A rose by any other name…

I have included a discussion about what we call the folks who use libraries (members) in several presentations and it’s all over my book. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what we call ourselves. Over the past month across two continents and four different venues this question has come up.

Before I get too far down this road, I realize that I am treading a well-worn path with plenty of wreckage along the way. I am not playing coy here for a push for a new name. I am honestly struggling with this personally, and I’m looking for help.

So here is where it all started. I was talking with our board of advisors for the iSchool and reviewing the LIS program. We have a great board made up of business folks, technologists, librarians, and educators. I was making the case that librarianship was a skill set that extended well beyond libraries and asked how the school could open up opportunities in the business sector.

The answer? Don’t call them librarians. They bought that librarians would be great in institutions facing big data problems, helping out analysts and research scientists in communicating and conversations, the whole bit. The problem was that when you threw in the name “librarians” all they could think about was the building, and really the public library they visited as a kid (to be fair this was not a universal comment, as I said there were plenty of librarians in the room).

We even started talking about the possibility of the profession splitting into folks who work in the building called a library and folks with the skills that worked outside of it. I want to reiterate that this was a very positive conversation, and not riddled with the stereotypes, except to say many thought the name itself got in the way because of the widely held stereotypes.

I threw out that it was time to retake the name and associate it with the real progressive work librarians were doing today. Then one member of the board asked “so which is more important, the name ‘librarian’ or what librarians could accomplish in these other settings.” That got me thinking.

I went directly from this meeting to a summit in Salzburg. There I met amazing librarians and museum professionals from 24 different countries. We were talking about libraries and museums in the era of participatory culture. I was part of the discussion around the skills needed for librarians and museum folks (more on that later). After my presentation, during a panel discussion, someone asked, you guessed it, should we still call these folks librarians?

What started to develop at this meeting was a line of reasoning that goes like this: If as librarians we need to shape ourselves around our communities, and if part of what we need to shape is the language and terms we use, then shouldn’t we be flexible about the titles we use? If the community wants to call us librarians, then fine. If they want to call us “awesome epic cool people” then so be it. AASL wrestled with this in going back to the title school librarian from school media specialist. At the time I thought (and tweeted) “how boring.” A school librarian pointed out that the name just caused confusion, and a name doesn’t gain respect or attention, performance does. In essence call me what you want, it is my action that will show me as a librarian.

Fast forward to this past week when I presented at the New York Library Association. After I did my thing about what our mission was, up it popped again – does it make sense to call ourselves librarians. Here I talked a little about my developing “let the community decide” logic. But I added “no matter what the community calls us, we are still librarians.” In essence, I was thinking the term librarian may be more important in identifying ourselves to ourselves than to the community. So, I was thinking, let the world call us what they want, but know still you are a librarian with a common mission, values, and skills. This has worked with folks like accountants, that used to be people who worked in counting houses. Now they have the title of office manager, CFO, and so on, but they are still accountants with a common preparation and professional culture.

So here I am…librarian or not? Do I work to rename our degree to make librarians more marketable outside of libraries (keeping ALA accreditation)? Do I still push to retake the term librarian? Does it even matter? Help!

16 Replies to “A rose by any other name…”

  1. I think of myself as a librarian. In certain crowds I get more specific: academic librarian, instruction and programming librarian, instruction coordinator, etc. But I’m still a librarian. I like the idea of reclaiming the term, of reeducating our communities (or educating in the first place), and moving forward. I’m a valued part of the community at the college where I work, and being a “librarian” in my context is a fab thing.

  2. I really do think of myself as librarian and I do sense history in that term. We are keepers of keys to civilization. Simple. We may have books, databases, we may be part of a structure, we may preserve things, we may go out in search of things, we may create, we may promote, we may skype, read, tweet, blog, speak, write. I am so fine with who I am.

  3. I actually love the idea of shedding the librarian title. As someone who works on outreach/communication/marketing, I think it will be very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to ever educate our users enough that when they hear the word “librarian” they don’t think of a warehouse for books. It will probably happen eventually, but not for decades, with shifts in generations. I am interested in embracing more flexibility and fluidity in my title. Sometimes librarian seems limiting to me, particularly in certain contexts on campus. Maybe to a faculty member I’d like to be known as an information or research specialist. To a student, nice person who can literally find anything you need. I agree that there is a sense of security and shared vision in the history of the word librarian, but at the same time there is an active fight to extend beyond activities traditionally related to libraries. If we are willing and invested in changing other aspects of what we do (necessarily, in my opinion), why would title not also be on the table?

  4. Somehow the word librarian doesn’t say enough. We do so many different things. But if we start calling ourselves information specialists, people may think we tinker with the insides of computers. Maybe we should stick with the term librarian, and in time the meaning will evolve to more than an old maid wearing glasses shushing everyone. After all, we are so hip and with it and I happen to know librarians are the best dancers!

  5. Hey, Dave, just fyi, you don’t have to publish this comment. But I want to congratulate you on winning something you likely didn’t know your blog was up for!

    Visit http://scottsecondlife.blogspot.com/2011/11/novembers-blog-o-month-is-virtual-and.html to see what I’m yammering about. Since there are rumors that ISTE Island may be going bye-bye, and the Bloggers Hut’s future is in some doubt, this will likely be one of the last Blogs-o’-the-Month there. We’ve been going strong for years, and ISTE Island is particularly buoyed by a strong population of librarians. Anyway, congrats! (Scott Merrick)

  6. As I near graduation in a few months, I’ve started looking around for opportunities, and I’ve tried narrowing my focus. If I want to work in a corporate/ “special” setting, I’ve found I can’t introduce myself when networking as a Librarian or Library student. It immediately makes anyone I’m speaking to think I’m barking up the wrong tree, even if I’m not. The advice I was given was to look for job titles like “Information Specialist” and call myself the same. The problem is, I don’t work in IT, and I don’t want to. On the other hand, if I call myself by any other name in the school/public library world, then folks think I’m not qualified. What a conundrum for someone finding their way. Thanks for starting the discussion – I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

  7. Reading my twitter feed this morning, I was pointed to this article: http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2011/11/saving-libraries-but-not-librarians-blowback.html

    While I’m convinced the author has no idea what he’s talking about, (and most librarians I’ve seen commenting have said the same,) it does make me wonder if calling myself a librarian-in-training sets me up for people to think I’m obsolete. I’ve also gotten a sense lately that some working librarians are getting frustrated with constant advocacy, and are starting to believe the hype that libraries/librarians are doomed. How can we change their minds? And how can current library students be the shock troops to spark the conversation?

  8. In the spirit of “let the community decide” I am wandering along the path that began with the term “social artist” http://www.fullcirc.com/2011/11/07/social-artists-connecting-the-dots-and-steve/ that morphed into the idea of the “’library gene’ — the folks who navigate content for the rest of us” and brought me to the concept of information ecologies “a system of people, practices, technologies, and values in a local environment.” http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=3420

    I don’t think that “information ecologist” quite does it for me but I am glad to be able to listen to what some folks might call librarians.

  9. Hi Dave – I’m not sure the example of Finance and Accounting is apt. Finance and Accounting are different specialties and there are many sub-specialties within them. Accounting includes things like public accounting, management accounting, government accounting, and internal auditing. Finance is quite broad and is often applied to domains such as banking, investment, financial analysis and risk management. There may be overlap in roles for low-level positions though I think the work, training and culture become more distinct as the job level increases.

    Is this true of librarianship? Is the work of a medical librarian different than that of a law librarian or an academic librarian, or do those adjectives describe the content or setting in which the work is done? With regard to people with library degrees being qualified to work in business roles or other information professions, I’ve seen this claim numerous times though it’s never been explained. I have no idea how to assess how true or false it may be. When someone graduates with an MLS or an MLIS, what specific knowledge or competencies do they have?

    Articulating some of these things would be a great help to those of us outside the profession that might be in a position to employ people trained in librarianship.

    1. In terms of skills outside of libraries there are many many folks with MLS degrees who work outside of libraries from independent information brokers, to folks working in information vendors (like Gale Cengage) to Chase Bank to Yahoo to Google. It is a rising percentage of the Special Library Association for example. They bring information organization skills (metadata skills, knowledge management), plus advanced research and analysis skills. At Syracuse we are educating folks in eResearch and data science and they are getting hired into research labs in academia and industry (some before they can even graduate).

  10. Thanks Dave – these are the types of references I was looking for.
    I’ll put the Syracuse program and the SLA on my radar and add this knowledge to my writing and outreach on librarianship.

  11. Hi Dave – I’m writing again to share my experience of following up on the first reference you provided. I’m putting it out there because an underlayment of your post, I think, is the divergent perceptions about librarianship within and outside the profession.

    After I ready your reply, I went to the SLA website and clicked on the Featured Blog post. My eye was drawn to it because it’s in the center well and says “Featured”. The feature today was about “Vengeful Librarians”. I followed this link and it noted how the CIA is using librarians to mine data to combat anti-terrorism. Pretty interesting stuff … Unfortunately, the hyperlinks within the post are broken. Commenter Gail Kouril noted that the AP the SLA bloggers got some key data wrong – the moniker in play is “Ninja Librarians”. She provided a new link and that was also broken. My next impulse was to return to the SLA site to see what else they had to offer and I quickly realized the blog was totally disconnected from the site with a different URL and no navigation back … so I wasted a bit of energy tracing my way back.

    I was intrigued by the CIA’s use of librarians though and pursued this particular story a bit further. I was hoping to find references to the information skills you described in your comment and fell way short. What I found on news sites and the library sites covering the story was a plethora of surface links and silly information.


    While pursuing my radical approach to patron advocacy, I’ve done significant exploration and have also invited “inside” librarianship. My exposure includes the Reference Renaissance 2010 conference and 3 jam-packed days at the Univ of Toronto iSchool for classes and meetings with students, faculty and administration. I’ve had dinner and subsequent correspondence with Marie Radford, Wayne Bivens-Tatum, Wendy Newman. I’ve worked closely with LJ editors Rebecca Miller and Josh Hadro. I’ve spoken and corresponded with hundreds and hundreds of talented people in the ecosystem, in the US, Canada and the UK — librarians, library directors, 5 ALA presidents, Carl Grant of Ex Libris. I follow your work and Jamie LaRue’s work closely. Believe me – I know there is great scholarship, skill and passion within librarianship. It’s right in front of me when I’m “inside”.

    When I’m outside it’s a much different story. The professionals you describe David — trained & skilled in knowledge management, data science and research — are invisible. What I see instead are pervasive, silly references from and about librarians as ninjas, geeks, superheros. I read stories in the NYT and NPR about warrior book cart races, speed-dating at the library, etc. — and coverage of potentially rich stories like the CIA story are nothing but superficial filler – a piece of gum placed to fill a small gap between more meaningful content. I visit numerous library and association websites and quickly grow frustrated by vacuous information spewed from the engines of bureaucracies, broken links and dead-ended information architecture.

    The contrast is amazing. The high value I place on the time-honored library institution and my “peeks” inside contemporary librarianship keep me plugging for them. My experience today though has me feeling like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.

    1. Very very very well put. It is time to talking about ourselves and our future only with ourselves. It is time to do a lot more teaming with radical patrons.

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