More than just a degree: Capital L Librarians, lowercase librarianship

Estimated reading time for article: 4 mins

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By James Johnson

Finals for me are over. I have conquered my exams. I have argued my last thesis! Well, until next term swings around in about a month. Don’t you jump the gun, James, don’t you do it!

I’ve expressly told myself that I would contribute an above average amount of time to this blog, bolstered by the engaging topics in my library technician classes. I may have bit off more than I could chew. Either that or I am in denial concerning my once believed impeccable time management skills. Or both. Probably both. I don’t have time ponder it…

This past term has been an enlightening one. I’ve covered lots of ground on my professional pursuit into the information industry. I’ve learned a good deal about what it means to be a professional library technician, and as an aside, what it may be like as a librarian. To be honest, I’m having concerns.

These concerns aren’t about my pursuits in becoming a librarian, I’ve quite clearly determined that as a personal end goal. No, my concerns have been with some mentalities I’ve encountered on forums and during in-class discussions.

One thing I have learned for certain is librarians can be proudAnd I don’t feel there is anything inherently wrong with pride. Pride in performance, pride in integrity, pride even in venture. But this post on Reddit had me taken aback.

The discussion topic was staff uniforms and whether the librarians on the discussion board had experienced uniforms at their libraries and what thoughts they had on the matter. It was a fairly mixed bag of ‘for’ and ‘against’, but a significant portion of users whom detested uniforms made it clear that, to them, they ‘de-legitimize’ their coveted titles.

One comment went as far to say that “it gives too much of retail/fast food vibe and can create a false impression that it doesn’t take much to be a librarian.”

Another librarian went further down the ‘shocked and appalled rabbit hole’ stating, “Fuck that noise. I didn’t get another master’s degree just to end up stuck in an ugly polyester polo shirt every day.” 

Ah yes, the master’s degree argument. It is absolutely crucial to make clear that librarians must obtain a master’s degree in order to claim the title and the job. This isn’t just a pompous adhoc declaration of professionalism, it is indeed a requirement of the American Library Association accreditation mandate.

Graduate studies have merit, and I am not knocking the master’s degree requirements for librarians. What I see as an issue is the proud nature that arises from an ivory tower mentality. Another Reddit user continues the thought train of uniformed staff with this ironic position:

” I wouldn’t wear a uniform, makes sense in the service industry but not for librarians.”

The very argument that librarians aren’t service providers is downright wrong. I’ve gone and found myself slipping down that ‘shocked and appalled rabbit hole’ haven’t I? Well honestly, if a master’s degree-holding librarian makes a statement that is the very antithesis of librarianship, let me borrow the phrase – “Fuck that noise”.

It is true that many people have come to the conclusion that librarians simply stock shelves using some organizational system thought up by a chap called Dewey; and occupy the remainder of daylight reading books at their desk and suppressing the happiness of small, annoying children.  Though not far wrong, there is a great deal more to the philosophy of librarianship. A great deal. And a pillar of that philosophy is service to citizens.

The library is a weapon in the hands of the powerless. Librarians (public ones anyways) are paid to ensure a citizen has access to information, dissenting or otherwise, which enable that citizen to perform their civic duties in a democratic society. Wearing a drab polyester pullover that helps you stand out, thereby assisting the patron-information facilitation process, should be the least of this Reddit user’s concerns. I’m not even a librarian and I know that.

These people are what I call capital ‘L’ librarians. The title, cost, and effort in earning it overwhelms the reason they wanted to become librarians in the first place. I have a very strong feeling that most, if not all, get into the game with some form of altruistic purpose. They wanted to help people. They may have even wanted to defend people and their rights to information. But I am not so naive to discount that many got in to the game because they “just absolutely love books”.

When I reflect on what it means to be a librarian, as one day I hope to be, I learn that it takes more than a degree to qualify yourself as such. It takes passion, service, sacrifice, and humanity.

When I reflect on what those qualities mean, I think of Thoa’s Library.

This story of a young Vietnamese woman suffering from the generational affects of Agent Orange is a captivating one. She devotes her life to teaching children how to read and write, while founding and operating a community library. She has no formal education. Certainly not a master’s degree. Due to her deformities she was never able to go to school as a child. But she practices the core fundamentals of librarianship beautifully. She is the epitome of its philosophy.

Thoa’s story taught me a valuable lesson: when I eventually receive my MLIS degree and effectually hold that lovely honorific, I hope I’ve developed the qualities required to serve my patrons.

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