A specialist profession, or a profession of specialists?

“Librarian,” like “doctor,” should be understood to mean: an expert with strengths in a particular field within the profession. —Stanford Friedman on Twitter, quoted with permission

A few years ago I went to my optometrist, who made standard what-do-you-do small talk as we waited for the eye-dilation drops to kick in. On hearing I was a librarian, she asked me a fiction reader’s-advisory question, with complete faith that I would have an immediate and useful answer.

Of course, I’m not a public librarian and never have been. I’m not a reference librarian either; I’ve never worked a desk in my life. The sum total of my resources for answering reader’s-advisory questions when I can’t even see straight, much less look anything up, is my personal probably-dubious literary taste. Rather than try to explain that to my optometrist, however, I went along with her stereotyped assumptions about what librarians do by recommending a recent read.

I’m not laughing at my optometrist. I can’t afford to; I’ve had too many librarians tell me, covertly or even aloud, that I’m not actually a librarian because I’ve never worked a desk or cataloged a book. I’ve heard plenty from my students about working librarians hassling them over learning digital-librarianship skills. It isn’t just optometrists who have narrow notions of what this field encompasses; too often our own notions are barely any broader. This worries me, not least because it doesn’t reflect the variety and opportunity I see in the information professions. A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk at length with the CEO of a local competitive-intelligence firm. Do competitive intelligencers do information work? They surely do! Does it resemble any information work I’ve ever done? Not one bit! Does it resemble reference-desk work or reader’s advisory? Not in the slightest! Am I bothered that competitive intelligencers claim the title “librarian” despite doing work entirely unlike mine? No, I’m not; the shape of opportunity and growth is precisely work that is different from work we’re used to. I’m happy to call competitive intelligencers librarians and welcome them among us. I firmly believe librarianship would be stronger if it welcomed every information-related specialty in sight, instead of repelling them and their practitioners, or banishing them to an outer darkness far from the supposed “core of the profession.”

In fairness, our tendency to see a “core of the profession” when there may well not be one can be traced to a cognitive peculiarity common to us all. Just as you’ll think of a robin before a penguin or ostrich if I ask you to think of a kind of bird, my optometrist heard “librarian” and thought “public-library reference librarian,” the kind of librarian most resembling her internal model of what a librarian is. If I ask you to think of a kind of academic librarian, you’ll probably think of reference librarians or catalogers before you think of institutional-repository managers. In any linguistic category, humans choose favorites—paradigm examples—based on assumptions about what common characteristics of the category are. Notably, the assumptions don’t need to be true universally or even at all for them to inform choice of a paradigm example! True or false, though, academic librarians who take paradigm examples too seriously ostracize specialists who don’t fit the paradigm. I certainly spent most of my librarian career feeling excluded on this basis.

The perennial squabbles over what topics library schools should require of students are a microcosm of the choice between a single specialist profession and a profession harboring many sorts of specialists. I’m not even touching that question here. I just want to draw attention to the assumption underlying the squabbling: that the universe of information jobs is still so internally cohesive that there exist topics relevant to every single future information-profession jobseeker. If I ever believed this—and if I did, my belief was not strong, since I existed well outside librarianship’s paradigm examples even as a student—teaching has thoroughly humbled me. I’ve had to scramble to assimilate material relevant to youth services, records management, medical librarianship, and acquisitions, just to name a few perfectly legitimate information specialties that are not remotely mine. Even limiting scope to academic librarianship, I have no trouble imagining two librarians with next to nothing in common: a MARC cataloger and a science-data librarian, say. Putting the MARC cataloger in my Digital Curation class is probably a waste of time for both of us, as is making the data librarian sit through a full course in MARC cataloging. In both cases, there’s precious little time to waste; master’s programs are painfully short.

In my outsider’s experience, librarians who resemble librarianship’s paradigm examples closely are often proud of believing themselves the center of the profession. This can make them decidedly touchy about anything that might decenter them, whether it’s a new non-paradigm position or service in their library or a library school’s decision to remove a course in their specialty from its requirements. Indeed, the longstanding, still-noisy furor over removing “library” from the titles of quite a few schools with American Library Association (ALA) accredited degree programs is classic resistance to decentering. So is much resistance to non-MARC bibliographic description. So is practically every “library schools have to teach everybody this thing!” complaint I’ve ever seen—funny how “this thing” so often turns out to be something fundamental to the complainant’s own specialty, which turns the complaint into “everyone must know how to do what I do!” If that’s you, please repeat after me: what many other librarians do is entirely unlike what you do, and that is entirely as it should be. If the issue instead is that library-school coursework does not delve deeply enough into particular specialties, please understand that every specialty in every information profession everywhere is beating down our doors demanding that we teach their specialty in depth to every single one of our students! This is so manifestly impossible that I have completely stopped listening to or even acknowledging such demands. Even adding depth, a notion I like while acknowledging its practical logistical difficulties, is impossible if we educators are forced into a too-close orbit around a starkly-limited “core of the profession.”

Likewise, library-degree accreditation standards still assume a single specialist profession, not a profession of many sorts of specialists. Since my workplace just completed an accreditation cycle during which I was responsible for compiling and editing our self-study, I have been thoroughly steeped in the Standards and how they are applied in practice. While I am sympathetic to some of Texas iSchool dean Andrew Dillon’s critique of the accreditation process, my concerns with the Standards run deeper than process. How does making, enforcing, and assessing a single set of “student learning outcomes” (Standard I.2), one example of the Standards assuming a single specialist profession, make sense if what programs are really doing—and this is what I believe the best of us are indeed doing—is helping students choose and achieve diverse sets of outcomes, sometimes overlapping, often not?

I suspect, unfortunately, that any school seeking accreditation would find itself in serious difficulties if it tried to make the above case before ALA’s Committee on Accreditation, which wants what it wants—and what it presently wants is program-level learning outcomes straitly tied to the fixed topic and competency lists in sections I.2 and to a lesser extent II.2 of the Standards. How can an accredited degree program, especially in a relatively small department such as the one I teach in, build new specialties under so much pressure to stay as close as possible to the Standards’ fixed lists, as well as an inertia-weighted set of student learning outcomes? What I see schools doing instead is building separate specialized degree programs that do not seek ALA accreditation. Since ALA accredits specific degree programs, not schools or departments, such a separate degree program lets schools work around the Standards’ fixed lists, heeding instead modern professional realities in libraries generally and academic libraries particularly, as well as outside libraries altogether.

I would not be surprised if the eventual endgame—this process will be slow—for some schools building new non-accredited programs is the shuttering of their ALA-accredited programs. Perhaps this is a consummation devoutly to be wished given the library job market. I am not so sure, though. The schools lost to ALA’s regime will be the explorers and specialist-producers. The remaining ALA-accredited programs will be precisely those hewing closest to the already-oversupplied “core of the profession.” Students interested in types of work outside that core will have plenty of non-accredited programs to consider attending, and a decent panoply of jobs in workplaces that don’t care about ALA accreditation waiting for them when they finish. That being the case, where will academic libraries find the various kinds of specialists they are noisily demanding, allergic as they tend to be to retraining their existing workforce?

This doesn’t have to be the endgame, though. ALA can think through how to accredit schools that choose to specialize; indeed, if it does not do so I fear it may gradually lose considerable influence among degree-granting information schools. Accommodating specialist education will be politically unpalatable to librarians wishing to believe themselves the center of the library universe, but so be it; ALA’s alternative seems worse. Academic librarianship can reconsider its allegiance to the notion of a single specialist profession, consciously deciding at last to welcome and value those of us further from the paradigm example. I understand that being decentered is scary, but no one is demanding that reference librarians and catalogers leave the profession! I am only asking that they willingly expand their consciousness of the profession’s boundaries to encompass more types of professionals.

A living, growing, changing, welcoming profession of specialists, even with amorphous boundaries and no clear center, seems far more attractive to me than a fearful, resentful, straitly-bounded specialist profession. The profession of specialists is well within our reach, if we decide to reach for it.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”