Recently, I read an exchange between librarians in which one librarian argued that MLS-holding librarians should be doing different work than paraprofessionals, and that to check out books or other rather simple tasks often left to high school graduates was inappropriate for professionals, or something along those lines. Another librarian accused the first librarian of elitism. You know it’s a sad day for the elites when a librarian has wandered into their midst.
We often hear things like, “I didn’t get an MLS so I could [insert menial task].” And it’s true every time. Had I wanted to spend my life shelving books or staffing a circulation desk or punching a clock at break time, I would certainly not have gone to library school.
The professional master’s degree should mean something, but it’s an open question as to whether it actually does mean anything. What should it mean?
It should mean that the professional does work of a higher caliber than the nonprofessional. The work should be more complex and done with more autonomy and self-direction than that of nonprofessionals. Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough of that work to go around in many libraries, so the librarians have to do other things to fill their days.
Some libraries “solve” this problem by restricting what nonprofessionals are allowed to do, no matter how capable those nonprofessionals might be, merely because they have no MLS. It seems to me that rules of this sort confuse the issue. The problem isn’t that some nonprofessionals can’t do the work of some professionals, but that there isn’t enough professional work and thus librarians zealously guard what little there is so they feel important.
This works both ways, though. I have heard nonprofessionals complain about poorly performing professional librarians and ask why they should get special treatment just because they have a library degree. Some also complain that they are just as capable as the librarians. And some are.
But if they want to be treated as professionals, all they have to do is get a library degree. We MLS holders with triple digit IQs know the work itself isn’t that difficult. If you’re smart and can tolerate a lot of fluff and group work, you can get through most library school classes easily.
What separates professional librarians from nonprofessionals is more than just the knowledge gained in an MLS program, which varies widely. It’s also the fact of having completed the program, and this is more meaningful than it might seem.
When I’ve heard nonprofessionals complain about some distinction in work, benefits, or flexibility, I have sometimes suggested that they get an MLS themselves and become professional librarians. Problem solved! Inevitably, I hear about how difficult it would be, and about all the obstacles: the money, the time, family responsibilities, balancing school with work, etc.
Only once, to someone I actually liked, did I note that the same was true for most of us. Most of us worked full-time or part-time or multiple jobs to pay for library school. We balanced two or more classes a semester with jobs and family commitments. Those of us with other graduate degrees did this for even longer.
And during that struggle, we learned far more than whatever was taught in library school classes. We learned discipline and efficiency. We learned to balance the demands of truly professional work, which doesn’t begin at 9am and end at 5pm Monday through Friday. We learned that if we didn’t like our lot in life, it was up to us to better it. Instead of sitting around complaining, we worked hard, made sacrifices, and improved our situations. (Considering the nature of most library work, obviously most of us were pretty hard up beforehand.)
That’s one of the things that distinguishes the professional from the nonprofessional. Does that make professional librarians elite? To an extent, it does. This bizarre pretense that everyone is equally good at everything doesn’t stand up to reality. That’s the pretense behind calling someone “elitist” when they merely point out the truth that some people are better at or know more about some things than other people, and that distinctions should be made.
I don’t want an auto mechanic operating on me, or a gardener fixing my car. I want people to do the jobs they’ve been trained for. And just as I want an auto mechanic to fix my car, I understand that some mechanics are better than others. There is an elite within every profession. In manual trades, the elites are the ones whose work approaches that of art. A great plumber or electrician can be much more of an artist that some schmuck with an MFA splattering paint on a canvas.
To some extent, the same is true in librarianship, as in every other field. In general, librarians know better how to do library work than nonprofessionals or nonlibrarians. What’s more, the good ones have the attitudes and beliefs of the professional. They do the work that needs doing and don’t watch the clock waiting for their next coffee break.
Within the field of professional librarians themselves another elite emerges. While stuffy, status-conscious librarians might like to pretend they’re elite because they have an MLS and that person standing beside them doing the same work doesn’t, most librarians don’t think that way as far as I can tell.
But it should be clear that some librarians are better librarians than others, or that they know more or are better at communicating what they do know to their peers. While I poke fun at some of the sillier pronouncements of librarian bloggers and speakers, it’s pretty clear there’s an elite of sorts in the profession. The elite innovate, and we follow. The elite write, and we read. The elite speak, and we listen. It doesn’t matter if we think what they have to say is silly. They’re determining the national conversation about libraries. That alone makes them part of an elite.
By “elite” we mean all those who are running libraries well, doing their jobs exceptionally well, doing things other people want to imitate, or shaping the beliefs of the profession. Are they better people than everyone else? Hardly. But generally they probably are better librarians than the majority. To say so isn’t “elitist.” It’s a fact. Using “elitist” as a pejorative term merely marks one as a member of the resentful non-elite.