Hey Libraries: It’s Not Me, It’s You Part 2: Who Gets to Keep the Couch?

Every breakup features that moment where the recently split couple figures out who gets what – the couch, the dog, the mutual friends. The reason I got to host a radio show my senior year of college?  I broke up with the guy who had it first, and I got it in the breakup because he didn’t want it anymore.*

Now, what do you do when you break up with a library?  Do you get to keep the generic “librarian” title as a way to identify yourself for future endeavors in and outside library land?

Bobbi Newman, aka the Librarian by Day, argues yes – even in a culture that says no.

Like Bobbi, I hold an MLS, but don’t work in a traditional library setting. (Again, if you know me, or know how to find me online, you know where I work.)  But, I remain active in ALA, blogging, writing, serving on committees, attending conferences, and speaking. I do this mostly on my own time and my own finances, though I do get some support from where I work.

For the most part, it seems to have worked very well. Except when I encounter situations like Bobbi mentions – surveys that seem to have no place for me in my little non-library job.  Checking the “other” box not only marginalizes my contributions to the profession, but also prevents the organization from collection valuable detailed data about its members.

And then there’s people who don’t seem to take the MLS’s who don’t work in libraries seriously.  I am fully convinced that the reason I have run for ALA Council three times and lost each time – by ridiculously small margins too – is because of the perception from some members that because I do not work in a library, I do not “know” about library issues and would not represent them effectively. 

I put that in bold because it makes me angry.  It’s an ugly truth that I am sure people will deny until the cows come home.  But it’s a truth that needs to be said.  I have a CV that shows a laundry list of professional accomplishments. (It’s right over here, in fact.)  I have been asked by notables within RUSA to serve on committees and edit Reference and User Services Quarterly.  I’ve presented/spoken at conferences large and small, from THATCamp Libraries to ACRL – and now Internet Librarian this fall.  I have people who walk up to me at conference wanting to meet me because they follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, or who find me later on Facebook and remember that they talked to me in the airport a couple of years ago.  (Sometimes I don’t remember their names, and if you’re one of those people, I deeply apologize.  I love you just the same, I’m just getting up there in age. :) )

And for some people, that just isn’t enough.  Because I do not have that magic word of Librarian in my title, I am clearly Not A Librarian And Don’t Know a Bloody Thing About Libraries.  Which, if you look at everything in that previous paragraph, is farthest from the truth.

I have struggled with the question of “if I change my job and go work in a library, and do nothing else with my professional life after that, will it be my golden ticket into ALA leadership?”  If that is all it takes to ascend the higher ranks of ALA – to be elected to Council or even ALA president – I’m not sure I want to be a part of ALA, or libraries, anymore.

We talk about diversity in libraries, focusing on gender and race.  That diversity should extend to employment.   Don’t believe me? Take a look at the I Need a Library Job website and the keywords they use for job searching.  There’s around 50, and only two of them – “librarian” and “library” – are the words which we hold dear.

Bobbi puts it perfectly – “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.” Those supporters won’t come if the playing field makes them feel like outcasts the moment they set their foot on the field.  Which is my challenge to ALA and all our other professional organizations – to think long and hard about how people who have the library degree are working in professions that aren’t in the standard library boxes, and how to make them feel welcome, in ways both large and small.  (No more “other” boxes on surveys asking what kind of library you work in would be a nice start, as Bobbi indicates.)

I know several of you are considering breaking up with libraries, or have done so already, based on my earlier post.  Make sure this profession lets you hold on to that title, because you worked hard for it, and still will work for it, no matter where your career path takes you.  They can keep the couch.

* Nobody listened. Because I had really bad taste in music back then.

10 thoughts on “Hey Libraries: It’s Not Me, It’s You Part 2: Who Gets to Keep the Couch?

  1. I don’t recognize this behavior. I hang out with people who are business owners, editors, publishers, I.T. geeks AND professional library association colleagues. Pat Schuman was publisher and ALA prez at one time. I have never cared if people are ” librarians” or not in job – as long as they are library advocates, leaders and colleagues, i’m good to go. Anybody who feels differently, fageddaboutem.

  2. Does the law profession get into spats about whether or not a “lawyer” is someone employed as such or someone with a JD doing related work? Something tells me that if these people in ALA are jealously guarding of who counts as a “librarian,” they have no confidence about the state profession as a whole.

    A library community that does not see the value of Bobbi Newman because she isn’t a “librarian” as traditionally defined is a community that has lost it. The unwillingness to offer the terminology to those outside a traditional library position has to be a result of that underlying lack of respect for that sort of work. It reminds me a bit of the faculty status issue in academic libraries, where librarians feel that what they do isn’t really respected by faculty. They then work to get themselves considered faculty to change that, but it doesn’t matter whether they get the terminology or not, because what they do still isn’t respected as equal. Which makes it kind of ironic in the Alanis Morissette sense if they are then turning around and behaving that way towards great advocates for libraries, like yourself, who don’t work in libraries.

  3. I’ve been flat out told to my face that I’m not a real librarian anymore. I work in a public library, but I do job info and computer training instead of reference. Apparently for some people even that doesn’t count.

    Anyway, I’ve decided that being a librarian isn’t about your job title, it’s about what’s in your soul. Is that creating opportunities for people to access information to make their lives better? Librarian. Is it helping people find things that they need but can’t locate? Librarian. Do you work to make sure that libraries exist now and in the future so that the previous things can happen? Librarian. Anyone who says different can go suck eggs.

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  6. You have just synthesized my entire hatred of ALA in one blog post. They do not represent the profession, only a tiny portion, and make no attempts to dispel the myths.

    I will not be renewing my membership.

  7. I’ve received the same kind of pushback from many in the Medical Library Association. The professional organizations are digging their own graves with this kind of attitude. They are terrified, and they should be, because I increasingly suspect there are far many more of us working outside of libraries now than in them.

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  10. My answer to people who say i am not a ” real” librarian is: librarianship is not just a job, it’s a way of life !

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