Why I’m a library professional

There’s a meme of sorts going around, along the lines of “Why am I a librarian?” When Steve Lawson posted his response, he broadened the theme by tagging a couple of people who are, as he calls it, “library-types” rather than honest-to-MLS librarians.

I’ll use “library professional,” which is part of a phrase I’ve used in the past: “I’m a library professional but not a professional librarian.” That is, I don’t have an ML[I]S and am increasingly unlikely ever to get one–but I’m not a “paraprofessional” or “support staff,” and indeed I’ve been in exempt (“professional”) positions for longer than I can remember, always either within a library or working on behalf of libraries. And my ALA card says “Continuous Years 34.”

There seem to be two parts to this topic: How (why?) did I become one of those library types, and why am I still in the field?

How I got here

Luck, chance, recognizing in one situation that I could provide unique skills and make a difference. To wit (sorry, long answer):

  • As an undergrad (in rhetoric, then called speech, at UC Berkeley), my first part-time job (summer after freshman year–freshmen weren’t supposed to work back then) was busing at the Bear’s Lair, the on-campus dive. A few weeks later, when a library page position came open, I got out of that busing position as fast as I could. So I was a page/reshelver in Doe Library (the main library, some two million volumes, primarily humanities) from then on–and at some point, as an early riser, became one of those who helped with the Hollerith-card overdue system (the due date was punched in to the charge cards, which were then sorted manually into call number order; at 6 every morning, someone had to pull out the overdues to send notice).
  • As a fledgling grad student–still in rhetoric, and beginning to realize how much I hated grad school–I was told that the full-time circ system supervisor was leaving and asked whether I’d train the replacement. I said I wouldn’t, but that I’d do the job–as a two-thirds-time employee, and I’d guarantee it would get done in a timely fashion. They bit. At two-thirds-time, I was sitting on my hands after the two or three hours a day that a diligent worker needed to carry out all the duties…
  • Then I learned that, for the third or fourth time, an order had been placed for an IBM Collator–nine-month waiting period and you could cancel without penalty up to the eighth month. The idea was more automated circulation; the problem was that nobody knew how to do it, particularly since the university librarian wouldn’t allow book card pockets to disfigure the books. Doe used five different call number systems, which didn’t help. Since I’d done a lot of paging and maybe even more reshelving, I knew the call number systems cold–and said “If I can come up with a design that will work, without using book pockets, will you let the order stand?” They did, I did, I took a temporary timeout from grad school–one that eventually became permanent–and the rest follows.
  • And, let’s face it, I liked the people in libraries, I always felt that libraries were about as unmixed a social good as you could find, and I’ve had reasonably frequent occasions to provide unique services: To do something nobody else would (or could) do or to do something particularly well. So I stuck with it. Didn’t hurt that I met my wife (who is a professional librarian, but was in library school at the time) in the library…

Why I’m still here

  • “Where else would I be?” may not be a satisfactory answer. At this point, I’m mostly a writer and editor–but I’m a library writer and editor, after 5 decades of being that as a sideline but a library systems analyst/programmer for a living.
  • I still like the people, I still regard libraries as an almost entirely unmixed societal good, I still find challenges and, once in a while, feel I’m making a real contribution.

Who I’ll tag

  • Nobody. I’ve never been much for tagging. If you feel like answering, consider yourself tagged.
  • My curiosity would suggest tagging a few people who write as though they dislike most libraries (at least in their current state) and most librarians. But that’s pathological curiosity, so I won’t indulge it.

Thanks, Steve. Sorry for the long reply. I’ve been posting so little recently that a free topic was too good to pass up.

Now, back to (other) writing…

5 Responses to “Why I’m a library professional”

  1. Steve Lawson says:

    Thanks for answering Walt. I like the story about the IBM Collator.

    I’m not usually much for meme-tagging people either, but I’m glad I did this time.

  2. Abbie says:

    I think you are a professional librarian – MLS or not. Why isn’t your experience as important (or more so) than an MLS? When people asked my CEO/COO dad where he got his MBA, he always said, “The School of Hard Knocks.”

  3. walt says:

    Abbie: Three responses.

    1. I’ve been an ALA member for 34 years, and choose to support their stance on the appropriate degree for professional librarians.

    2. Some positions are advertised as “…or equivalent experience.” I would feel free to apply for those positions. Some, particularly tenure-track positions in public institutions, explicitly require an advanced degree. I would neither apply for those nor, in most cases, consider the restriction unreasonable. (Well, actually, there was one job I wanted…a lot…that did have a Master’s requirement. Almost enough to convince me to go back to school–but not quite.)

    3. In fact, there are only certain library areas where I believe I am qualified based on experience. Reference services, collection development, and several others: I lack the theoretical and practical education and really wouldn’t be qualified.

    I could casually call myself a librarian, and (at my wife’s urging) I’ve generally stopped demurring when other people call me that. But professional librarian: Nope, I’ll reserve that term for ML[I]S holders…at least for myself.

  4. Fatima says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,
    I am library professional but not a professional librarian.. I want to become professional librarian. I have degree of Masters in Library and Information Science from Indian based university and i have IT skills also. I am working in agricultural research based institute as a cataloguer. I would like to know how i can become Professional in this subject and also I would also wants to join a good Job. Please suggest/advise me.

    Many thanks

    Yours faithfully
    B. Fatima Abedi.

  5. walt says:

    To B. Fatima Abedi:
    You have an MLIS. That makes you a professional librarian by education–something I’m not. This blog is an unlikely place to look for advice on jobs or career paths, particularly given my history. Sorry.