A Profession Worth Defending: A Call for Advocacy!
Originally published by ALA-APA's, in its online newletter, Library Worklife, Volume 4, No. 6 • June 2007 HR Practice
Librarians are the fierce defenders of the principles of intellectual freedom and access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity. We are the defenders of equitable service policies and users’ rights to privacy and confidentiality. Yet we have failed to defend ourselves. The fervor librarians exhibit for libraries and their collections, whether in print or electronic formats, is noticeably absent when it comes to advocating for our own profession. One might argue that libraries are comprised of all classes of employees, from librarians to clerical assistants to paraprofessionals. The absence of a significant number of librarian-only associations seems to support the stereotype of the "mild-mannered librarian": selfless, inclusive, democratic and -- less flatteringly -- timid or apathetic. This all-too-prevalent stereotype has accelerated deprofessionalization. Also undermining the status of librarians is the trend of forcing libraries to conform to corporate models.
David McMenemy describes the trend as it applies to public libraries:
"In my own mind there is no question that public libraries are dumbing down. However, I see this is a symptom of a larger, potentially fatal illness that has infested all discourse on how public services are provided and how their value should be measured. Our profession is being strangled by managerialism. If we have the courage to slay this beast we will solve the dumbing down quandary. Simply put, public librarianship is being killed as a profession by attempts to turn librarians into managers first and foremost. When that fails, as it rightly has as public librarians seek to practise the real profession, then, like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the public librarian is replaced by another type of professional. Or worse, we are told that libraries no longer need librarians, and they are replaced by non-professionals.Managerialists go on about value for money, efficiency, quality of service. What they really mean is that we must do things as cheaply as we can. Questioning such notions makes you old-fashioned, out of touch with users. Their user manual is entirely corporate in its approach, with the irony being that many of them would last five minutes in the corporate world where they really mean the things public sector managerialists pretend they understand. The managerialist sees no problem in acting like they are running a mini-corporation and getting rid of the old ways of doing things."1
What Is Deprofessionalization? - this concept that has yet to appear in the average dictionary but whose usage abounds in socio-political and economic discussions?
Deprofessionalization, in its simplest form, describes the process by which highly educated and skilled professionals are first displaced then replaced with individuals of inferior training and compensation. This phenomenon is not
characteristic or limited to any particular profession, so it’s quite democratic in this respect. Examples of deprofessionalization and deskilling can be found in social work, medicine, education and journalism to name a few professions.
But What Do Librarians Think about This Trend to Deprofessionalize or Deskill?
At a Canadian library planning session not long ago, a professional consultant asked participants to list current and future “threats”to library service. The usual suspects were paraded: inadequate budgets, disintermediation, competition from mass media, lack of political visibility and service promotion. But when one participant proposed that “cheap-labor deskilling” threatened library service, the room responded with stunned silence. When asked to clarify, the participant suggested that there was evidence of a growing trend by administrations to replace professional librarians with less qualified people to do the same work for less money. After another awkward silence, the consultant duly added the suggestion to the threat list but never mentioned the topic again.The uneasy silence over this issue has proved difficult to break. Library educators, workers and administrators seem to ignore the blurring of labor roles of professional and non-professional staff. Apart from the emerging cheap labor motivation, the avoidance stems largely from the fears of charges of elitism. After all, librarianship is not a recognized profession in North America. (One exception, the state of Georgia, reportedly licenses the “profession” based on holding a degree from an ALA accredited library school; but we know of no other state that does this). In this context, “librarianship” does not exist except in the eyes of local library boards, and as a result there is no legal basis for developing common divisions of labor as one finds among nurses, teachers, and physicians. This lack of official recognition is part of the rationale of 'managerialists' for arguing that librarians should only be hired for management positions.
The Issue That Dare Not Speak Its Name
Judging by the amount of mention in the official Canadian and Provincial library organs, concern about deprofessionalization and “cheap labor deskilling” does not exist. When queried a few months ago, library school faculty seemed either oblivious, noncommittal or in defensive denial. But an increasing awareness in the U.S. and British library world has made ignoring the issue more and more absured.2 Of course this issue has a much broader social and economic context than libraries. Even in those last bastions of the public good there
have been those who were not so naïve as to imagine they would be bypassed by the promoters of corporate globalization fueled by the eternal quest for cheaper labor. They just didn’t anticipate de facto support for it coming from their own administrators.
Where Are the Library Schools in This Debate?
One would think that library schools would be interested in this issue since it presumably has implications for enrollments—or maybe they feel the demand for library-manager graduates will be sufficient to justify their existence.
Labour unions representing library workers would seem a natural ally of those who question the quality (ethics aside)of decision-making by administrators who work to replace librarians with cheaper staff, but they are conflicted (some administrators will say supplement rather than replace but this is a bit of dissembling for reasons that are obvious). Most library unions in Canada represent both librarians and non-librarian staff. Cheap-labor librarian replacements,or staff that receive a minimum of 30 hours of reference training in one local example, are often paid more than previous clerical positions in the same institution (though, of course, less than the librarians they replace). So it seems a step up for the lower paid clericals who form the majority of members represented by the unions. But why should these people be exploited by doing the same work for less money? One administrator argued that many clerks "do a better job on the desk than do librarians.” Why, then pay them less?" One problem faced by administrators who follow the cheap-labor path is getting rid of librarians fast enough that non-librarians working beside them don’t start asking why they are being paid less to do the same job. That the administrators may be failing at this is evidenced by this recent email survey conducted by a Canadian Library Technicians interest group:
“If a library technician is willing and capable of taking on the job tasks that normally go to a librarian,
should he/she be paid the same rate as a librarian? Why or why not?”
Advocacy for the Profession Is Advocacy for Libraries!
It is apparent from such examples that it falls on library workers to define librarianship to governments, library managers, library boards, and users. The importance of retaining librarians in the forefront of services and collections in whatever form they exist, now and in the future, cannot be understated. The Committee of Concerned Librarians urges you to connect with other librarians to establish a dialogue on the topic of deprofessionalization, lobby governments for official recognition, establish a college of librarians, encourage library schools and library associations to play a greater advocacy role and educate the public, university & school administrators about the profession’s unique education and skills.
Respect your profession to the degree that you’ll make every effort to defend it. This begins with advocacy! Engage in a bit of self-promotion. Your users and collections will thank you!
The Committee of Concerned Librarians (CCL): A Brief History
Five librarians met at an informal setting in December of 2004 to discuss amongst many concerns, the gradual deskilling or deprofessionalization of librarians. It was agreed that this issue, and others of a professional nature, went largely unrepresented. It was recognized that this was, in part, due to the absence of a solely professional organization to advocate on behalf of librarians. As the group grew to include librarians from various municipalities and as these concerns and situations echoed throughout these various library systems, The Committee of Concerned Librarians (CCL) was formed. Although loss of subject expertise, the weakening of collections and the replacement of librarians at the reference desk with clerical staff was clearly the catalyst by which these professionals came together, it was their shared concern for the profession and the future of libraries, their collections and services, that united them. The group has met numerous times since the winter of 2004. Progress has been slow but enthusiasm and optimism have never been lacking.
With the creation of such an association, the group hopes to:
-affirm that librarians are highly educated and trained,
-advocate on the behalf of librarians in terms of pay equity and professional recognition
-ensure that the profession’s core values remain valid.
One such core value is stewardship, which former ALA President Michael Gorman described when he said, “We are responsible for the human transcript today and tomorrow.”
The group maintains a blog that features many comments on the topic of deprofessionalization.
Please visit it at:
The group would also like to thank its many supporters from Canada, the United States and Europe!
David McMenemy (David.McMenemy@cis.strath.ac.uk ) is Lecturer, Department of Computer & Information Sciences at Strathclyde University. He is the author of the forthcoming Facet Publishing title The Public
Library. And he is co-author of Librarianship: the complete introduction (Facet, September 2007).
Library Worklife http://www.ala-apa.org/newsletter/vol4no06/hrpractice.htm
See: www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/search/display.var.1441831.0.library_service_under_review.php, www.thisisbasingstoke.co.uk/mostpopular.var.1343131.mostviewed.county_bid_to_shelve_term_librarian.php and http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Defend-libraries/ for more information about Hampshire Library’s (UK)restructuring, which includes elimination of the librarian title and 17 library positions and emphasize customer service rather than librarianship skills for those who remain employed in the system.