You may have noticed from my last post that lately I have been grappling with questions of my professional identity. For example, I tried to understand or argue for the importance of libraries, and my best answer was that libraries’ most important role is their role as a public space and gatekeeper of information. I have been using writing as a means to work through these important questions; my professional identity is very important to me, and I want to develop it deliberately and carefully.
I recently had a draft for this current post, only to decide that I was too negative about librarianship in it, that I questioned my professional role too much and had no sense of assuredness or confidence about the “fit” of the profession for me. The blog post was about being a generalist, how librarians are generalists, and how, essentially, I don’t want to be a generalist. My biggest fear is that to be a generalist means that I didn’t really know anything, that I have nothing in which to anchor my intellectual pursuits. Librarianship is very “meta” – all about access, discovery, evaluation, interpretation, use, creation, dissemination…but I want to know the substance and depth of this information that we are providing!
Then I asked my Dean and mentor, Patty Iannuzzi, to read the post, as it had been a direct response to learning that she values librarians’ being generalists, because it results in more balanced collections and services. The conversation was stimulating and a little unsettling, perhaps for both of us – for her because I have professional identity issues, and I’m not the only librarian who has them, for me because I realized, through attempting to answer her questions of me, just how shaky the ground is upon which I am standing in terms of my professional identity. Patty is the biggest champion of libraries that I know, and I felt badly revealing these doubts and insecurities to her. But I knew that if anyone could help me solve those issues, she could. Patty had several challenging questions for me, one of which was about why I do what I do, and what role librarians have. My answers for her felt grossly inadequate. They amounted to “helping people do research,” or “helping people access information.” My answers felt so simple, even shallow, and I wondered: what makes these activities unique to libraries anyway? The truth is, I am not sure that librarians are indispensable. After all, I went through all of my academic programs, up until library school, without ever having to really rely upon library services or sources even. I was required to purchase all my course texts, which were core readings in the disciplines.
Oh my! Have I chosen the wrong profession? I will admit, this was my second pick, an alternative to my original plan and dream for life. Certainly I would fall into the category of “failed academics,” (if such a category should even exist, but it sounds so negative)! I attempted to complete two PhD programs prior to entering the field. I finished a different master’s program with the intention of completing a PhD and going on to teach in a specific discipline. In all honesty, I chose librarianship because of its convenience, and chose to leave the program I was enrolled in to attend library school because I needed to move towards financial independence at a faster rate than I was currently. I needed something stable, and I needed something that would be more likely to land me an actual job.
I acted very quickly (deciding and then immediately applying in April, and receiving an acceptance letter a few weeks later for fall enrollment). As a consequence, I didn’t think too much about what it means to be a librarian, or the crises or growing pains that librarianship is experiencing as a profession. Maybe in the back of my mind I was aware of the clichés that librarianship was dying, but at the time, it seemed like a very good, practical career option; I knew there were still jobs out there. I believe that I made the right choice given my situation, because librarianship has provided me with a good, stable job and that was my top priority. I also happen to like what I do on a day-to-day basis, and when I tell others that I am a librarian, I say it with a sense of pride, because people respect and revere librarians. I simply have yet to figure out its significance for me as a profession – as a vocation or a calling. I am like Jason Bourne – I have an identity as a librarian, and I am trying to find out the truth about what that means. I don’t yet experience recollection in this role – it doesn’t feel familiar. It’s as if I have this new identity that comes with a past, a history, that is totally foreign to me.
I have faith that it will happen in time. In fact, I don’t think that attaining a sense of professional identity has to happen before one actually enters the profession and develops as a professional. That is because there are all sorts of factors we can’t predict before starting a career, and we can never really know what a particular career is like until we actually gain experience in it. Library school doesn’t teach you what librarianship is really like, only skills and some theory to help you work through or think about particular issues. Library school doesn’t take you to the essence, or the heart, of what it means to be a librarian. Library school doesn’t make you ask those important questions about professional identity. Now, library schools are becoming even more far-removed from actual libraries, becoming Schools of Information Science (including my alma mater). Does this mean they don’t even care about the physical spaces and services of actual libraries anymore? You can read more about that in Scott Walter and Carol Tilley’s College & Research Libraries editorial.
In response to my doubts and questions, Patty didn’t really have clear-cut answers for me, because I do not think there are clear-cut answers to such doubts. Those doubts are very real, and very personal. However, she did help me come to some realizations. She helped me to realize that it is okay to have doubts, that it is pretty normal at this point in my career – that is pretty normal for librarians in general – that I am not alone. She helped me understand that it is okay for me not to have a strong sense of professional identity right away, because that is something that I can develop over time, as I become more confident in the services that I provide, as I innovate more, and as I realize that my services are indispensable and beneficial to a large number of people. I can forge a path and make this profession my own. I know that this is possible because Patty, and many others, model it for me. I will simply develop my professional identity after-the-fact.
I once had a mentor who told me, “I want to help you become who you are.” I may not have been born a librarian; this hasn’t always been who I am, and I don’t quite yet own this identity. I have the potential to become who I am, though, and I am committed to this process. It may take patience. I’m not sure yet how it will happen. I just have to keep plowing forward, with openness to change, the willingness to innovate and create, and a lot of dedication to discovering out exactly what this means for my life, in this particular geographic location, and how I fit into the bigger picture of the profession. As I chase after this identity, this identity may actually chase after me too, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people, like Patty, to provide clues along the way.
5 thoughts on “The Born Librarian: My Professional Identity in Librarianship”
You may find a lecture I gave several years ago to be of some use: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257492/
Breaking the barriers of time and space: the dawning of the great age of librarians
You thoughtfully raise an interesting aspect of professional identity, Heidi, one that I grapple with as well. I have spent much less time as a librarian than many of my colleagues have, in part because of my circuitous route to librarianship via a graduate degree in anthropology and some time working in online publishing before going for my MLIS. From the conversations I’ve had it seems that there are certainly lots of roads to librarianship and, once we’re here, many ways to develop our professional identities. Thanks for sharing Patty’s advice too, it’s great to read it.
More than the issues you raise, it’s the contemplative nature of your questions. And, of course, “it’s identity”. Always, always identity. I, like yourself, was not a born librarian. Far from it. Also, I didn’t study Librarianship. Far from it. My background (what I studied in grad school) is completely as a Playwright. And, like most MFA’s I became the wandering gypsy Artist. I did teach college for 14 years. But I think your questions and intellectual musings apply to a wide-range of folks and disciplines. Currently I’m a Communications Specialist at Johns Hopkins Welch Medical Library. Social Media etc…
But I was drawn to your courage in finding the words that “visualize” your dilemma so graphically. I could just see you in front of Patty (“helping people do research” sounds like me out of college when I didn’t know what I wanted to do — but was sure that “I want to work with kids”). Ultimately, I didn’t want to work with kids.
I applaud your search for the deeper meaning of what you do. And most especially how you’re writing and thinking about it.
Nice piece, and thanks for the link back to our recent editorial. I took a different take on “professional identity” some years back, as well (even before my MLS alma mater also abandoned the “library” in its name):
Librarians as Teachers: A Qualitative Inquiry into Professional Identity
Grappling with all these thoughts recently too…and I have just finished my third-year review. Identity – as a whole to include not just who I am professionally, within the profession, but also how it ties to who I am, on the outside, as a Latina, as a mother, as an emerging community leader, as a mentor, as a protege, as a colleague. Man the list can go on and on and on. Professionally, I feel that I am obsolete, well that my job is – as an electronic resources librarian. Mostly because my position’s duties/roles are scattered among other departments. Everything overlaps – from system librarians, to web librarians, to the head librarian not letting go of the reins, of discovery services and resource management systems changing making the job I have easier/harder? I keep thinking, “Am I supposed to feel like I’m in a slump only after 3 years?”