“Librarian” is not a dirty word

When I first got into librarianship, I wasn’t too bothered that some people wanted to call the profession “information science” while others demanded to hold fast to the “librarianship” moniker. I thought both sides were being petty: I figured that people who wanted to be “librarians” felt that “knowledge managers” should enroll in a different graduate programme, and that those who wanted to be in knowledge management felt that the people who were focused on libraries were outdated luddites who ought to get with the times. Although I was uninformed of the politics at play within the profession, I figured this was all a question of staking ground through semantics and nothing more.

Maybe it is still a question of semantics, but nowadays I’ve taken a stand and have grown tired of the demand to rebrand this profession as “information science.” I’ve wondered what has changed so much that a new term had to be created, or if the profession has moved so far or altered its course so much that it has completely outgrown the words “librarian” and “librarianship”. But I don’t think we’ve moved so far away to require such a rebranding. In spite of my own biases (I’m a librarian, and I work in libraries), I’m willing to contend that even though our tools and methods have changed dramatically, the profession’s mission remains remarkably similar today to what it was fifty or a hundred years ago (i.e., well before the time of the venerable Ranganathan). Librarians organize information, locate it for themselves and for others, store and preserve it for the community, and therein help nurture the creation of knowledge in society. This much has remained present in the profession, before and after MARC, before and after the Internet, and before and after the emergence of our Network(ed) Society.

The fact that we use OPACs and something as close to a union catalogue that has yet been created instead of a card catalogues doesn’t change the fact that librarians have always used novel means to store, organize, and retrieve information. The fact that today’s MLIS graduate should have a smattering of IT courses on her transcript doesn’t remove her too far the old days when the tools were limited to punch cards and MARC records.  Our analysis and influence on government policy and its effects on wider society is no different from calling for better literacy rates in the early twentieth century. Our defense of basic civic rights such as security and privacy of the person, and of a right to speak, think, and read freely, is not removed from our profession’s vital defence of similar basic rights throughout the twentieth century. History shows us that librarianship has always focused on information science and information studies even though we didn’t always call it by those terms.

I’m not against changing the name of our profession. If the wise sages amoung us have decided that perhaps a new moniker is necessary to better promote our professional ideals and standards, then to a certain degree I’m willing to give them a certain benefit of the doubt (note well the double-qualifier in that sentence). However, I still question what our profession would lose by effacing itself of the historic and symbolic value inherent in the terms, “librarian” and “librarianship.” Yes, there will always be unacceptable stereotypes for us to constantly battle, like the bee-hived and bespectacled “shushing” grandmother-librarian, or the equally unacceptable and misogynistic “sexy librarian” trope, but these are merely paltry issues that linger within terms that carry an incredible gravitas in the profession and within western culture. To deny ourselves of the use of “librarian” is to rob ourselves of our culture’s understanding and respect for the role we play in society. Libraries and Librarians are often the lynchpins of communities and the storehouses of a local culture’s social history. Removing Librar* from our profession in favor of the clinical “information science” is to destroy the link that we have to the people we serve. Let us not forget that.

Call it “information science” if you will. But keep “librarianship” close at hand. I simply ask you to think about what you say you do for a living or to which profession you belong when you meet some one new.  Rarely do we say, “I work in information science,” or “I am an information scientist”. No, we tell people we’re librarians, and that we work in libraries, archives, and museums. “Librarian” is not a dirty word, and neither is “Librarianship.” Embrace what you are, and proudly tell people what you do for a living and for society as a whole – they’ll respect for you it. I promise.

5 thoughts on ““Librarian” is not a dirty word

  1. Great post! Just wondering how you see this question in the realm of "library schools." Do schools of "information studies" and "information management" reflect the purpose (a prominent, if not sole, purpose) of training librarians?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, M.

    I think these terms can reflect the purpose of training librarians if we want them to, and I think we should do our best to ensure they do. But at the same time, I don't think we should ever eliminate the words "library" and "librarian" from our vocabulary.

    Both Information Studies/Management and Librarianship can reflect the study of information. However, I think Librarianship (or Library Studies, in this case) would be more accurate, given the history and weight behind the term. More people outside of the profession can relate to Librar* than to Information Management. And I think this is something that should not be overlooked since a major component of our profession is service to the public in the first place.

  3. I definitely agree with the importance of retaining the librar*. Fortunately, the name of the degree (usually) includes the word– a good thing since we usually use the degree to describe our education more than the school/department where we studied.

    On the other hand, I also see the validity of using broader, more inclusive names for library schools. Many students come in never intending to work in a library, and many end up working in other settings and need the vocabulary to describe their role. The recruiting power of the name (going both ways) is definitely complex.

  4. Pingback: e-books and the humanities — michael steeleworthy

  5. Pingback: Why I’m a member of the Canadian Library Association | The Zeds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *