I’m sure some of you remember the big push last year and early this year to require the MLS for the Executive Director of the American Library Association (ALA) — if you don’t, here is an article, column, and blog post about it. One big argument I kept hearing was that we needed someone who understood and had experience in libraries. What I found interesting was a lack of recognition that someone could be a leader of major libraries or library consortia and not have an MLS. It was almost as if there was no understanding of the fact that we have people who spend their entire careers in librarianship who do not have an MLS. Many, many ALA members do not have an MLS, yet somehow the idea of someone without an MLS representing the ALA was repugnant to some (and to others signaled the death knell for our profession). What became clear from this debate was that a good number of people — those nearing the end of their careers seemed to be the most outspoken — felt that we needed to defend our professional credentials against those who do not value libraries and do not see us as a profession. Here’s what John Berry of Library Journal said on the issue:
Now a growing chorus of “experts” from outside the field tell us that libraries and the professionals who administer them are obsolete. In truth, the profusion of information sources coupled with the erosion of the quality of the information they provide has added urgency to the fundamental work of the librarian. We collect and disseminate the facts of humankind after careful evaluation of sources as to their currency, accuracy, depth, breadth, biases, and prejudices. No other profession has that mission. The MLIS credential is one signal that the holder has at least studied and considered these issues and understands the need for an institution and a professional cadre to serve and protect the rights of all people to accurate information. ALA’s leaders, and indeed all librarians, must be holders of that important degree. We must not abandon it now.
How the Executive Director of the ALA not having an MLS actually detracts from our professional cred is still beyond me. The people who say libraries are obsolete are not thinking of librarians at all (or if they do, they are old ladies with buns) and many probably don’t even realize we have a professional Masters’ degree. I assume the search committee would make sure the Executive Director can adequately communicate the value of the profession to others. Whatever the argument, the motion did not pass in the election and the MLS is now a preferred qualification for the position.
But that sense of our profession being under siege and needing to barricade our professional doors was echoed in other things I’ve read recently and in experiences I’ve had. And, frankly, that attitude makes me ill.
I first read Peter Murray’s “Anxious Anger – or: why does my profession want to become a closed club” in which he describes a far-from-inspiring closing keynote at the Re-Think It conference given by Julie Todaro (just past past-president of ALA) and Jim Neal (just now past president of ALA):
I started taking notes at the beginning of their talks expecting there would be uplifting ideas and quotes that I could attribute to them as I talk with others about the aspirations of the FOLIO project (a crucial part of my day job). Instead, Julie kicked things off by saying the key task that she works on at her day job is maintaining faculty status for librarians. She emphasized the importance of credentialing and using the usefulness of skills to a library’s broader organization as a measure of value. Jim spoke of the role of library schools and library education to define classes of people: librarians, paraprofessionals, students, and the like, and that the ALA should be at the heart of minting credentials to be used (I think) as gatekeepers into ‘professional’ jobs.
Peter goes on to say that he knows many people working in vital roles in libraries who are well-steeped in the values and ethos of the profession and don’t have the MLS. I do too. And I’m frustrated as hell that people think that we need to create and enforce class boundaries in our field in order to protect our own status. People might have different roles in our libraries based on their skills and credentials, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated like full and valued partners in the growth and improvement of the organization. Too often though, librarians feel like we need to protect our turf by marginalizing our colleagues without the MLS. And how is that anything less than discrimination?
I remember working as a library assistant while I was working on my library degree and I remember how marginalized those of us in the position were. I worked in circulation (at the check-out desk and upstairs information desk) at a small city public library in a county that had a branch in another part of our city. Often, if we didn’t have a book, we would end up looking to see if the county library had it for the patron. I had the simple, non-earth-shattering idea of creating a computer shortcut to the county library catalog on the circulation and information desk computers; an idea that my colleagues in Circ were in favor of as a helpful time-saver. I remember suggesting it to my supervisor and how tremendously dismissive she was of the idea and me. It was clear to me that I was in a class of people who were not paid to think of ways to improve the library, but just to do the tasks associated with their job. It was demoralizing.
I’m sure there are people working in staff positions in libraries who don’t see it as a career, but I know so many who do. And what do we do for those passionate, dedicated people working in our libraries who do not have the MLS? A friend of mine recently left libraries for a non-library job. She was an incredible go-getter who was full of ideas and committed to doing the work to make them happen. Only she rarely was in a position to make her ideas happen because she was a “paraprofessional” and in many libraries, paraprofessionals are not empowered to suggest projects or improvements the way “professionals” are. She was an exceptional employee who couldn’t afford to go to library school, and there weren’t really opportunities in her job for her to take on new challenges or get more autonomy, much less to advance. In a situation like that, what’s a dynamic, passionate, improvement-oriented person to do?
Kendra Levine has written three brilliant posts about people working in libraries without the professional credential and our responsibility to stand up for their rights in solidarity as library workers:
- Library Workers – Let’s Talk about Solidarity
- More on Library Worker Solidarity – Librarians Need to Make Amends
- More on Library Workers – What Path is Your Position On?
Her posts are on fire with their righteous awesomeness!! Here’s just one excerpt from her second post:
Librarians need to eat crow and apologize for past slights and insults. We need to begin with reflection and self education. Recognize the importance and dignity of all work, and embody that belief. Libraries are complex systems and operations that need lots of different kind of workers to function. When I hear librarians laughingly plead ignorance about bib records because why should they actually need to worry about them, it’s embarrassing and offensive. (And also reflects the deprofessionalization of tech services…) So think about what you are going to say and be careful with how you say it. I know for a profession of people who tend to be driven by words, we can often be very pedantic and precise with our own, but also carelessly punch down. So much that I think most people don’t think they’re going to do it.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen people punch down at people in non-faculty positions, faculty librarians without tenure, and people in “paraprofessional positions.” I’ve seen people get their backs up when a “non-librarian” makes a suggestion about something that is the librarians’ domain and yet librarians in non-supervisory roles feel perfectly comfortable telling people in access services or technical services how to do their jobs better. I’ve probably been guilty of being territorial myself and I feel no lack of shame for that. I’ve seen the class divides everywhere I’ve worked, even when I’ve worked with people who were warm and wonderful and all liked their jobs. These divisions keep libraries from being a team environment where everyone feels like they are working towards a greater goal. Workers who are marginalized tend to focus only on their small area of the big picture because they aren’t empowered to think beyond it. They may have valuable insights and ideas that we will never learn about because we don’t value them.
Being territorial with our colleagues is not going to strengthen our profession or our libraries. If anything, it kills library workers’ passion for their work and their sense of being a member of a team. And if treating our colleagues with dignity and respect and advocating for them to get a decent wage will make people decide not to get an MLS, I think it’s on MLS programs to assert their value or improve what they offer. We shouldn’t have to prove the value of our professional credential by shitting on our colleagues.
I feel like Kendra’s third post speaks to my friend’s situation. The best supervisors learn what an employee’s goals are and help equip them for and move them toward that goal. Not all libraries have ample advancement opportunities, but I think a manager can do a great deal to support a direct report in developing leadership and other experiences that will help them move to a better job elsewhere. My library director at Norwich University absolutely saw this as her role and she gave me so many opportunities to grow and lead. This should not only be something that managers do for those with an MLS — all employees deserve to be seen as whole people with the desire to grow.
I honestly don’t know why those without the MLS are members of ALA, an organization that does not seem to have their interests at heart if the past two presidents’ attitudes are any indication. Frankly, I’ve always been puzzled by ALA’s lack of focus on the needs and labor issues of people working in libraries. ALA wants to strengthen the institutions (libraries) and the structures (our professional credential and the caste system it creates), but there’s little focus on the the rights and well-being of library workers (and thank you, April Hathcock, for suggesting that change at ALA Council). ALA-APA (which is supposed to be focused on library employees) is an unempowered, undersupported afterthought, but it doesn’t have to be.
Those of us who work in libraries are all professionals. We may work in different roles, but we all deserve equal dignity, respect, and a valued voice in our workplaces. We will strengthen our libraries by making sure that everyone working in libraries is valued and that doesn’t require “devaluing” the MLS.