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Professionalism In the 21st Century Library

by on June 21, 2016

A recent ACRLog blog post by Madison Sullivan brings up the debate of whether professionalism is an outdated ideal in today’s libraries. Sullivan argues that it is and that it prevents librarians from expressing their ideas and individuality. “I question what it is to be a professional every single day,” Sullivan writes. She goes on to say, “It makes me nauseous because what if who I am, and who I’d like to be in the workplace, doesn’t align with other people’s definition of what a professional is?”[1]

It seems that the notion of what exactly professionalism means to our field varies from person to person. For example, Sullivan equates the term with maintaining a low profile at work and not displaying much emotion. On the other hand, I tend to view professionalism more in the terms of dedication to one’s job and commitment to the excellence of the organization. Because this is not a quality typically taught in MLS programs or in continuing education, there does not seem to be a clear answer. Sullivan laments that a fear of being unprofessional has rendered her “silent during meetings, and timid to [her] co-workers and supervisors.” Ultimately, she expresses concern that the pressure to appear professional has made her feel she cannot be herself at work.[2]

This concern dovetails with a very real concern facing libraries today: to survive in a world of changing technology and patron lifestyles, we need to break away from the status quo of solely serving as a silent repository for books in order to remain relevant. Librarians are increasingly called upon to speak up for their libraries at council meetings and to advocate for our institutions’ necessity, whereas this may not have been as essential or accepted in times of more secure funding. We are tasked with thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative programming and outreach. Does speaking our minds really fly in the face of professionalism?

My opinion is no. To me, as a library administrator, professionalism means dedication to one’s job and willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty. Professionalism is an attitude that involves doing the best you can for your institution and treating colleagues, management, and patrons with respect and dignity. I expect these qualities from my staff every day. I do not expect them to censor themselves or stick to the status quo of passivity out of fear. To convey this expectation, I try to model professionalism through my advocacy for the library and commitment to engaging our community through new services.

The definition of professionalism and how it fits into the twenty-first-century library is different for everyone and likely depends on your work environment. In some more reserved libraries and archives, perhaps professionalism is viewed as a strict adherence to tradition. In others, perhaps it is speaking out in favor of new ideas that can better the organization and its patrons. While no opinion is necessarily correct, this is an important topic that today’s librarians should think about as we steer our profession towards the future.

How do you fit professionalism into your career?

[1] Madison Sullivan, “Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals,” ACRLog, January 19, 2016.
[2] Ibid.

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