Once a Librarian, Always a Librarian?

I recently posted to Facebook

Dear ALA, Library Journal, and others: I have an MLS. I paid good money for it. I earned it. I am a librarian. Forever. The fact that I do not currently (nor may ever again) work in a library does not change that fact. Please make room for me on your surveys etc. Thank you. Bobbi, MLS Forever.

Then I made this

librarian forever

Then someone at ALA sent me a message saying they completely agreed with me and asked me what this meant to me. How does an ALA that supports librarians who do not currently work in libraries look to me. Which I thought was a great response and a completely fair and smart question.

Let me start with why I made the post in the first place. Because I am still active in libraryland I often see links to surveys from vendors, libraries, and other library related parties. Like a good little librarian ready to share my knowledge and opinions I click on the links only discover that said surveys are not for librarians. They are for librarians working in libraries. Which is probably not even accurate what they are really looking for is people working in libraries (including those without the degree). (I am not even going to get into the whole degree vs. non-degree thing here). I still read, write, blog, and speak about library related issues (much of my grad school work has been connected to the same issues I focused on before – privacy, digital literacy, information access, etc., just from the policy and political science perspective) so I still consider myself part of the library community and, more importantly, a librarian. My post to Facebook was prompted by a recent attempt to take a Library Journal survey, ALA sort of got thrown under the bus. Sort of. Because, as I wrote about over a year ago a rather high level ALA employee asked me directly “Why are you here?” upon discovering I was not employed in a library and was in fact pursuing a masters in political science. It wasn’t a sincere question, one looking for an answer and a connection outside of libraries, it was flip and dismissive.

I have addressed this many times in the past. I believe it is important for libraries and librarians to have supporters outside of librarianship. The diversity of librarians is important just as diversity of supports is important. I still believe in libraries, the work they do, the role they play in our patrons lives, now and in the future.

This post has been languishing in my drafts for a couple of weeks for two reasons. First, I wasn’t sure I was comfortable writing about why I am not currently working in a library. A couple of things have happened to help me push past that and at least talk about it a little, beginning with the post I made on Facebook. The number of smart, capable, forward thinking people who commented publicly and privately that is resonated with them really stuck with me. In part people those are some of the people I respect the most, people who may well be the future of libraries even if they aren’t working in a library. Then Nina McHale wrote Breaking Up With Libraries on why she is leaving libraries for a position at non-profit. The short version – lousy pay and lack of real innovation at the expense of both our patrons and our libraries, but go read the whole post.

This week I saw this Tweet

This brought all sorts of things from my time in public libraries home for me. Most public library staff are not encouraged to contribute to the profession in this way. In fact it is often frowned upon. Time is too scarce to allow public library staff time for research never mind professional reading or writing opportunities. Most public library staff who contribute in this way do what I did for years – they do it on their own time and dime. (this really is worth a whole blog posts or series of blog posts about how management and other staff view public librarians who devote time to professional projects outside the library).

There is an experience that sticks out firmly in my mind from the period when I was deciding if I should return to school, what field I should study (I did consider a PhD in library science and decided against it) and whether I should go full time. I had an interview with a public library that claimed to want to expand and improve on their digital and technology services for both staff and public. Although the salary was ridiculously low it was in a part of the country I was interested in and the possibilities were interesting, so I did a Skype interview. At some point during the interview I mentioned my involvement in ALA, and the other things I did like writing this blog. The response “I don’t know when you think you’ll have time for that, we plan to work you to death”. I was appalled. Needless to say I dropped out of consideration. I have no objection to working hard, to putting in extra hours, to going the extra mile, but it was clear there was no respect or support for work that would contribute to the profession as such.Public libraries really need to work on this (again worthy of its own series of posts). 

There were other matters at play, including some family and personal ones, but in the end I returned to school full-time.

Which brings me to the second reason this post has been languishing – when I made the post on Facebook, someone challenged me (and rightly so) to define what an ALA that makes room for people like me looks like and I am still struggling with that. But part of the purpose of this blog has always been to work through issues like this publicly. So I’m putting it out half thought through and looking for answer from you. Some really basic things that come to mind include adding “do not work in a library” as the option for “what type of library do you work in”. But what about bigger picture things? Is it just a change in attitude, and from the profession at large? You tell me.


23 thoughts on “Once a Librarian, Always a Librarian?

  1. Definitely an attitude change. I firmly believe that part of the reason I have lost each time I have run for Council is because of the perception that “well, she doesn’t work in a library, how is she going to advocate for us?”


  2. I got my MLS after working in nonprofits. Now that I’m in a public library, I’m seeing exactly that discouragement of professional development and enthusiasm. I’m sure there are public libraries that are more supportive than mine, but it really has me contemplating using my MLS in other ways at some point in the future. The prevailing message of “at least you’re not being laid off!” isn’t exactly an inspiration to keep pressing for opportunities.


  3. We need more librarians out in the world, in other areas, in policy think tanks and city management, if we want to have allies, and show our value. Public libraries have been bad about supporting research, and we need the support of data and actual research to help us make our case to non librarians.


  4. I almost always kick against the pervasive desire to play zero-sum games and define people narrowly in ways that root them out of conversations where they have something productive to add. So, bravo.

    Also, did I see your name on the attendee list for AALL? If so, I would love to welcome you to this slice of librarydom in person if possible!


  5. I do work in a public library, but it’s still shocking to me how prevalent this attitude is – “If you don’t work in a library, you’re not a librarian.”

    In my MLIS program, time and again they emphasized the utility of the degree outside of library-specific fields: research, information architecture, etc. They talked about how many librarians don’t work in libraries. Our instructors and advisers spent time making sure we understood these thing.

    This was an ALA-accredited program in Chicago, so I assumed ALA was a participant in expanding the definition of “librarian”. It’s weird to me that they’re still as far behind the times as they are – although the response you received from them is heartening.

    I suppose they emphasized non-traditional library jobs largely because the job market collapsed just before we were set to graduate and enter it…


    1. John I think your last sentence put the nail on the head. I also think they while they emphasize those career options they don’t emphasize the idea that you’re still connected to librarianship and librarians and have a connection with those who work in a library.


  6. I’m a school librarian, not a public librarian, but I know plenty of public librarians, as well as University librarians, and it’s shocking to me the differences in support for network, research, and continuing education within the different subgroups. As another poster said, it’s completely accurate that not all librarians work in libraries. Being a librarian is having a particular skill set, not working in a particular building.

    I volunteer with my state library association and in the past have been responsible for awarding professional development grants. It’s always been very clear to us (although we don’t advertise that fact very well) that any and all members of the “library community” are eligible for the grants and can contribute to the community. Having a degree or not having a degree, working in a library or not working in a library, are irrelevant to your ability to be part of the conversation.

    Yes, being in a library has it’s advantages, but why should that be the only user base? In addition to the librarians who are recently retired but still active, there are the students who are considering joining the profession, the information architects who work in IT, and many more.


  7. Sorry to bring up this ugly topic but I think the problem of librarians not contributing to professional research lies in libraries employing non-MLS librarians. If someone does not value or respect the profession enough to get their degree, they are unlikely to value it enough to contribute back to the professional literature (or even bother to READ the professional literature).


  8. I’ve worked in and out if “official libraries” for 29+ years: public, academic, corporate, NGO, not-for-profit. And this recent spate of “ALA doesn’t serve me” leaves me asking, “What makes ALA the only place that represents us?”

    SLA, IAALD, AZA, AIIP…all address the wider world of our work. Just worrying about ALA makes one sound as myopic as ALA itself.


    1. Dan I’m not sure what recent spate you’re referring to. This is the only thing that might be construed as “ALA doesn’t serve me” In fact I often advocate that if one isn’t happy with ALA on should work to change it by getting involved – it is part of why I serve on Council, committees, task forces and advisory boards etc. It is also why I wrote this post to publicly confess I didn’t have a solution to offer despite my complaint.

      I certainly am not implying that ALA is the only place that represents libraries or librarians. Though given I’m serving on Council for two more years it might be nice to feel welcome during that time.

      Thank you for pointing out the other organizations one might consider.


      1. Bobbi, there have been a lot of blog posts and articles as of late (including some excellent ones you cited here) that talk of the issue of no longer “being a librarian” which often translates into not working in a public or academic library and therefore marginalized by ALA. But often the MLS holders in the other orgs I mentioned are not called librarians at their jobs but theirs no question they’re doing librarian work.

        I see it not as an ALA issue, but rather the siloed thought process that we find in many public and academic library worlds. (I say that as a current academic librarian and former public librarian). My time in SLA, IAALD, etc created out of the box collaborations among people whose work was not necessarily like my own. But I see academic and public libraries tend to be more insular.

        I think that was intent of my post.


  9. As the Annoyed Librarian blogger says, it is the American Library Assn, not the American Librarian’s Assn. They did nothing for me when I was unemployed (later under-) for 2 years during the last recession. I’ve actually reached the Free membership for life point now, so I will never pay again, employer is paying now.


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