS?  The competencies could be a starting point for conversations about what the profession requires at this point in the game.

As I wrote in my post on the worth of the MLS,  I feel that the MLS is a really important aspect to becoming a professional.  However, circumstances have changed in the past 10-20 years.  Much of the chatter I read on library-related blogs talk about the fact that many new graduates feel that they are underprepared and are not given enough opportunity to gain experience.  Because we are not offering enough concentrations in different aspects of librarianship, everyone graduates with a good foundation, but these new librarians often do not have any experience in negotiation, webpage design, marketing, accounting, budgeting, and a host of other items that have to be learned on the job.  Library education programs could  be rewritten to provide more practical experience, boosting the knowledge that new librarians bring to an entry-level position.

To truly create a field of professionals, perhaps we should look at doing the following things:

  • Require certification, like the CLE system lawyers use.  A certain amount of coursework should be undertaken in a certain amount of time, to remain in professional status.
  • Related to the above, make sure that people are adhering to the competencies.  Require that evaluation be done of employees each year in the library, making sure that the competencies are woven into this evaluation.
  • Completely remake the LIS curriculum–look at what libraries are doing NOW, and where expertise is lacking, and offer some courses in those areas.  Better yet, provide more focused “track” programs in order to give expertise in areas such as law, academic, presenting, marketing, business, archives/digitization, children’s literature, etc.
  • Require a six-month period of internship as part of the degree for soon-to-be new LIS graduates.  Provide a stipend to the library, to mentor new graduates and give them experience in a particular area of their interests.
  • Make sure that the continuing education platforms (ALA, SLA, PLA, etc.) support the LIS curriculum and provide workshops that enhance, expand, and support professional areas of practice.

Yes, huge, huge changes.  But here’s the hard part: who will be responsible to do these things and to follow-up to make sure that all librarians are adhering to the standards in their areas of expertise?  This would require a complete shift in our profession, and mean that some professional body (ALA?) would need to undertake the responsibility to ensure that these competencies and certifications are completed. 

With all the change and turmoil around libraries and the profession as a whole, maybe now is the time for a complete upheaval, a revolution.  Just “being professional” in your job doesn’t make you professional; let’s require more of ourselves to save our profession.

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