Librarianship as a profession is, as we all know, threatened. The threat can be identified most directly as a reduction in public support for government institutions, especially those institutions or their components considered “less essential.” Where librarians feel that our jobs, or our job prospects in the case of new librarians, are threatened, we have a personal stake in the fate of libraries, which in our discourse with the public can put the taint of self-interest on our arguments for the value of what we do. But for most of us, it is not so much a matter of protecting our jobs but protecting our ability to do the kind of work that we believe in. That passion for the profession serves us well in making the case to the public about our role, where our personal stake may not.
In terms of the question of public support for libraries, our belief in the values of the profession is an essential rhetorical tool. However, it is only one piece. The other piece is professional expertise. Our expertise as librarians is part of a dynamic where the threat to libraries is being felt in a less direct and less noticeable way, which is the process of deprofessionalization.
Library administrators and funding institutions have an interest in the deprofessionalization of librarianship in two ways – economic efficiency and control. Library support staff, who are being trained up to take on most responsibilities now handled by professional librarians, cost libraries less in wages. Because they are not a part of a profession that makes a claim to autonomy in the workplace, and not guided by a professional code as well as by management directives, they are more subject to direct management by their supervisors. That is to say, they are workers with bosses where librarians tend not to have bosses in the same way, tending rather to occupy roles in their organization where management is partly a collegial process. It goes without saying that library administrators want the ability to determine what happens in the libraries for which they are responsible, and therefore have interests that are in tension with those of their professionals on the staff.
In order to make a claim to professional autonomy, librarians need more than a set of admirable values to justify it. They need a body of professional expertise that is incontrovertible, made up of knowledge and skills that others recognize required extensive education to gain. They need to be able to make the case that what they offer as professionals is something that other people cannot do nearly as well. They need to show that what they do is not only interesting and admirable and important, but that doing it takes expertise, and that they possess that expertise. The importance of the professional status of librarians was first recognized in the 1920s in the famous Williamson Report, which led directly to the establishment of graduate level education as a prerequisite for employment as a librarian. The reason for the masters in librarianship has a lot to do with the importance of professional autonomy for the pursuit of the honorable goals of librarianship as a profession, which are not necessarily the direct priority of institutions. That autonomy is just as important as the fact of our employment, if our employment is to have any meaning in a social sense.
Part of the process of deprofessionalization, somewhat ironically, has been a move among library management thinkers toward a reconception of the professional librarian as primarily a supervisor of front line staff. This pattern first appeared in the area of technical services, as a result of the advent of shared cataloging, but it has begun to spread to other areas of library work as well, with the move toward cross-training support staff in formerly-professional work roles.
(Readers who are interested in the issue of the deprofessionalization of librarianship may be interested in a paper I wrote about it for Progressive Librarian a couple of years ago.)
Making the case for the importance of maintaining our presence in libraries as professionals is, as I mentioned, dependent on being able to claim an area of indisputable expertise. This expertise should be understood as constituting what it means to be a librarian. The knowledge and skills that make up this expertise, and the work that goes into advancing that knowledge and those skills, should be our primary concern as librarians, and should be the main content of our communication with each other as librarians, especially where that communication is before the public.
This is where I find the library blogosphere to be a problem, and to be a contributor to the deprofessionalization of librarianship. I realize that this is a controversial statement to make and not likely to be popular, so let me qualify it a bit before making my case. It’s important to say that there actually is substantial amount of discussion in the library blogosphere about real professional issues, exploring new problems and advancing the profession’s knowledge and expertise. This can take the form of intelligent essays like those that appear in Lead Pipe, and can also be found in the more personal musings of typical library blogs, from time to time.
My concern is that this kind of communication that serves to advance our knowledge and skills does not make up the majority of what counts as the professional communication of librarians in the Web 2.0 era. What I mostly see in the library blogosphere is a mix of celebration of our professional values in a less-than-substantial way; celebration of our pop culture presence; demonstration of our interest in pop culture; a rather immature obsession with our image in the culture; and general personal blogging under the heading of “librarian.” Because the library blogosphere has nearly replaced the reading of journals for most younger librarians, this content has to be seen as the material that now constitutes the self-conception of librarianship for the librarians who read it, education and work responsibilities aside, for ourselves and before the public. As a result of the interests of library bloggers, in a postmodern transformation, the profession of librarianship is being replaced by the signifier of librarianship. The implication for the problem of deprofessionalization is that the library blogosphere is unwittingly abetting it. The claim to professional expertise is slipping through our fingers, replaced by a mere claim to a cultural identity. A claim to a cultural identity doesn’t constitute a claim to professional autonomy, and professional autonomy is what is needed in order to advance the goals of the profession that we all celebrate.
So, for the sake of our ability to make an indisputable claim to professional expertise, please start using the blogosphere for the kind of communication that advances the knowledge base of the profession. Read the journals, and blog about the articles that you read there. That means not American Libraries and Library Journal, but Library Quarterly, Reference Services Review, and JASIS, and journals is related fields, like Reading Research Quarterly and Media, Culture, and Society. These are just a few of hundred of journals with research that is relevant to building up the foundations of our field. That research is extremely interesting and useful for our work, especially as we respond to the changes around us. We should be reading from these journals and communicating about what we read in our professional blogging. Our blogs should demonstrate our personal interest in the elements of our own expertise. If we don’t share and advance the knowledge base of our profession in this way, our claim to professional status will continue to weaken, and our professional identity, the subject of so much direct concern, will be reduced to a style that anyone can wear, regardless of social role and life commitment.
I hope this message is taken in the spirit of a shared concern for the profession that we all believe in.
[Note added two days later... Reactions to this post so far are making me feel it was a mistake to talk about the scholarly literature as the solution to what is wrong with the library blogosphere. This idea seems to have created a distraction from my main point, which was about what is wrong with the library blogosphere and the effect it is having on the profession. Paying more attention to the scholarly literature is just one thing bloggers might do to improve the library blogosphere. I was not intending to say that the lack of attention to the library literature in the blogosphere is what constitutes the problem. It's not that at all. It's just the personal, trivial nature of most of the blogging that goes under the "librarian" heading. Blogging about scholarly and professional literature is just one of many things library bloggers could do to use the blogosphere in a way that does more to advance the profession and show that the "librarian identity" is a matter of expertise rather than something to do with Catwoman.]