When is a librarian not a librarian?

There has always been a confusion in the mind of the public to what actually constitutes a ‘librarian’. From experience I know that many users refer to any and all staff in libraries as librarians. For most of my career that’s never bothered me overmuch. However, over the past few years it’s become more important as the government has tried to redefine terminology to enable the reduction and deprofessionalisation of the public library sector.

For example ‘community library’ used simply to mean a library that was part of a particular community or denoted size/level to distinguish it from larger counterparts. Nowadays the phrase has become synonymous with a library that has been riven of paid staff and run by volunteers. After all ‘unsustainable book swap run by unpaid amatuers’ doesn’t quite have the same attractive ring as ‘community library’. So in best marketing style the term has been hijacked to mask the reality.

Unfortunately, those that should be concerned with maintaining high standards of library provison: DCMS, ACE, SCL have all bought into this notion and readily propagate such disingenuous definition.

That’s why as a profession we should be cautious when terminology is subverted to suit the current political and austerity agenda. A recent newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire uses the term ‘volunteer librarian’. Now  I assume that this oxymoronic phrase (unless they genuinely mean qualified librarians actually volunteering!) has been coined by the local newspaper. However, all such terms need to be challenged before they gain common currency as does any other erroneous assumption that librarianship is anything other than a highly skilled profession.

I was very disappointed when the Arts council averred in Envisioning the Library of the Future that an essential ingredient of the public library was “well trained and friendly ‘people’ (my italics) to help users to find what they want…” when all evidence points that what the public actually wants is ‘well trained and friendly paid staff’. One phrase justifies volunteer run libraries, the other does not. As always terminology matters.

However, it is beholden of the profession to also be wary of accidently perpetuating such an approach. A case in point is the appointment of non-qualified candidates to professional posts. Now to be fair there is a long history within libraries of bringing in candidates with the appropriate skills set from other sectors and this is a perfectly legitimate approach in order to attract the best individual for the job. Such people can be very talented and bring much needed skills and perspective to the service.

However, it is also common for such candidate to undertake further training, perhaps through distance learning or the Cilip Chartership route, to gain qualified status. This is often a requirement for accepting the role.

What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional librarianship.

No one should use the term ‘librarian’ who has not earned the right to do so and this right includes being appropriately qualified.

16 thoughts on “When is a librarian not a librarian?

  1. Leon – if there were a ‘Chartered institute of plumbers ‘ and there were ‘confusion in the mind of the public about what they did’ – and that ‘the people whom they thought were plumbers turned out not to be chartered plumbers’ – whose worry is that ? The Government , the press? The public ? The Pope ?

    What does it tell you ?

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      • Leon – Chartered Accountants do very specific things and while I’m sure you may not have had need of them a council officer commissioning work will certainly know what requires a Chartered Accountant

        It does appear that council officers are not so clear about the specific skills of a chartered librarian

        Perhaps you can give some examples of public library work that only ‘a professional librarian’ can do – and why they are so essential. Clearly from the numbers you have given there is a lot of work that is done by paid library staff who are not ‘professionals’

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      • Tim, you are conflating two different things. My post dealt mainly with qualified not necessarily chartered librarians although I recognised that chartership is one way in which to be ‘qualified’. Being a qualified librarian extends across all of the library and information sector not just public libraries so the skills and knowledge for a law librarian in the legal sector will be different to the skills required by school or public librarians although commonality will exist. It is easy to have a successful career by being qualified without necessarily being chartered as chartership depends specifically on being a member of Cilip.

        I disagree that chartered accounts do very specific things as opposed to librarians. You mistake lack of understanding of a role for the value of the qualified person doing it. Anyone can learn the skills and knowledge to be an accountant but along the way it is likely you will need a recognised formal qualification otherwise you have no right to pass yourself off as an accountant. In fact this approach could apply to almost any profession including librarianship.

        If you are genuinely interested in what librarians do, which I suspect you are not, the following links will provide evidence. However, given your well known bias against librarians and managers I suspect nothing will change your cynical view of the profession.

        http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/advocacy-awards-and-projects/awards-and-medals/cilip-libraries-change-lives-award
        http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/the-story-so-far/ethics/what-librarians-do/
        https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/what-do-public-librarians-and-library-staff-do/

        In terms of what ‘qualified’ librarians do you can find examples at:

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      • Leon – you are right

        I believe that public libraries can be an enormous force for good and for culture – but in this country they aren’t because the libraries are poor

        And I believe that the library profession could play an enormous role in bringing improvement but it doesn’t because it is defensive and obsessed with its members rather than its customers – and needs to change

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      • Tim, I’d be interested in what you think is wrong with the profession and what needs to change so here’s an offer. I occasionally have guest bloggers on this site so I would be happy to publish your views even though I suspect I won’t necessarily agree with them. All I ask, as I ask everyone, is that you offer evidence and examples to back up your arguments.

        Are you game?

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  2. By all means, the professional body CILIP can insist on a distinction being made between Chartered status and those who do not have it when it comes to its membership. That’s none of the public’s business. But PLEASE be wary of saying anything that accelerates the wrecking of the frontline service which gathers pace, as described above.

    Incidentally, is it a fact that some (even quite a few) ‘Chief’ Librarians do not have a Librarianship qualification but, rather, some degree in ‘management’ or the equivalent? Someone once told me that is the case. If so, that is very odd. Isn’t sauce for the goose sauce for the gander? Please advise.

    But ABOVE ALL I worry that spreading the word that Library Assistants aren’t ‘Librarians’ just reinforces the prejudice that already exists, one that pooh-poohs their worth and gives the green light to managers of budgets to ditch these paid, knowledgeable frontline staff. Then, what’s recommended is any one of the following: (i) the recruitment of generic-style people, paid but with little interest in or experience of libraries; (ii) installing automated self-service machines in lieu of staff; and (iii) substitution of our frontline staff by volunteers. Don’t enable it by careless talk! .

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    • Shirley, I’m afraid library assistants aren’t librarians. I respect the knowledge and experience many frontline – and remember many librarians are also frontline – staff have but like many other professions there is a distinction between those who are professionally qualified and those who are not. For instance a para-legal is not a solicitor and a classroom assistant is not a teacher despite the obvious important work they do. A librarian is someone who has a recognised library qualification. To say otherwise ‘reinforces the prejudice’ that anyone can call themselves a librarian including volunteers.

      None of my arguments about what constitutes a librarian gives threat to frontline staff. In fact Cipfa figures show that percentage wise it is qualified staff that have borne the brunt of staff reductions.

      I don’t recognise the description that many chief librarians do not have a professional qualification. In fact I have never met a HoS that isn’t a qualified librarian. That’s not to say there aren’t any but they are the exception rather than the rule. Obviously there are managers that might head up several services and the equivalent of the chief librarian reports to them.

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  4. “Cipfa figures show that percentage wise it is qualified staff that have borne the brunt of staff reductions”

    Do CIPFA figures include data on how many frontline staff who are not chartered librarians have, in the past 5 years or so, been removed from the workforce? Please check and advise.

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    • Shirley, these figures are from the Cipfa 2014 statistics:

      from 2009/2010 – 2013/2014 Professional staff reduced from 4,971 to 3,105 = 37% reduction. Other staff reduced 19,773 to 16,201 = 18% reduction. The loss of any library post is cause for concern but professional posts have borne the brunt of staff reductions so far as councils struggle to keep the frontline going. I suspect that the situation will have worsened over the past 18 months since these figures were published for all levels of staff.

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    • Unfortunately so. A vacancy becomes a rationale to delete the post altogether. Also worried that LIS graduates will no longer find public libraries a viable career choice.

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  5. What we need of course is for a truly professional body, which has clout, takes the side of the profession, strives for better standards and has the ear of the government.Over the years we have seen the dilution of our profession and academic qualification, and most professional librarians have several qualifications, the least of which seems to be the library one! I do wonder why I bother to pay a subscription when the service and possession of that professional body and qualification is frankly irrelevant! No wonder once in my early days I pretended to be a sex psychologist at a party, had a much better time than my librarian person would have had!!

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