“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, scene 2
“Shakespeare was wrong.”
—Al Ries and Jack Trout,
Positioning: The Battle
for Your Mind, Chapter 9
At a recent professional meeting, I was dismayed to find myself witnessing yet another discussion on whether those present should call themselves “librarians.” The program that hosted this discussion opened with the observation that library spaces are shrinking in the post-pandemic world and the question of whether the participants might stop calling themselves librarians if they no longer work “in a [physical] library.” Everything I heard was a repetition of arguments I’ve heard over and over in the almost 50 years since I was working on my first professional degree (M.S., Drexel University, 1973–1975).
I’m sick of hearing debates about our professional labeling. The conversations usually generate more heat than light. Moreover, they distract us from the important questions we should be discussing and tasks we should be working on. With the hope of helping the profession move on, I offer the following brief historical survey and some fundamental premises for librarians who are making decisions about what professional label to adopt.
FIFTY YEARS OF DEBATE
Big trends in the 1960s and 1970s were the rise of “information science” and the establishment of “technical information centers” with “technical information specialists.” The post-World War II explosion of computerized data and information processing engendered the new academic discipline and led many schools and departments of library science to add “information” or “information science” to their names—as in, “School of Library and Information Science.” It also generated endless chatter about the relationship between librarianship and information science. Coincidentally, the growth of technical information centers was fueled initially by massive investments in military and space R&D. Today, by the way, technical information centers aren’t just staffed by technical information specialists, and libraries aren’t just staffed by librarians. A survey of current U.S. federal government jobs shows that today’s practice is more muddled than that.
By the 1990s, new influences affected the debate about “library science.” Perhaps the most important were the internet and the emergence of “knowledge management” as a distinct concept. The internet, of course, ended the library’s role as an exclusive repository of published information, while knowledge management staffers filled in the gaps left by librarians who focused on externally published information. Librarians, meanwhile, debated whether you could still be a librarian if you got involved with internet-based information or the organization and sharing of internal knowledge.
By the 2000s, these debates precipitated new efforts to rename segments of the library profession. In medical librarianship, the term “informationist” was coined to distinguish librarians who were out and about, going on rounds and consulting with clinicians, from those occupying a desk back in the library, according to “The Informationist: A New Health Profession?” by F. Davidoff and V. Florance in a 2000 volume of Annals of Internal Medicine. In other types of special libraries, there were experiments with many other names. Some Special Libraries Association members tried repeatedly to rename the organization. These efforts culminated in a 2009 initiative to adopt the name “Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals,” or “ASKPro,” which was rejected by a membership vote.
SOME FUNDAMENTAL PROPOSITIONS
After 50 years of this fruitless debate, it’s time to recognize that there is no single, simple answer to the naming question. “Librarians” and other “information and knowledge professionals” will continue to coexist (and in some cases, be the same person). Moreover, this is a tactical issue, not an existential one. What’s needed is not a grand solution, but premises to provide solid guidance for professionals who have to navigate the issues of naming and identity in their own work life. Here, I humbly offer a few.
The Librarian Brand
The library and librarian brand has both positive and negative associations in contemporary society. Repeated research and a multitude of anecdotes have shown that we librarians are perceived as warm and smart and as dedicated and trusted professionals—as well as meek yet dictatorial timeservers who spend our days engaged in reading and busywork. Let’s start by admitting both sides. Neither is going away any time soon.
Etymology is not destiny, so let’s put away the silly etymological argument. The relationship between the words “librarian” and “library” doesn’t mean that all librarians work in libraries. They haven’t in the past 50 years—and probably long before that. Librarians are defined by their knowledge, skills, professional purpose, and values, just as other professions are, not by the origin of their name or even where they work today. Moreover, the proposition that librarians all work in libraries invites other propositions that are equally nonsensical: If you stop working in a library, do you stop being a librarian? (Do you lose your core skills, forget your purpose, and renounce your professional values?) Are all library staffers librarians? (Many library users assume so. But the fact that someone draws a paycheck for tasks performed in a library does not make them a librarian.) Let’s define ourselves the same way other professions do.
Our profession is not our job title. This is an essential point; much of the heat in the debates over nomenclature comes from failing to recognize the difference. The professional identification as “librarian” comes from the factors mentioned in the previous paragraph. The choice of a job title is a tactical one: It’s a word or words we decide on to convey what we do to an audience—customers, bosses, and peers—in a specific social and organizational context.
We should code-switch as appropriate. When choosing how to label both our professional identity and our job, we should use the language that works in our specific time and place. If a given community sees librarians as capable professionals—if calling ourselves librarians will help us fulfill our mission and be recognized for essential contributions—then we should use the word. We can adopt a job title with the word “librarian.” When introducing ourselves to others, we can call ourselves librarians. Conversely, if our community holds negative connotations about the word, we should drop it and play up “information” or “knowledge” instead. We can adopt job titles like information analyst, knowledge specialist, or chief information organizer. We might take the route chosen by someone I used to work with: She got “Information Goddess” printed on her business card.
Marketing, Part 1
To put this point into marketing-speak: Code-switching is really an exercise in branding. We’re choosing a label and words to describe our product or service that will resonate with our community. Like all marketers, we’re not out to re-educate our audience, but to leverage what they already think. We’re describing librarianship in terms that will connect with them. This applies equally to those who work in a physical library and those who don’t. Some librarians who work in libraries might describe themselves as information specialists who work in information centers. Some librarians who move out of a library might become “informationists” or otherwise drop “librarian” from their titles; others will become “embedded librarians” or otherwise keep their “librarian” titles.
Marketing, Part 2
Branding is only a part of marketing, not all of it. Relationships and value matter as much, if not more. We should concentrate on building the former and delivering the latter. Librarians who form strong relationships with their community members—those whose contributions are used and valued—will not have the problem of being viewed through negative stereotypes, even if they use the job title “librarian.”
In 1931, the visionary librarian S.R. Ranganathan, in The Five Laws of Library Science, imagined a time when “the dissemination of knowledge, which is the vital function of libraries, will be realized by libraries even by means other than those of the printed book.” In other words, virtual libraries would arise, and librarianship would transcend the physical library as he knew it.
In 1992, the visionary librarian S. Michael Malinconico, in Library Journal’s “Information’s Brave New World,” prophesied, “With the reduced importance of physical libraries, librarians and information specialists will need to be proactive and promote their special services to their user communities.” Moreover, he warned that “[l]ibrarians who cling to the old paradigms of librarianship may find themselves curators of infrequently used, increasingly irrelevant information museums.”
Neither Ranganathan nor Malinconico was advocating the abandonment of “librarianship” as a label for the profession. Instead, they were arguing for a common understanding that librarianship must grow and evolve over time, as any healthy profession must. They recognized that it could come to mean getting out of the library—or even doing away with the library altogether. More recently, in 2003, Stephen Abram made the point explicitly, writing, “Librarians do NOT need a ‘Library’ to practice librarianship. … You can still be a librarian without calling yourself by that title in your job” (from “What Should Knowledge Leaders Be Called?” in IMPACT! The Quarterly Publication of the SLA Leadership & Management Division).
To continue to equate librarianship with libraries is to fail to understand the changes that have been underway for more than 50 years. The current pandemic is just the latest accelerating factor. This doesn’t mean that all physical libraries are going away: In some settings, they remain as vital as ever. But as we librarians manage the latest wave of change, this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to librarianship as a dynamic profession that transcends details such as our physical workplace and the title on our business card.