Monday, March 31, 2008

The Professionalism of Librarians

I just read Dorothea Salo's post on whether or not Librarianship is a profession. I was interested enough that I also read these other three posts she linked to from other people with slightly different viewpoints:

For the most part, I agree with Dorothea. The idea of Librarianship being a profession is useful only insomuch as it drives up the worth of librarians. You can make all the arguments you want about librarians needing the theoretical basis gained from an MLS to handle more advanced library work, but mostly that's just a load of bull. There are those with MLSes who are not very good librarians and there are "paraprofessionals" without degrees who are excellent librarians. The main difference between jobs that are "paraprofessional" and "professional" is the pay rate and the prestige (prestige could probably use some sarcasm quotes). I have helped several MLS graduates find work in paraprofessional positions, but I am always a little chagrined that they did not find themselves better jobs. This is not because the jobs are beneath them, but because the compensation for these paraprofessional jobs is kinda awful. Then again, I work in one of those cities where a local library science school is continuously pumping out graduates into an already flooded market.

This is the real problem with de-professionalizing a field of work. If you set the standards for your profession too low, then it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the higher salaries and better benefits that you think your profession deserves. Librarians have had this problem for a long long time. The general public does not understand that librarianship is a profession or requires specialized skills, which is why everyone is always so surprised when you tell them you need a Masters to be a librarian. This is not, by any means, a new perception of the public. What may be new is that public institutions are starting to question whether or not they need a professional librarian to run their library. They figure maybe they can get by with a circulation clerk that gets paid $10.00 an hour. Unfortunately for the "profession," sometimes they can.

I haven't discussed at all the poor treatment of paraprofessionals, just because they don't have an MLS. Let me just flat out say that it is a stupid thing to do. Good work and good ideas are good, no matter what the professional status of the provider is. That will always be the case, even if the professionalism of a librarian ceases to have any practical meaning.

The real problem with a lack of "professional" status for librarians is that when that status is gone it will be much harder to define librarian skills in a way that makes us deserve more pay than the paraprofessionals. If I thought that would mean the paraprofessional pay would increase to the level of professional librarians I might be OK with that, but we sure as hell all know that isn't going to be what happens. It's the librarian pay that's going to sink and it started out at a point that wasn't so great to begin with.

Professionalism isn't all it's cracked up to be, but I'll be happy to use it as a crutch during my next contract negotiation. Wouldn't you do the same?

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