Professional What?: LIS and Conversations around Professional Titles and Paraprofessional Titles

Recently I took on a challenge from a friend of mine to post a question about the concept of the professional title in library and information science. I asked people what they thought of the professional title and who should be able to be called a librarian. This of course brought on a huge fire storm of talk. Some of this was directed at me for even thinking to ask about the subject. There were some who thought I was self-serving in asking the question. Just as a point of open disclosure, I happen to support the idea that the an MLIS degree should automatically confer a professional title just as taking the degree of MD would do the title of doctor, but I’ll get to this later. Moreover, my point of view is not the end all be all, but I wanted to take the time to talk about what I found out from this discussion.

First of all, the world of library and information science is strongly divided on the idea of who can be called a librarian, and this leads us to consider there may be two terms being used. There seems to be an understanding through all the library world of a “Librarian” and a “librarian.” The “librarian” is any person the public comes in contact with who happens to work in the library. The “Librarian” is really only understood within the library world and consists of a person with a MLIS, MLS, MMLIS, or a PhD in LIS who has been granted a professional position, no by peers within the library but by the HR department. This HR department bit can get a little sticky as well so hold on to that idea.

The “librarian” is a result of the public not understanding all the members that make the library work, and perhaps this confusion is mostly the fault of the “librarians” of the world not clearly explaining what we all do and how we function together. I personally do not have a whole lot of problem with calling a person a librarian to a member of the public if said person is just doing a job like directing a user to a section, checking books in or out, repairing or processing materials, or paging a book for ILL. The public really doesn’t care for the most part; they just want their items. But I think we might want to take a step back and make it clear that there are divisions of labor and all these jobs are important. Without each person participating in the structure of the library we end up with a mess. There is truly an appreciation within the library for the shelvers, pages, and technicians, but we do a horrible job demonstrating this. As an example of this, take a moment to check out the Unshelved comic by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes and take a look at how Buddy the Beaver (the library page) is often treated. Perhaps mastered and “professionally titled” librarians need to rethink our approach to the other staff members in general.

This leads me to another thought on some of this. What makes the title of a librarian professional? Taking a look at Michelle Mach’s website (http://www.michellemach.com/jobtitles/realjobs.html) we can see a huge list of “professional titles.” I put this in quotes here because my exploration of this topic has led me to realize that in some cases, if the title does not include “Librarian” then some organizations – especially Human Resources – have a very flexible way of using these titles and usually not in a very favorable fashion towards librarians. Some of this is due to budgetary issues with organizations as well as what seems to be a very random selection of phrasing on the HR department’s part. This issue of what constitutes a professional title in LIS could also stem from library administration, i.e., library directors, boards, etc. Exploring who can or cannot be a library director has been an interesting study but is best left for another day.

Dewey started his first school of library economy in 1887 at Columbia College. In a few years other schools also began opening LIS schools and master’s programs. So we know the ALA has been working on some form of accreditation and standards since that time and has clearly had a full accreditation process starting in 1924 based on their historical list (http://www.ala.org/accreditedprograms/directory/historicallist). In this time the ALA has been instrumental in the formation of librarians, creating competencies and standards for defining and shaping the professional librarians – not dissimilar to other professionals. Yet, in all my exploration of this topic, I have not seen people referring to the MLIS (or its variations) as a professional degree such as seen with nursing or other professions. Socially I think this might be due to the fact that we, librarians, do not carry a prefix or suffix to our names as doctors do. Even with nurses we can refer to a person as Nurse Surname (we all remember Nurse Ratchet don’t we?) which implies a professional title. But librarians do not have this form of address, and this issue might further separate us from the being seen as professionals within and especially without our ranks at times. It is necessary we understand some of the complexities of these titles as well because while some professional titles require a master’s degree in LIS, there are other titles where the MLIS is disregarded. Take for instance the title of library director or manager. In many cases libraries do not require the director or the manager to hold an MLIS or other graduate degree. Perhaps some of this is the science’s own fault since most often the study of library management has been relegated to that of a certificate which might be awarded to a person after they have completed a weekend course with a library association. Only a couple schools in the US offer a full degree in library management (not the management of information but the management of the library or information center as a whole).

Image result for information professionals

The separation between the mastered librarians and the professionally titled librarians can get even more complex when you consider the limits some states place on mastered and non-mastered librarians alike. In some states, for instance New York, an individual is asked to pass a state exam which can only be administered to a person who has already worked in a library. This confers on the individual the ability to gain a professional library post in the state. This makes me wonder why the master’s degree is necessary in the state of New York if you can’t get into a library position without having first obtained a degree and the degree means nothing if you have not passed the state exam but you can’t take the exam without having worked in a library information organization. Catch 22 I think…

Pennsylvania, as well as other states, appear to have their own tests which allow a person to obtain a professional position in lieu of a degree. This came as a surprise to me but a number of librarians stated this was the case for them as they moved from paraprofessional to professional in their libraries. (Discussion on this and the information mentioned above about New York can be found here.) The confusion around how to gain the coveted professional title as well as who can take a professional title is never ending and only leads to deep resentment amongst the LIS community.

I want to take a moment to reiterate I am not looking to demean or lower those long time staff members who have been serving in the technical positions for decades and are often referred to as librarians by library staff and patrons alike. I respect the work they do, and often these people are more skilled in the jobs they perform than if a mastered librarian were asked to do the same job. We need to, as said before, fully appreciate these people, but this raises the question as to whether or not librarians in general are really dedicated to the concept of lifelong learning since there are certificates for all the various paraprofessional library positions. I recently presented a small, unscientific, survey to the ALA Think Tank group on Facebook. Of 73 respondents 39 reported they did not hold any certificates or degrees and only received on the job training. 10 of the respondents indicated they held only a single LIS certificate for the paraprofessional. There were two respondents who said they held two certificates in LIS for paraprofessionals. Of special interest was the fact that only two respondents said they felt their organization supported them obtaining further certificates. (To see this super scientific study click here)

I find it odd the library and information science world advocates so strongly for the concept of lifelong learning, but the practice does not seem to be evidenced in our ranks. We do not appear to be supporting our own staff, whom we rely on for essential duties, to further themselves and expand their own skill sets except when this education includes the pursuit of a graduate degree. For many paras I conversed with I noticed a certain level of bitterness towards the exclusivity as well as dismissive attitudes from the mastered or professionally titled librarians.

There are no simple answers for all the problems listed here, but ALA as an oversight and accreditation organization is in an excellent place to begin the processes of cementing as well as formulating the titles and professional development pathways for the library community. Something needs to be done sooner or later though. These changes will help to formalize and give substance and respect to a profession that has been around for millennia yet still has not moved beyond a public definition of book shelvers.

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