Thursday, March 27, 2014

Who's a Librarian?

A librarian is someone who works in a library, provided a library is a collection of information that is organized in some systematic fashion. The collection can be physical. The collection can be digital. Do you teach people how to use that collection, or help them use it? Congratulations! You're a librarian.

"You get a librarian! And you get a librarian!" via Gifsoup.

"Bu bu but," you stammer, "I don't have 'the degree!'" That's okay. Librarianship is a mindset. You work in a library? You help people, either directly or indirectly? You're a librarian. 

You hold a PhD, but no Masters of Library and Information Science, and work in a library? You're a librarian.

Plenty of people with "the degree" consider themselves "alt-ac," too, including the author of this post, who got through comps, defended a prospectus, and took a long, hard look at the job market for political scientists, deciding to go right back into librarianship.

You have the degree? A Masters of Library and Information Science?
And you want to work with information? Even if you are unemployed or under-employed in another field? 
You worked with information, but are in another field now? 
Congrats! Even if you are now a consultant, or work for a vendor. You're also all librarians. (Even if I use that designation reluctantly because you tell me how to run a library even though you haven't worked in one in years.)

You teach librarians, either in MLIS or PhD programs or elsewhere? You are a librarian. 

You have the word "librarian" in your job title? You are a librarian.

Even if you are a journalist friend/political connection of/to the Governor of California who appointed you to be the state librarian because he wanted to reward that relationship. So congrats to Greg Lucas, former reporter and political blogger, the next State Librarian of California.

Per the Los Angeles Times, Lucas will be taking LIS classes at San Jose State University, in part because California requires that the person holding this position “shall be a technically trained librarian.”

Let's welcome Lucas into the fold, fellow librarians, as we've done for Dan Cohen at the Digital Public Library of America, as we've done for Daniel Boorstin at the Library of Congress.* He's going to need a lot of help.

Do you have an MLIS, but don't use it? You might not be a librarian. Why? Because while the MLIS is nice, it's neither sufficient nor necessary to be a librarian. But it does help.
It socializes you into the discipline.  
It offers you some theory that informs our practices.  
It provides a cohort, which might prove useful in many ways.  
It helps you get the word "librarian" into your job title. 
It signals that you are very interested in librarianship, so interested that you might go into debt for it. 
And hey, we employers and hiring managers often ask for it as a requirement as opposed to a preferred qualification.


* Why yes, all these people who don't hold MLISs and are in important positions in librarianship are white males. Isn't that "interesting?" Thanks for noticing.

UPDATE: A follow-up post, Credentialing and Devaluation: More on 'Who's a Librarian?'


  1. I agree with everything, but I'd add one more point:

    Do you bring a professional attitude to your work in/around libraries? If so, then yes - you are a librarian. Is it just a paycheck and you don't really care about the future of libraries or librarianship? Then no, even if you have a bazillion degrees and have worked in libraries for decades, no, you're not a librarian.

  2. I think (and I'm still working through all the various strands of this conversation) that "librarian" is more the designation of the occupation, in the literal sense--what a person does. I am a librarian because I do what librarians do in my day to day work. But I am also library faculty (at my particular institution where having this status is an option because of the environment I work in). The latter is only possible because of my ALA accredited MLIS, not to mention a plethora of other activities that *many other bona fide librarians* do not do (in particular, produce research and scholarship at a certain rate of productivity). I am aware I am speaking from only my very particular experience, but it doesn't threaten me at all to share the role of librarian with others who don't share all of my same responsibilities in relationship to libraries. In fact, I am a better librarian for it, because I am consistently astounded (in the best possible way) at the diversity of job roles I share with other librarians. I am in a pretty trad librarian role (public services/reference/instruction), so it is awesome when I learn there are librarians out there, who think and approach problems LIKE LIBRARIANS (ala Jessica's comment above), whose daily occupation is made up almost completely of coding, for instance. I *love* this. This is a good conversation to be having, and I wanted to offer for consideration the distinction I've made in my own professional identity (librarian != library faculty -- there's overlap but they are two different ideas) as a way to make sense of the tension at the center of the question, "Does having an MLIS make you a librarian?" I also would love to see more discussion, especially from job seeking MLISs, addressing the question of if they consider themselves librarians...this is a tougher nut to crack, but I tend to err on the side of "yes they absolutely are" especially if their mindset as a result of their training is that of a librarian, but I'd love to see them take ownership if the term themselves and articulate through examples of how they are librarians too (as I believe they are)........complex, no? :)

  3. Our students, faculty, staff, and community members view anyone working in the library to be a librarian. They don't know or care about who has a MLS. They only expect to find someone who can help them.

  4. Everyone's a curator!

  5. I don't think you need a MLIS to be a librarian, and I don't think having a MLIS automatically makes you a librarian. Generally. I think you need to work in a library. I think that if you're a consultant or a teacher, then you're a consultant or teacher, and maybe also a former librarian. I wrote about my feels here:

    1. Well said. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  6. I'm pretty handy with bandaids, bandages, antibiotics, and I own a sonic screwdriver. I'm just going to go around referring myself as a doctor!

    It totally doesn't devalue the profession at all.

    1. If you put all those things in a box and leave it on the sidewalk then you've made a little free hospital.

    2. Everyone has a little free hospital in their house.

      I also forgot to add my extreme skills of searching Dr. Google allows me to diagnosis, treat, and follow up on illnesses and diseases. Even though I'm essentially bouncing off the backs of people who've already gone to medical school and done the research for me and made it pretty means nought.

  7. Thanks for the great post. I agree that being a librarian is about mindset and attitude. (Though I have found my MLIS experience rather valuable because (as you mention) it teaches theory that informs your practice and also provides a framework for the discipline.) Since graduating from library school I have not had a traditional library job though I still consider myself a librarian. As the work perform today (data management and analysis) meets the basic tenant of librarianship: working with information and helping people. As you've noted with vendors and consultants I would encourage any discussion surrounding librarianship to include information settings outside the library or even librarians embedded with a user population (work group etc.). Thanks again for the great post and the discussion.

  8. Love this post! I do not have my MLIS but I have a passion for libraries and librarianship. I'm also working towards my Library & Information Technology Diploma (though I often imagine that I will one day hold a MLIS). In the meantime, I often refer to myself as a little "L" librarian or a librarian-by-ethnicity. One of the most important things about librarianship (IMHO) is in our philosophy* or our behaviour. Whether or not you have the credentials, I have a hard time respecting the title of Librarian if the behaviour doesn't match the philosophy.
    *By philosophy, I mean adhering to the competencies, advocacy, ethics, and behavioural guidelines as established by library associations or divisions such as RUSA.

  9. I put an emphasis on hiring MLIS librarians. In my experience they tend to have a broader picture and understanding of the roles of a library. That's not exclusive to an MLIS, of course, but I personally see it more regularly within that group. FWIW.

    1. I think that makes sense. I lean towards hiring, when I have to funds and the ability, MLIS holders as well, for the reasons you mention. The learning curve isn't as steep, they speak the same language, they often have experience,...