Friday, April 15, 2011

Librarian Badge

This is the fifth post in a series celebrating National Library Week

The final post of Dewey's Not Dead's series celebrating National Library Week is a guest post. Written by Serenity Ibsen, Access Services Manager at Pacific Northwest College of Art and my MLIS cohort member. I am honored to have her writing appear here - she has been a major influence while I have been working on my degree.

I met a woman a few weeks ago who was considering moving back to Portland after attending Simmons. She had interviewed our Archives and Technical Services Librarian about the library job market. I asked whether she was a librarian and she said, "no, I work at a bike repair shop. But I have my MLS." I was shocked by her humility. I don’t think that working in a bike shop is a humble profession; it’s a highly-skilled job. But she achieved that shining medal many of us in the library world aspire to and because she wasn't practicing, she wouldn't call herself a librarian.

For those of us who work in libraries, but do not have our Master's of Library Science, it has been beaten into us by some that we are a lesser race, not "real," and certainly NOT "Librarians." One should NEVER call oneself a Librarian if one does not hold the prized degree. In my penultimate semester of library school, I yearn for the day when I can proudly wear the badge of Librarian, having worked diligently at school and learned the guts of the profession.

However, I have always been one to scoff at the notion that a piece of paper confers magical powers to a person. Well, except in the cases of medical doctors, architects, wizards, and engineers. (But those are also semi-mythological professions with their own cultural taboos and mores).

But what makes a librarian a Librarian? Is there an intrinsic spark or quality that true librarians have whether MLSed or not that makes up the meat of "real" librarianship? There has been a lot of heated debate about the value of the MLS. Many people who have been working in libraries for decades are not considered Librarians because they don't hold the degree, but they have been doing librarian-type work and uphold the values of our profession. Some people believe that the MLS is BS and just a hoop to jump through.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that working for my MLS is the best thing I have ever done. I am learning so much that I don't think I would learn in practical situations. I am earning a degree that will tell others that I have completed a series of courses proscribed by the American Library Association. I have met so many different people and have created strong personal and professional relationships with them.

In her blog post The Value of the MLS/MLIS, Jennifer Macaulay says that she doesn't "think [the MLS] is a rite that magically makes one a librarian." I wholeheartedly agree. I think that being a librarian is a way of living, thinking, and above all an action. It's not a badge (though I desperately want one), it's not a title, it's not even who you are. I think what I'm learning the most in library school is that the secret fire of being a librarian is the constant "doing" of librarianship. We must find ways to explain what we do and why, and prove how libraries are valuable. We must constantly reassess what our users need and try to see things from their perspective. We must adapt, advocate, fight, share, and serve. Historically libraries were for archiving and preserving the creative endeavors of humanity. But humanity is our reason for existing and if we can't figure out a way to remain relevant and give people what they need, then our spark goes out.

So I've begun calling myself a librarian. Already. I'm not done with school yet; I don't have my badge. But I do have the fire.

Original art work by Serenity Ibsen. Photo credit: NYPL via the commons.


  1. Yeah! This is a wonderful statement.

    Librarianship is doing. I've worked with some amazing librarians, some degreed and some not, and all of those amazing librarians have been so engaged and relevant, or so expert in their way, that no one would dare ask, "Do you have a degree? Are you a REAL librarian?" It was so obvious to everyone that they were the real deal.

    All the same, you do deserve a badge.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Well said, Serenity!! It has been an pleasure and privilege to be in school with you and Turner and Co.!

  4. You know you're a real librarian when you realize you've been wearing the same stretched-out cardigan (or coffee-stained knit tie) three days in a row and you didn't notice until patrons give you puzzled looks....