What Makes Us Professionals? | From the Bell Tower

Thanks in part to Library Journal, librarians from all spheres of the field have engaged in some lively debate about whether librarianship is a profession. It all began when Ryan Deschamps authored a post titled "Ten Reasons Why 'Professional Librarian' is an Oxymoron" at his blog The Other Librarian. While the post received a fair amount of attention, and dozens of comments, Library Journal gave the post a larger audience by reprinting it and then providing Deschamps an opportunity to respond to his own assertions that librarianship had no claim to professionalism.

Personally, I thought some of the commenters to the original post, including myself, did a fine, and possibly even better job of refuting Deschamps' rationale for our lack of professional status, than he did on his own.

Who cares if we're professionals?
I understand the value of writing a post that raises some difficult questions, and which forces us to confront challenging issues we face in moving librarianship into the future. Playing devil's advocate is a sometimes necessary function that encourages us to think deeply about why we do what we do—and those for whom we do it.

I was inspired by the mostly positive responses to Deschamps' ten reasons why librarianship is not a profession. As I asked in my comment, does it really matter whether the world sees us librarians as professionals or not? What really matters, as I and others wrote, is the quality of our work and the difference that we make for our colleagues and our campuses. If I have earned the respect of those I serve and they treat me as a professional, then what else really matters?

Having second thoughts
It turns out, in retrospect, that I must care a little bit about this issue because now I'm wondering if I had it wrong. When you look at this issue from at least one particular angle you could very well claim that librarians are not professionals. At least one commenter to Deschamp's original post brought up the issue of regulation, asserting that the one thing that distinguishes professionals is that they are licensed to perform their duties, and that they are legally responsible for damages that might occur during the delivery of their services.

A physician or attorney is the common example; each must past rigorous exams to become certified to practice in their state and both are subject to damages when derelict in the performance of their duties. By that standard your plumber and your hair stylist are professionals, but not your librarian. Though I dare say that all of us are guilty of it at one time or another, no academic librarian was ever sued for professional negligence. Then again, how would anyone prove it?

A parallel discussion about professionalism
A debate similar to the one started by Deschamps is taking place in the world of business. It began with a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about why management is not a profession. Richard Barker makes a case that because management lacks the qualities of a profession, such as licensing and regulatory oversight, MBA schools are technically not professional schools; the bulk of the article focuses on MBA education and changes that are needed to promote professionalism—and much of what is said could apply to LIS programs.

Barker says that, "Professions are made up of particular categories of people from whom we seek advice and services because they have knowledge and skills that we do not." That suggests that librarians are professionals. Surely we have knowledge and skills that laypersons do not. We are experts in conducting research. We know how to mine unique oceans of information and data to come up with the exact information needed. When faculty need a comprehensive citation count for their promotion and tenure dossier they often seek out an academic librarian who has the special skills to do the job thoroughly.

Then again you could make the point, as Deschamps did, that anyone can find or organize information on their own. A savvy faculty member could figure out how to use the appropriate databases to do their own citation counting; some libraries even offer faculty guides on how to count their own citations. They may do it less well or efficiently than a librarian, but what are the consequences? You could point to a few cases where a decision based on poor or misleading information led to disastrous results, but these events are so few and far between that there's no societal initiative to establish a network of certified librarians, regulated by the state, who are the only ones deemed qualified to dispense information.

What really matters is how we think
One response to Barker's HBR article suggests there is or could be something unique about the work librarians do that could establish the field more concretely as a profession. Roger Martin, dean of the Business School at the University of Toronto—and a leading proponent of design thinking—suggested that what makes managers unique is the type of integrative thinking they bring to their work.

By integrative thinking Martin means a particular thought process that enables individuals to develop solutions to complex problems. For example, the library faces a difficult problem with no clear solution. Option A and Option B are obvious solutions, but neither is quite right. An integrative thinker has the capacity to take the best of both options A and B and come with a new and better option C; it is a solution that integrates existing ideas and information into something new and different (for more on integrating thinking read this).

In a brief essay about Baker's article, Martin states that "if we can demonstrate to the world that the inability to integrate is the prime cause of managerial failure, then perhaps management could move toward being a profession in which people could be tested and certified on their ability to think integratively."

We have the knowledge and skills
When I read this I thought it could also apply to the academic library profession. So much of what we do is integrating many different types of knowledge—our disciplinary expertise, our insights into the creation of scholarship, our skill at promoting collaboration, our ability to educate—so that we can quickly assist those needing research assistance and develop solutions to enable them to succeed. Deschamps touched on this briefly in his response when he said "our expertise lies not in surface learning but in the synthesis of a variety of topics."

Embracing the concept of integrative thinking as our professional expertise moves us further in the direction of laying claim to a unique body of knowledge that defines professionals. As Barker states, "Professions are made up of particular categories of people from whom we seek advice and services because they have knowledge and skills that we do not."

Yes, everyone can find information. If we seek to claim professional status, whether or not it's regulated and even if there's no clear code of conduct with legal consequences for violations, then we must promote our unique expertise as integrative thinkers who do much more than just find information. We must differentiate ourselves as integrative thinkers who synthesize many different types of knowledge to help individuals find solutions to their complex information needs. We have the knowledge and skills. Do we have the motivation to create change?

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