A reader comment last week really made me think about the value of the ALA as a professional association. Here’s the comment in full:
And speaking of ALA, my professor just tried to sell my class on joining the organization. A summary of what she said:
You should join the ALA – not because it’s a nice thing to do – but because it is what makes us different from the people that work at the information kiosk at the mall. It’s a professional organization, and that’s what makes us a profession. It provides us with our standards and guidelines. ALA members are standing on the shoulders of people who came before in the last 150 years.
That’s quite an interesting argument if you start to pull out the pieces. Let’s pull out the pieces.
it is what makes us different from the people that work at the information kiosk at the mall
Is that really the only thing that makes us different from working the information kiosk at the mall? If that’s true, I find it a little sad. The pay, hours, and work are the same, but we have the ALA! Take that, mall information workers!
Though on the surface it may seem banal, and even derisive, it’s actually quite insightful. From what I can gather, based on the work a lot of librarians do, the difference between working at the information kiosk at the mall and working in a public library really is membership in a professional association. What does that tell us, though? That if there were an American Mall Information Association the information kiosk attendants could join it and be “professionals”?
There is, for example, a National Concierge Association. It didn’t start until 1998, though, so were concierges not professionals until then, or even though they have an association are they not now? Is that really all it takes? I would imagine that many “professional” librarians would think concierges aren’t really professionals like librarians are, but based on my experience a good concierge needs to know a lot more than most reference librarians.
It’s a professional organization, and that’s what makes us a profession.
This is basically a circular argument. Why are we professionals? Because we have a professional association! Why do we have a professional association? Because we’re professionals! But having a professional association isn’t what makes a profession.
It’s the education, training, skills, relationship to the public and each other, and various other things that make a profession a profession. If one had to attend school or be licensed to work at the information kiosk at the mall, that would be an argument for professionalization.
It provides us with our standards and guidelines.
Well, it provides standards and guidelines, but the way this is phrased (provided it’s an accurate account) makes it sound as if the ALA provides us with all our “standards and guidelines,” or even our most important ones. I doubt this is true, or that most librarians even pay attention to all the standards and guidelines the ALA spews forth. How many of you could name more than a handful of such documents that you’ve ever read? Or even one, for that matter, especially since library school.
ALA members are standing on the shoulders of people who came before in the last 150 years.
This one is a hoot. It’s an indirect quote of Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (I wonder if the professor knew that.) The way Newton phrased it, it’s humbling and inspiring.
But the way it’s phrased here (and again, it might not be accurate) is “standing on the shoulders of people.” That’s not quite as inspiring. If I stand on the shoulders of people, I might be able to see a tiny bit further, but most likely I’d be so busy trying to keep my balance that I wouldn’t see anything but the ground. I want giants, darn it, and I’m not sure I’ll find them in the ALA.
Also notice who is standing on people’s shoulders. It’s not librarians, who after all are the professionals, but “ALA members.” Here again, it’s supposedly the association that makes the professional. The implication is that any librarians who aren’t members of ALA aren’t professionals and don’t get to engage in all the shoulder-standing that ALA members do. It also means that all those vendors and library friends who are ALA members are thus professional librarians, unlike those librarians who don’t join ALA.
The whole argument gets it backwards, and shows a lack of understanding for how professional associations actually form. The association isn’t what makes a profession, the association is what comes after an occupation has acquired the traits of a profession, things like shared knowledge, skills, and interests. The association then supports the profession that already exists, and serves as the gatekeeper to make the profession hard to get into and thus more desirable and lucrative.
I think it’s pretty clear the ALA has never done that. It’s sort of supported library service, and traditionally given librarians a place to discuss issues of importance to the field. However, these days discussion and professional development and participation can take place more easily on the Internet.
And the ALA has never functioned well as a gatekeeper. By creating low accreditation standards, they guaranteed that anyone with tuition money can get a degree somewhere. That hardly makes the profession exclusive.
So join the ALA or don’t join the ALA, but it’s not the ALA that makes librarianship a profession. If librarianship is a profession, then it’s the nature of the field and not its leading professional association. To say otherwise is to say that librarians in AALL or SLA, or PhDs with no MLS serving as bibliographers who join an academic association rather than ALA aren’t librarians, and it’s just not the case.
The profession of librarianship has never been exclusively the domain of ALA members or ALA-accredited MLS holders. That’s just something the ALA wants you to believe.