Title policing in libraries

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

In a couple of places on this blog, I’ve felt the need to include special notes where I’m using the word “librarian” as a catch-all for anyone who works at a library, whether they are a MLS-holding librarian, a library clerk, a page, etc. The reason I do this is because there are a lot of people in the library field who place a lot of importance on drawing the distinction between “actual” librarians and those people who just happen to work in a library because members of the non-librarian public tend not to be aware that there is, in fact, a difference.

Like many librarians, I got my start in the field as a clerk. Meaning I was the person behind the desk who checked books in and out and answered patron questions. Because the library I worked in was small, everyone on the staff was a clerk of one level or another. In addition to staffing the service desk, we also did shelving, book repair, book processing, etc. The only “actual” librarian in the place was the library director, who of course oversaw all of the administrative responsibilities and also collection development.

I spent three years in this position before moving on to grad school where I worked as a student assistant in the campus library and at the local public library as an intern. It wasn’t until 6 years into my library career (about a year after finishing grad school) that I got my first librarian job, one that required me to have the standard Master’s degree in the field. My first opportunity, in other words, to be on the other side of the equation when it comes to those who can call themselves a librarian and those who can’t. Until then, I was always on the “can’t” side of things and some of the people on the “can” side definitely let me know it. One such person told me that letting a patron call me “the librarian” was akin to a receptionist at a doctor’s office letting a patient call them “the doctor.”

Which, okay. Sure.

I am not that person. Even now that I’m in a librarian position and have tenure, I am not someone who goes around correcting people on this particular matter. Personally, I just don’t get fussed about it.

But some people do and while I think those people are kind of snobby, I also understand why they do it, even if I don’t feel a need to. A lot of it has to do with how our work is valued (or not).

Note: I originally wrote most of this post before our current coronavirus reality, but I think some of the issues involved here are even more relevant now that jobs have become more vulnerable and questions about personnel cuts, when they need to be asked, always hinge on whose work is valued most.

The case for making the distinction

Once upon a time at a family gathering, my aunt introduced me and my sister to a new friend of hers. She told this friend that my sister is a teacher and I’m a librarian. The friend immediately replied by exclaiming, “Oh, so one uses books and the other puts them away!”

Guess which one is me?

I’m sure my aunt’s friend didn’t mean anything by what she said but it’s also a perfect illustration of how people typically think of library work. They believe it’s simple and mindless, something an untrained volunteer could do.

So when librarians are among the first victims of a nasty retrenchment at a well-respected university, the non-library faculty posting comments on public websites don’t exactly mourn the loss because what did those librarians do anyway? Why was the university giving tenure or permanent appointment to people whose job is just to put things on shelves in the first place? Can’t the library just be run by unpaid volunteers?

That last question may seem extreme, but it is, in fact, something a former provost at my former institution would muse aloud about every time someone tried to talk to him about the campus library. He actively sought to take faculty status away from librarians despite the fact that they were jumping through all the same hoops to earn tenure as the non-library faculty. We were not, in his view, worth the money we were being paid. Which, by the way, was well below fair market rate for the field at the time, never mind how it compared to the salaries of non-library faculty.

The problem is even worse for public libraries. As for school libraries and school media specialists, well, they’ve practically become an endangered species in part due to this very problem.

So when a librarian is stubborn about who gets to use the “librarian” title it’s because they don’t want there to be any confusion about the type of work they do and, by association, the value of that work. We’re not just there to put books away. We’re there to provide education and research assistance. We’re there to plan programming that makes the library a gathering place for a community. We’re there to create and maintain collections of information that serve patrons’ interests and needs. And because the needs of every community are different, being able to analyze and calibrate the services and collections we provide takes special training, as does organizing that information in a meaniningful way so that it’s findable by those who need it. Librarians have that training.

Getting people to recognize that is a matter of education. We need to educate people about what librarians do, which can certainly begin with telling them the difference between a librarian and a library clerk (for example) but shouldn’t end there. Because when it ends there, it just looks like snobby, needless elitism.


The case against it

At the same institution I mentioned earlier, we had a problem and it wasn’t just a provost who openly disdained our existence. Within the library itself, there was something of a war between my department, where everyone was an MLS-holding librarian working in a librarian position, and a different department in the same division, where all of the positions were clerk-type jobs and some of the people in them had MLS degrees (or other graduate degrees) and some didn’t. Basically, the people in the other department felt the people in my department were overpaid snobs, that we weren’t team players, and that we did not contribute adequately to the value and functioning of the library.

They really hated us.

Personally, I don’t think anyone in my department did anything to earn this hostility,(1) which was fueled in large part by a generally toxic work culture. But when you have people in the field going around using the “doctor’s office” analogy that I mentioned earlier, it’s no wonder that misunderstandings like this are possible. Because sometimes, in some workplaces, they aren’t misunderstandings.

David Perry recently wrote an article on Chronicle Vitae about title policing in academe. His own field is history but he mentions in the article how often he hears from librarians, both faculty and professional alike, who complain about being policed by non-library faculty. When we insist on drawing a line between “real” librarians and other library workers, we’re basically doing the same thing but we’re doing it to ourselves. To people we directly work with every day.

If it sucks when non-library faculty (or anyone else) does this to us, then it sucks even more when we do it to our colleagues in the library.

The library could not function without the people who work there, no matter their education or job titles. Period. End of story.

The library also can’t function if we don’t value each other’s work. The family friend who described my job as one where I “put books away” did not value the work that I do. But neither did the librarian who equated my work as a library clerk to that of a receptionist.(2)

Of the two, which should I feel more hurt by or angry about? I’m not sure.

But I know that as a librarian, I don’t have to act toward others as that librarian did toward me.

So from now on, I’m not going to include a note every time I use “librarian” as a catch-all. When there’s evidence to justify being more specific about a person’s job title, I’ll use it but where there isn’t, I’m just going to use “librarian” instead.


(1) Putting this here to acknowledge that the experience and perceptions of my former colleagues, both in the department I worked in and outside of it, may differ on this point.

(2) Because receptionists are another incredibly important piece of an organization who also have a hard time getting others to understand the value of what they do.


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