Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals

Check out our post on HLS today too! Heidi Johnson, ACRLog FYAL blogger, reflects on the greatest differences between grad school and professional life in “Structuring My Time.” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Madison Sullivan is a NCSU Libraries Fellow at North Carolina State University, where she is a librarian for Research and Information Services, and External Relations. Madison received her MSLIS in from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015 and is a 2016 American Library Association Emerging Leader. Her views are her own, not her employer’s.

I’m supposed to write about professionalism from the perspective of a new librarian. How to be taken seriously as a “new professional,” and how to “be yourself” at the same time. Here’s the deal – it’s a total mystery to me how people manage it.

a lot of professionals are crackpots

A derivative of Jenny Holzer stickers by nadja robot, licensed under a CC BY-NC 2.0

I question what is it to be a professional every single day. I’m not sure I know what professionalism means or what it looks like. Perhaps I do, but the idea of it makes me nauseous.

It makes me nauseous because what if who I am, and who I’d like to be in the workplace, doesn’t align with other people’s definition of what a professional is? It makes me nauseous when I think about the advice, or implied advice, other people have given me about how I should go about being a professional. “Keep your head down. Don’t make waves. Don’t question anyone or anything, especially not your superiors. Keep your mouth shut. Emotions don’t have a place at work. Don’t tell anyone anything personal. Remember to smile.”

In the past, this advice limited my capacity to share my humanness and individuality with my coworkers, and impaired my ability to connect with others. Fear of being perceived as “unprofessional” or naïve has led me to being silent during meetings, and timid to my coworkers and supervisors. Performing professionalism left me feeling robotic and so not myself. Whose rules were these, really?

I know the kind of work environment I want to be a part of. I know the kinds of people I want to work and collaborate with. Much of the commentary surrounding professionalism wasn’t matching up with what I had envisioned and hoped for. If this was advice for being a professional, then perhaps I didn’t want to be one.

People say, “you need to be more professional” when what they really mean to say is “you need to fall in line” or “I don’t like that tattoo” or “hey, tuck in that shirt!” Professionalism is a word people use to maintain and enforce the status quo. Professionalism doesn’t take risks; it encourages conformity. Can you simultaneously call yourself a professional and advocate for radical change? Professionalism is safe and it is boring. I’d also argue that professionalism plays a part in reinforcing the illusion of library neutrality.

I don’t want professionalism to mean putting a façade or a veneer around ourselves before we walk into work everyday. But it does. And I don’t know what we can do about that. The illusion that our lives outside of work stops the second we enter the workplace has never made sense to me. I don’t know what we can do about that, either. It’s an exhausting charade.

Maybe, I think we can love one another. I think we can comfort each other and let our coworkers know it’s safe to share and express themselves. As a new employee, I have to see vulnerability first before I’m comfortable doing the same. I think we’re capable of that. Less judgment. Fewer assumptions. Is this professionalism in practice? I’d like it to be.

For me, the most difficult thing with any new job is that almost everything is unknown at the start. It can be a solitary, unsettling time in a person’s life, even if you haven’t relocated. You have to figure out the boundaries, the culture, your users, and the people you work with. You have to figure out what is acceptable, when it’s acceptable, and around whom. You have to discern how much of yourself is appropriate to bring into this new territory. Which parts of yourself do you hide, which parts do you let people in on? Who can you trust with your worries and your anxieties as you work through starting somewhere new?

I’ll be honest with you. I finished library school in May and have been in my first position as a new librarian for six months. It’s the most exciting thing in the world, and also the most terrifying. I still don’t feel like I’ve figured everything out, and I’m not incredibly comfortable being vulnerable yet. Even though I have been given so much love and support, I’m still trying to “fit in” in some respects. As a new librarian, it can be difficult to express yourself and let your guard down when you want to be respected, valued, and have your ideas taken seriously. You want to show everyone that you can do a good job and that they made the right choice when they hired you.

Learning how to “put a face on” was not something that ever came naturally to me – even after working almost a decade in customer service. As a woman, I’ve been told to think, behave, and act a certain way from a variety of sources and institutions. As a professional, we’ve been given a whole other set of rules to live by  (gendered expectations abound!). I’d like for librarians, especially those in leadership roles, to question what professionalism means and what it looks like. Are we taking a humanistic approach in helping to shape new professionals, in assisting our users, and impacting our profession for the better? Some libraries have done this well, and I feel so fortunate to work where I do.

It’s clear to me that professionalism is a performance. It is, among other things, a gendered term, attributed more often to those with a good deal of privilege. It’s a complex word. Those who successfully perform the role of The Professional are afforded more respect and responsibility in the workplace. Yet the traits I value in other human beings (vulnerability, emotional intelligence, authenticity, empathy) don’t often seem to fit into a typical professional construct.

I want library professionals to have real, open relationships with the people they work with. Is this an unprofessional idea? I want library workers and managers to recognize the humanity of their users, their coworkers, and their staff. We need library professionals who question the ethics of our institutions, and our commitment, or lack of commitment, to diversity. We need librarians who stand up for access to information, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom, even when it is hard to do. I want librarians to feel comfortable challenging “the way we’ve always done things.” Does your organization encourage performing professionalism more than it encourages questioning the status quo?

Librarianship doesn’t need more professionals. Librarianship needs people who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change. We need leadership that actively encourages this. How can we create work cultures conducive to this?

I’m a passionate and idealistic individual. Sometimes I’m overly enthusiastic when it comes to my work. To some, I may come off as completely unprofessional. I love being a librarian and I love this profession, and I’m usually not too shy about expressing it. It’s been difficult to write this blog despite my own insecurities (what if I sound GASP – unprofessional?!). I’m genuinely interested in knowing how others have approached professionalism within librarianship – feel free to share your thoughts below.


20 thoughts on “Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals

  1. Bravo, Sarah! I have been a librarian for 5 years now and I’ve slowly come to the understanding that “professionalism” is overrated. As I/we become more confident in our skills and knowledge, we don’t need to perform as much to get our colleagues to listen to us. Or maybe they just get used to our unique style? In any case, as you point out, performing a role that doesn’t suit makes it impossible for us to form authentic (working) relationships with our colleagues and patrons.

  2. I feel like “professionalism” can accommodate emotional intelligence, empathy, etc. I 100% agree that any preconceived notions about young professionals who may or may not have tattoos, who have fresh new ideas and enthusiasm about those ideas need to be heard and respected. This thinking needs to come from the top down, though, or else change, new people and new ideas are difficult to accept.

    Sometimes it feels like running into a brick wall.

  3. Oh man, I read that title as “Librarianship doesn’t need Professional Librarians,” as in, MLIS degree-holders. A relief to see that’s NOT the perspective you’re taking, Madison! Haha!

    10 years in, I think being “professional” is the exact opposite of that definition you were batting around: it means keep your head up, pay attention, ask questions, make waves. Take responsibility for the outcome of your work. Create new services, tweak old ones, push forward.

    As professionals, it’s our job to keep the org flexible, moving, growing, and improving. A professional takes the vision and direction of the org on board and doesn’t just leave the thinking in the hands of a supervisor. A professional doesn’t just work there; we pour our creativity and our hearts and souls into the place. We get our hands in the clay and fashion it.

    Emotion is critical to our work, if only for one reason: the only thing that makes anyone great at doing anything is passion. If you feel no passion, the work will suffer. The project will not be everything it could be. Without empathy, how would we be able to see our work and our services through the eyes of our patrons? Without compassion, how would we even begin to see the ways we can make our corner of the world a better place? No: emotions are critical to being a good professional.

    Our work is important, and we all want to do a terrific job, but remember that we are not in a life-or-death profession. It’s good to embrace our emotions, but, as a former supervisor and mentor told me, “work doesn’t deserve your tears.”

    We do the best we can, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes we make mistakes. (Okay: often.) We’re human beings, and at no time should we feel punished, insulted, or bullied at work, or feel the need to do the same to others. There is no value in making anyone feel crappy.

    Making someone feel bad at work just reduces that person’s productivity until they’re able to bounce back: how is that a professional activity, or a professional result? If someone is making you feel less than great at work, remember that it’s THAT person not being professional, not you for having feelings about it. A good supervisor knows how to nurture and direct a professional without slapping them across the face for not performing as expected. It’s hard to behave professionally if you’re not being treated professionally!

    Being professional means stepping up. That’s something I know you do well, Madison!

  4. Hey Madison. Interesting post! I think for me, being a professional is about adhering to a set of common ethical values. In terms of librarianship, I see this being about equitable access to information and about anything that undermines this basic principle (everything from copyright to surveillance and all things in between). I think having this ethical framework is what makes us professional. It is what separates a professional librarian from a volunteer running a volunteer library (sadly common over here). That’s not to say a non-professional cannot have that ethical framework, but I do believe that to be a professional you must work to such principles.

    This focus on ethical principles is what led me to get involved in establishing the Radical Librarians Collective in the UK…part of an effort, as I see it anyway, of focusing on our core ethical values and where they are conflict with the status quo, seek to find ways to challenge the status quo.

    So, I guess, for me being a professional is ultimately about challenging the status quo, but it’s also about core ethical principles that we subscribe to and take action on.

  5. As a (shudder) senior professional who has mentored many new librarians, I want to put my arm around you and say, “You need to find another place to be.” There are many libraries where professionalism means valuing others, embracing new ideas, and mentoring in a way that creates strong future leaders. I heartily agree with Rochelle, you can’t control how other people act, only how you react to it. Rise above and show them how professionals should behave. I am proud of you for speaking up for yourself and others. You are brave and someone I would be proud to call a professional colleague!

  6. “Professionalism” is a relatively simple concept which has been buried under so many layers of mysticism and foolishness as to render it almost unintelligible. Somewhere along the line, in our profession’s endless quest to be seen as respectable in the eyes of others, we came to the conclusion that acting like a group of self-serious, humorless killjoys who dressed like Ivy League College Republicans circa 1957, people would treat us with the same deference they showed to doctors lawyers and engineers. In practice, all this has done is saddled us with the archetype of the severe, shushing librarian and a significant group of disaffected members of the profession who see any mention of “professionalism” or “professional behavior” as an attempt to turn their cardigans into straightjackets.

    To me, professionalism means taking pride in one’s work, and producing work that one can take pride in. I worked hard to become a Librarian, two graduate degrees (MA and MLIS) and 8 years as a paraprofessional learning the ropes. I believe that the things I do as a Librarian should reflect the level of dedication it took to get me here. As an instruction librarian, that means that when I have a class, I show up on time, prepared and ready to go. I don’t suppress my opinions, personality or ideas, but I recognized that my background and life experience do not reflect a universal experience, and I attempt to face differences with coworkers or patrons with diplomacy (even when I’m not feeling terribly diplomatic.)

    I also see professionalism means realizing that the goals and mission of my institution cannot be sacrificed for my own interests or personal agenda, it means remembering what my job is, and what I’m actually here to do and not getting too hung up on the things I can’t do because they don’t fit in with institutional priorities.

    Ultimately, professionalism is a mindset, a way of carrying one’s self that reflects both confidence in your own abilities, responsibility to those you serve, and a willingness to work with your colleagues. It has little to do with the way one dresses. I have had outlandishly dressed coworkers who were the soul of professionalism, and conservatively dressed coworkers who were utterly unprofessional and immature in the way they worked. In the end the way we act and treat each other, not the way we look determines what makes us professionals.

  7. Hi Melissa,

    Thanks for your comment and kind words. I agree that there are many libraries where “professionalism means valuing others, embracing new ideas, and mentoring in a way that creates strong future leaders!” Gratefully, I would say that where I currently work embodies this in so many ways (the librarians I have worked with could probably write several books on the topic of mentoring new professionals!). I believe the Fellows program is the best opportunity available for new academic librarians entering the profession, and I feel fortunate every day to be a part of it.

    Thank you again. If we see each other at a conference or event down the road, please say hello!

  8. “I’m not sure I know what professionalism means or what it looks like.”

    That sentence at the start of this piece says a lot about what is to follow. I don’t blame you, Madison, for seeing “professionalism” the way you do. I’d like to agree with the previous commentator who have described their positive associations with being a professional and try to explain why I see this a such a crucial misunderstanding that needs to be reconciled within librarianship.

    There’s a lot of confusion out there between what it means to be “a professional” (noun) versus what we mean colloquially when we use “professional” as an adjective. I agree with Shonn Haren, above, that the layers of interpretation we place over “professional” render the core idea of professionalism almost unintelligible, but I disagree that we should blame ourselves alone for buying into the “mystical” vision of professionalism. The idea of professional behavior, dress, speech, etc., as stodgy and restrained isn’t limited to librarians. Rather, it’s part of the larger social movement in which business-based ideology is taking over every aspect of public life. The common interpretation of “professionalism” is one where the businessman is the ideal professional, just like “customer service” is assumed to be the only form of good service. This capitalist overkill impacts doctors, professors, and other professionals as well (e.g., the other side of this same movement is, for example, students demanding good grades because they paid for them).

    In fact, if you look to the original definition of what it means to be “a professional,” it embodies everything you’re looking for. “Can you simultaneously call yourself a professional and advocate for radical change?” Absolutely – and in fact, if you defend yourself as “a professional,” you’re standing up for your right to do just that. A professional is someone whose respectability derives from knowledge they have cultivated in a particular area of expertise. They adhere to a code of ethics that is universal to all members of their profession. They are assumed to have capacity for and are therefore granted a great deal of independent judgment and decision-making in their jobs, even at the entry level. They are expected to have a commitment to the importance of their work such that they continue to educate and develop themselves throughout their career. Finally, they support and sustain the significance of their profession through involvement in professional organizations.

    None of these things have to do with how we dress, or whether we put on a good game face. Those are business notions, not professional ideals. The idea that we should keep our mouths shut and agree with our employers also comes from the business world. If, as you were reading through the above description of what it means to be a professional, you felt like you don’t have the support for those things, that’s because we haven’t done enough to defend our rights as professionals in the classic sense. I have seen and heard too many disparage our worth as librarians, but in doing so, we are robbing ourselves of the rights we should not just expect but demand as independent, educated, committed professionals – to speak our minds, act in what we perceive to be the best interests of our communities, and support each other through growing pains as we expand and diversify our profession.

    I think there’s a lot more discussion to be had about this, but I’ll end here by saying I have found alternatives to corporate thinking about professionalism by looking to our colleagues in the social sciences, rather than business, for solidarity and guidance.

  9. Like many of the other commentators, I think of “professionalism” more as a commitment to the shared values of librarianship as a profession. It means commitment to sustaining our work, advocating for its importance in communities, developing standards of practice, learning throughout our careers, and so on. There seems to be a large push in most areas of the United States to deprofessionalize the field, meaning the systematic stripping down of job positions into discrete slices of the work that librarians do so that lower-paid workers can be hired instead. I worry greatly about this deprofessionalization, and this worry has nothing to do with the expectations of respectibility that you explore in this post.

    When you describe professionalism as a positive aspiration, you are defining a kind of respectfulness amongst coworkers that is certainly important. But this attribute is also not quite a component of what many people mean when they think of being part of a profession.

    Your post is helpful for highlighting a common use of the term “professional” that sees its opposite in the word “unprofessional” rather than a use of the term “professional” that is about a shared, mutually-constructed work identity.

    I find it troubling (yet fascinating) that librarianship is one of the few professions where its practitioners seem hell-bent on undermining the very concept of librarianship as a discrete, important profession.

  10. Madison: I was stunned to hear the set of professional ‘advice’ you received. I’ve been a professional in two very separate careers (including 20 years in the library world), and have not received nor given that advice to anyone, ever. So the first thing I’d do if I were you is question who and why you’ve been given those pearls of non-wisdom. Is that the culture of the place you are working in? If so, get out before you are poisoned into believing that baloney. Also, question whether you are perhaps hearing something harsher than perhaps is being said.
    First months in a new job is rough, no matter how welcoming the environment. If the is workplace drama happening, you may be dropped right into it. Professionalism in that case would be to keep your head above water, and stay out of it.
    Professionalism to me means to have an open mind, a curious interest in new projects, respect for others and their ideas, being accountable and responsible for my own work and ideas, and the willingness to step out of my comfort zone for the benefit of the organization and patrons. And above all, always, always take the high road. You will be so glad you did, regardless of the outcome of any situation.
    Be hopeful, be kind, be respectful and helpful, listen and learn, and you’ll become a leader before you know it! Best of luck to you.

  11. Madison- Great post! I guess I was lucky, in that I came to librarianship a bit later (at 40). Now looking back at a wonderful 25 year career– I have to say, your instincts are dead on. I never (well, hardly ever) was afraid to be myself. Perhaps because I was older, and had other careers. But I immediately asked tons of questions, pushed against the status quo, was comfortable being my WHOLE self – and bringing all of my passions and interests to work. I have always railed against dress codes. I have now mentored/ supervised/ managed hundreds of librarians and library staff folks. My motto has always been “Work should be fun.” For me, the Professionalism piece of librarianship is what several others have referred to: That basic set of underlying principles and ethics that values access, equity, openness and service. I will admit that I changed jobs a lot until I found the places where I could shine and grow. And I also was lucky, in that I had GREAT bosses who encouraged/ allowed/ risked/ and put up with me and my mistakes. Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts, your passions, and your true north star. I’m almost 65 now, female, tattooed, biker, liberal hippie chick. I have worked in 3 states, lots of libraries, and am ready for the next crop of Guerrilla Librarians to move up as I get ready to ride off into the sunset (on my motorcycle, of course). 🙂 You are / will be AWEsome. Can’t wait to see…

  12. While a disturbing headline, as others, I thought this was about degrees at first, and the age-old professionals vs. paraprofessionals debate. On reading, some good points. I would think that advocating change, seeking to make things work better, operational input, etc., can be done by anyone in a library. The profession/work can use all of us.

  13. It is interested as I read the title of this post and thought the exact same thing Rochelle (comment above had) when she stated:

    “Oh man, I read that title as “Librarianship doesn’t need Professional Librarians,” as in, MLIS degree-holders.”

    the difference was I was hoping beyond hope this was the topic. In all my years in the library no-one has given me a set of reasonable arguments as to why an MLIS degree is necessary. I am not trolling, I just hope one day someone convinces me. I went through it and to me it seems a bunch of ideas I could have learned in a two-week course.

  14. Great post Madison! I literally just had a conversation related to this with my boss who is originally from StL. We often talk about how our Midwestern upbringing influences our choices/lives/relationships here in California. The convo today dealt with how much more relaxed I feel here in the Bay Area because the work environment is so much more laid back than in the Midwest (and I assume the East Coast as well). While there is definitely still a level of professionalism one must keep as a “professional” — I experienced some culture shock with the more informal, laid back work mentality in my system. BUT almost 8 months in and I feel like I’ve created close relationships with so many more of my coworkers and feel comfortable being myself without the strain of being “professional” enough — compared to multiple jobs in Illinois where I sometimes had similar feelings of having to put that face on to be taken seriously.

    P.S. Your intro is super impressive, you’re such a library rockstar 🙂

  15. I like what Ruth Hayden has to say. In a good sense, Professionalism can be something like actually putting in full effort on your job in the last two weeks before taking a new one, and not just slacking off. Don’t fall for bad definitions – Professionalism: the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well

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