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.
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.