February 17, 2018

A Specialist Profession, or a Profession of Specialists? | Peer to Peer Review

“Librarian,” like “doctor,” should be understood to mean: an expert with strengths in a particular field within the profession.—Stanford Friedman on Twitter, quoted with permission

Dorothea SaloA few years ago I went to my optometrist. On hearing I was a librarian, she asked me a fiction readers’ advisory (RA) question, with complete faith that I would have an immediate and useful answer.

Of course, I’m not a public librarian and never have been. I’m not a reference librarian either. The sum total of my resources for answering RA questions when I look anything up is my personal, probably dubious, literary taste. Rather than try to explain that to my optometrist, however, I went along with her assumptions about what librarians do by recommending a recent read.

It isn’t just optometrists who have narrow notions of what this field encompasses; too often our own notions are barely any broader. I’ve had too many librarians tell me that I’m not actually a librarian because I’ve never worked a desk or cataloged a book. I’ve heard plenty from my students about working librarians hassling them over learning digital librarianship skills. This worries me, not least because it doesn’t reflect the variety and opportunity I see in the information professions.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk at length with the CEO of a local competitive-intelligence firm. Do competitive intelligencers do information work? They surely do! Does it resemble any information work I’ve ever done? Not one bit! Does it resemble reference desk work or RA? Not in the slightest! Am I bothered that competitive intelligencers claim the title “librarian” despite doing work entirely unlike mine? No: the shape of opportunity and growth is precisely work that is different from what we’re used to. I’m happy to call competitive intelligencers librarians and welcome them among us. I firmly believe librarianship would be stronger if it welcomed every information-related specialty in sight, instead of repelling them and their practitioners, or banishing them to an outer darkness far from the supposed “core of the profession.”

In fairness, our tendency to see a “core of the profession” when there may well not be one can be traced to a cognitive peculiarity common to us all. Just as you’ll think of a robin before a penguin or ostrich if I ask you to think of a kind of bird, my optometrist heard “librarian” and thought “public library reference librarian,” the kind of librarian who most resembles her internal model of what a librarian is. If I ask you to think of a kind of academic librarian, you’ll probably think of reference librarians or catalogers before you think of institutional repository managers. In any linguistic category, humans choose favorites—paradigm examples—based on assumptions about common characteristics of the category. Notably, the assumptions don’t need to be true universally, or even at all, for them to inform choice of a paradigm example! True or false, though, academic librarians who take paradigm examples too seriously ostracize specialists who don’t fit the paradigm. I certainly spent most of my librarian career feeling excluded on this basis.

The perennial squabbles over what topics library schools should require of students are a microcosm of the choice between a single specialist profession and a profession harboring many sorts of specialists. I’m not  touching that question here. I just want to draw attention to the assumption underlying the squabbling: that the universe of information jobs is still so internally cohesive that there exist topics relevant to every single future information profession job-seeker. If I ever believed this, teaching has thoroughly humbled me. I’ve had to scramble to assimilate material relevant to youth services, records management, medical librarianship, and acquisitions, just to name a few perfectly legitimate information specialties that are not remotely mine. Even limiting the scope to academic librarianship, I have no trouble imagining two librarians with next to nothing in common: a MARC cataloger and a science data librarian, say. Putting the MARC cataloger in my Digital Curation class is probably a waste of time for both of us, as is making the data librarian sit through a full course in MARC cataloging. In both cases, there’s precious little time to waste; master’s programs are painfully short.

In my experience, librarians who resemble librarianship’s paradigm examples closely are often proud to believe themselves the center of the profession. This can make them decidedly touchy about anything that might decenter them, whether it’s a new nonparadigm position or service in their library or a library school’s decision to remove a course in their specialty from its requirements. Indeed, the long-standing, still-noisy furor over removing “library” from the titles of quite a few schools with American Library Association (ALA)–accredited degree programs is classic resistance to decentering. So is much resistance to non-MARC bibliographic description. So is practically every “library schools have to teach everybody this thing!” complaint I’ve ever seen. “This thing” so often turns out to be something fundamental to the complainant’s own specialty, which turns the complaint into “everyone must know how to do what I do!” If that sounds like something you’ve said, please repeat after me: “what many other librarians do is entirely unlike what I do, and that is as it should be.”

If the issue is that library school coursework does not delve deeply enough into particular specialties, please understand that every specialty in every information profession everywhere is beating down our doors demanding that we teach their specialty in depth to every single one of our students. This is so manifestly impossible that I have completely stopped listening to or even acknowledging such demands. Even adding depth, a notion I like while acknowledging its practical logistical difficulties, is impossible if we educators are forced into a too-close orbit around a starkly limited “core of the profession.”

Likewise, library degree accreditation standards still assume a single specialist profession, not a profession of many sorts of specialists. Since my workplace just completed an accreditation cycle during which I was responsible for compiling and editing our self-study, I have been thoroughly steeped in the Standards and how they are applied in practice. While I am sympathetic to some of Texas iSchool dean Andrew Dillon’s critique of the accreditation process, my concerns with the Standards run deeper than process. How does making, enforcing, and assessing a single set of “student learning outcomes” (Standard I.2), one example of the Standards assuming a single specialist profession, make sense if what programs are really doing—and this is what I believe the best of us are indeed doing—is helping students choose and achieve diverse sets of outcomes, sometimes overlapping, but often not?

I suspect, unfortunately, that any school seeking accreditation would find itself in serious difficulties if it tried to make the above case before ALA’s Committee on Accreditation, which wants what it wants—and what it presently wants is program-level learning outcomes straitly tied to the fixed topic and competency lists in sections I.2 and to a lesser extent II.2 of the Standards. How can an accredited degree program, especially in a relatively small department such as the one I teach in, build new specialties under so much pressure to stay as close as possible to the Standards’ fixed lists, as well as an inertia-weighted set of student learning outcomes? What I see schools doing instead is building separate specialized degree programs that do not seek ALA accreditation. Since ALA accredits specific degree programs, not schools or departments, such a separate degree program lets schools work around the Standards’ fixed lists, heeding instead modern professional realities in libraries generally and academic libraries particularly, as well as outside libraries altogether.

I would not be surprised if the eventual endgame for some schools building new nonaccredited programs is the shuttering of their ALA-accredited programs, though this process will be slow. Perhaps this is a consummation devoutly to be wished given the library job market. I am not so sure, though. The schools lost to ALA’s regime will be the explorers and specialist-producers. The remaining ALA-accredited programs will be precisely those hewing closest to the already oversupplied “core of the profession.” Students interested in types of work outside that core will have plenty of nonaccredited programs to consider attending and a decent panoply of jobs in workplaces that don’t care about ALA accreditation waiting for them when they finish. That being the case, where will academic libraries find the various kinds of specialists they are noisily demanding, allergic as they tend to be to retraining their existing workforce?

This doesn’t have to be the endgame, though. ALA can think through how to accredit schools that choose to specialize; indeed, if it does not do so, I fear it may gradually lose considerable influence among degree-granting information schools. Accommodating specialist education will be politically unpalatable to librarians wishing to believe themselves to be the center of the library universe, but so be it; ALA’s alternative seems worse. Academic librarianship can reconsider its allegiance to the notion of a single specialist profession, consciously deciding at last to welcome and value those of us further from the paradigm example. I understand that being decentered is scary, but no one is demanding that reference librarians and catalogers leave the profession! I am only asking that they willingly expand their consciousness of the profession’s boundaries to encompass more types of professionals.

A living, growing, changing, welcoming profession of specialists, even one with amorphous boundaries and no clear center, seems far more attractive to me than a fearful, resentful, straitly bounded specialist profession. The profession of specialists is well within our reach, if we decide to reach for it.

Dorothea Salo About Dorothea Salo

Dorothea Salo is a Faculty Associate in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches digital curation, database design, XML and linked data, and organization of information.

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  1. A thoughtful perspective that prompts me to point to Standard II Curriculum with its expectations of specialization and assessment of the quality of those learning opportunities.The Directory of accredited programs searchable database includes options for finding 21 different specializations, including an Other category to explore emergent areas.

  2. Susan Hayes says:

    Using the quote at the beginning of the article: no one expects a pediatrician and a neurosurgeon to apply their skills in the same venue. So with the library profession: a medical librarian and a competitive intelligence analyst may have a similar core, but a very different practice. Circa 1999, a multi-day meeting was held to try to get some expansion of the ALA accreditation standards to recognize skills for other than academic and public library programs, such as law, medical, engineering or museum library studies, but little to nothing came of the report. As an adjunct for a course in specialized libraries, my students are surprised at the breadth of “non-traditional” places their core skills can be used. I agree with the opinion expressed by the author of this article.

  3. Lorene Kennard says:

    When I was a corporate librarian and people would ask me for book recommendations, I would jump at the opportunity to explain about all the different library types. People are fascinated to find out that museums and companies have librarians. To affect more change than one interaction at a time, these kinds of articles need to reach a wider audience by getting into mainstream publications. I hope the author considers proposing a version of this piece to her local newspaper or community newsletter.

  4. As someone who teaches as adjunct faculty in an MLIS program (University of Denver, Alternative LIS Careers) and was also involved in the program accreditation process, I completely concur with this cogent description of the dilemma facing the profession – in all its forms – and the grad schools. Those with the most to lose from this obsolete mindset are the students, who generally go through their programs accepting the underlying premise that true librarianship is these traditional types of jobs, and then are devastated when they can’t find those traditional jobs and feel entirely unprepared for other possibilities. Expanding our concepts of what librarianship and information work entails will not only open up additional job opportunities for these grads but also bring the MLIS programs into the real world.

    • Online Adjunct says:

      Testify, Kim! ALA needs to move into the space age with you! I just opened my own information data strategist consultancy. I can charge so much more money if I use “information” and omit “libraries,” even though many of my clients are libraries. I call myself “principal” at the consultancy, but I do have “partners” I call “associates.” That is model for consultants that all the big fish are doing: Fname LName and Associates, LLC.” That is my model, but I put Principal for my title on LinkedIn.

      Another thing that people are into these days is when you call yourself a change agent. I have used data change agent, change agent, change manager, and other similar terms. The library is the garbage heap for making money.

      Advice to LIS–no, IS!!!–students:

      1. Open a consultancy.

      2. Never use the word library.

      3. Data, information, analysis, these are all golden.

      4. Continually refer to yourself as a change agent.

      5. It does help to win an ALA election and put that in your email signature line and on your website for the rest of your life.

      To recap, ALA gets you clicks. Ditch the library. Be a change agent. Data, data, data. Consult with libraries, but don’t use the word “library”!

      Thanks for this article,