Is librarianship a profession?

There’s been a more-interesting-than-usual round of posts about librarianship as a profession, and how that works with the existence of paraprofessionals. See Rachel, Rachel again, and Meredith for background.

Me, I’ve got my Greg Downey glasses on again. You knew I would, right? So what is a profession from a labor perspective, anyway? I can tell you this much: the usual dictionary definition, involving specialized training, a professional association, and a code of ethics is the kind of thing a real labor theorist (which I’m not, of course) would laugh at and immediately start deconstructing.

The point of being a profession is monopoly labor protectionism, driving up the price of the Elect. End of story. All the training, all the oaths, all the conferences, all that other stuff amounts to pissing in a circle to mark territory, hoard resources (i.e. jobs and social status), and keep the unwashed out. Where an individual doing a particular kind of work can more or less swan about naming her own price, labor perceives no need for the trappings of a profession; this is why computer programmers don’t at this point have one. That day, however, may be coming, given that global wage arbitrage is hitting the US programming industry hard.

Some professions guard their borders better than others. The medical profession is damned good at it, and so is the legal profession, though both are finding themselves pressured these days. The free market, you see, does not like professions; they make the peons all uppity and stuff, getting in the way of capital flow from rich capitalist to other rich capitalist. The free market dismantles professions whenever it can find a way to do so, usually in the name of efficiency and cost-saving.

Academia as a profession is hurting bad, and is starting to realize it. They did it to themselves, of course, wildly overproducing Ph.Ds and turning over teaching (which is a much more visible part of the profession than research, despite the actual emphasis inside the academy) to brutalized adjunct labor. Remains to be seen whether they can recover.

Notice something about the preceding paragraphs? I didn’t say a thing about specialized skills, who’s got ’em and who ain’t. From a labor perspective, that doesn’t matter, it’s a big red herring. Can you guard your borders and command an over-market price? Congratulations. You’re a profession.

It’s possible to sport the trappings of a profession without quite being one. My favorite examples are financial planners and realtors. There are credentials; they’re thoroughly bogus. There are codes of ethics, often roundly ignored with perfect impunity. There are conferences. Boy, are there ever. What there isn’t is a successful effort to kick out the amateurs. I could call myself a financial planner tomorrow, and not a thing would happen to me. I could turn myself into a Realtor™ in a matter of weeks. If I did, though, the so-called “profession” would do nothing to protect the value of my labor. Heard of some Realtors™ going hungry now that the housing bubble is popping? Of course you have. Real estate salesmen haven’t protected the borders of their so-called “profession.” It therefore isn’t one.

So how does librarianship stack up? Well, that’s interesting. I’ve been sitting in on another Greg Downey course this semester, one on library history. If you go back to the mid-1800s when this “profession” jazz was just getting started, you find out that the “professionals” were a bunch of overeducated white boys who basically wanted some extra social status (so that they would compare favorably with their brothers in law, medicine, and the clergy) and an opportunity to get together and drink them some fine, fine martinis now and then. Think I’m making this up? Go find out for yourself what the first few proto-ALA meetings accomplished; you’re a librarian. Besides, it’s pretty funny stuff.

Notably, these overeducated white boys weren’t sitting at ref desks or writing up inventory lists (this being pre-card-catalog). Oh, no. That work was too menial for such as they. They were either running libraries (from back offices that had little or no contact with the librarygoing public) or writing treatises on how libraries ought to be run. Sometimes quite important treatises (hello, Mr. Cutter), but still. The boundaries of the “profession” were quite narrow, and they didn’t include most of the people doing work in libraries, especially if those people were women.

But they defended their value in the labor market, and they kept the pool of that labor suitably small, largely by denying women access to it. They were a profession, by gum, whatever else you say about ’em. (Me, I say that Dui was a loon. Crazy as a bedbug, that man.)

The Carnegie library movement shook up that nice monopoly. There weren’t enough overeducated white boys willing to move out to the sticks, is what it amounts to. All this female riffraff started encroaching. So running libraries couldn’t be the boundary of the profession any more. What became the new boundary? Library school.

Fast-forwarding to today… as a profession, librarianship is a muddled mess. The simple fact is that defining “librarian” as “MLS-holder” doesn’t stand up to five seconds’ scrutiny. One part of the problem resembles that caused by the Carnegie movement: there are libraries aplenty run by non-MLS-holders. Most of them are K-12 libraries; some are rural public libraries. Since we have heretofore been unwilling to define “library” as “space managed by an MLS-holding librarian,” that part of the barbed-wire fence around our profession has been trampled into the dirt. Good thing, bad thing, who knows? But it’s a fact, that’s all.

Another part of the problem resembles academia’s issues: we’re importing lower-priced labor to do some of what had been defined as our job. This is called “deprofessionalization.” Got a non-MLS ref-desk assistant or copy cataloguer? Yeah, then congratulations, you’ve eaten away some of the boundary around librarianship. In academic libraries, deprofessionalization takes on a slightly different form: the import of Ph.Ds sans MLS. From a good-of-libraries perspective, this makes perfect sense. From the perspective of librarianship-as-profession, it further erodes our boundaries and should be stopped. Make ’em get MLSes. It’s not like they’ll find it hard (and more on that in a bit).

Now consider why Gorman and Yee make such a big deal of MARC and AACR2 as “the core of the profession.” Secret knowledge is assuredly an effective way to guard a profession’s boundaries, and the more involuted the knowledge, the better. The problem with that tactic is that the knowledge has to remain in some way relevant and useful, and like it or not, the MARC/AACR2 empire is crumbling. Gorman and Yee can squall all they want; it won’t keep cataloguers professionals, because the value of their bizarrely byzantine descriptive practices is rapidly approaching zero. They’re defending the ramparts of a castle nobody wants.

Not that Gorman is wholly free of deprofessionalization’s taint, either. There’s his coauthor, that pesky Walt Crawford to consider. We ought to give him an honorary LIS doctorate in purest self-defense. I’m just sayin’.

Speaking of Walt, who’s a systems analyst by training and trade, a third aspect of the problem is the profession’s unwillingness to redraw its boundaries to include computers and the people who work with them. Why does this unwillingness exist? In a nutshell, because many current practitioners can’t do squat with computers and are scared of being pushed out of the profession should the computer folks take over.

I cannot begin to express how stupid, shortsighted, and counterproductive this is. Fall on your swords already, computer-phobics; it is absolutely necessary to do so if we are to preserve any kind of profession for the future. Mene mene tekel upharsin. We are Babylon, if we don’t expand our borders, Babylon divided between the non-MLS Medes and the programming Persians.

And then there’s library school. Oh, boy. Where to even begin? Well, first, it’s worth pointing out that LIS has serious trouble defining itself as a research specialization, and that tends to bleed over into library schools, notably in the substantial number of library-school faculty who have never set foot in a library except as patron. At UW’s SLIS, Greg Downey is half journalist, Kristin Eschenfelder got into LIS through a side door, their bioinformaticist is, well, a bioinformaticist—and I could go on, at some length.

Again, from a disciplinary-vigor standpoint, this isn’t all bad. Everybody knows I think Greg Downey is the bee’s knees. From a defining-the-profession (or -the-discipline) standpoint, it’s pernicious.

Second, library schools are just aware enough of the problem of libraries being run by non-librarians that they don’t actually dare set the intellectual bar (either of admission or of program content) very high. I knew some people in library school who were, I’m sorry, dumb as a box of rocks. They couldn’t have managed my other master’s program, any substantive master’s program, in a million years. They concentrated in a certain specialty which I won’t name (but we all know what it is, don’t we, librarians?). I don’t have an answer to this catch-22; either possibility hurts librarianship as a profession. If we kick the idiots out, we inevitably create even more libraries run by non-librarians. If we don’t, we’re stuck with our watered-down curriculum and box-of-rocks classmates.

Third, there’s the ALA, which is only making matters worse. Let’s review: library school now forms the boundary of the profession of librarianship—a porous and problematic boundary, to be sure, but a boundary nonetheless. It falls to the ALA’s accreditation process to defend that boundary, to make sure that the MLS bloody well means something.

It so happens that I have had a close-on view of a library-school reaccreditation process; I shall be intentionally vague about the where and when and how. I was, quite frankly, appalled. The accreditors were dumb as a box of rocks. They were stunningly rude, ill-behaved to the point of legally actionable harassment, toward a number of people at the library school (which, I may say, put a lot of effort into preparing for the reaccreditation process, and did its best to treat the accreditors like royalty). These accreditors spent incredible amounts of time and spilled ink on trivialities while ignoring quite substantive questions, in large part because they were incompetent to judge the substantive stuff. They made no attempt whatever to probe beyond surface appearances. The whole process was as transparent and auditable as a brick wall. I tell you what, if these slobs were medical-school examiners, we’d be in the middle of the next Black Plague.

You ALA members? Ask where your damn dues are going. Right now, they’re paying for these epic morons to continue devaluing your profession and its educational institutions. Never mind all the other ways ALA screws the profession over, as a profession.

So there we are. Are we, in fact, a profession? On balance, in academic libraries we are, in public libraries we mostly are, and in school libraries we’re not. But that could change and is changing. We may not have much time left to get our act together.

For myself, I’m not worried. I’m one of those folks who, based on developments in the research enterprise, is likely to be able to barter my labor individually for a decent price no matter what happens to librarianship as a profession. I’ll still call myself a librarian, no fear there. The question is whether people nod respectfully when I do—or laugh.

Edited to add: Walt corrects me on his training, and his sense of what he is and does. Mea culpa, Walt, and I apologize for the error.