Am I, or am I not, a librarian?

Cain
Submitted by Gillian Harrison Cain, ATLA Director of Member Programs

In late December, I read a blog post where someone was musing if they would still be considered a librarian even though they’d recently taken a position without any form of “librarian” in the title and not reporting to the library. They pondered what makes someone a librarian … a job title, the work you do, where you work, a mixture of all this, or something else entirely?

Am I, or am I not, a librarian is a question I’ve been asking myself, well, most of my career.

My History with Librarianship

I started working in the library as a volunteer in 2nd or 3rd grade, with my mother. My first job in high school? You got it, shelver at the library. Throughout college, I continued to work as a circulation clerk at the public library during summers and on breaks. Did I ever consider myself a librarian during those years? Of course not.

I then put my engineering undergrad to good use working on engineering information databases while in graduate school getting my Masters of Library and Information Services. Degree obtained, surely I’m now a librarian, right?

Well, I wasn’t working in a library when I got my MLIS. I was building taxonomies at a dot-com dot-bomb, then moved on to be a product manager at an eBook dot-com. At both, I was considered a librarian since I had the degree, had worked in a library at some point, and was viewed as having “insider knowledge” about libraries. But I never thought of myself as a librarian in those days.

A casualty of the fall of the second dot-com, I then went to work in a public library as a reference librarian. Working in a library, check. Title includes librarian, check. What am I? I’m a librarian.

I crossed to the dark vendor side next, working mostly in library-focused organizations, both profit and nonprofit. While not working in a library, I was (and am) working with libraries and librarians daily. Technically, not a librarian, right? But it’s still my “elevator” answer.

In the midst of all this musing, Facebook’s algorithm saw fit to pop a clip in my newsfeed from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon from April 2017 where Jimmy asked kids what their parents did at work all day. After a good laugh, I started wondering, what would my six-year-old say? I’m sure she’d say something like what the kid whose dad is a Financial Advisor said, she “works on a computer and writes on paper.”

Back to the Question

So, I’m back to the question, what is it that defines someone as a librarian? A degree, a job title, the work they do, where they work? While it’s a question I’ve been pondering for years, it’s also a question that has increasingly become relevant in my work at ATLA.

More and more I’m corresponding with prospective members who are contemplating if ATLA is a good fit for them. They may work in a library or have responsibility for the library, but don’t have a library degree or “librarian” in their title. Or they may have a library degree and had the title “librarian” for a time, but are now moving into other roles at their institution such as instructional design, or assessment, or distance learning coordinator, or faculty. Or they’re an archivist. Or they’re someone focused on digital humanities. Or they’re an administrator with a passion for libraries.

ATLA and the Question

I also see this question, or maybe more accurately a possible answer to the question from the ATLA perspective, reflected in the ATLA Organizational Ends adopted by the Board in October 2016. The Ends contain all sorts of intriguing and expansive phrases such as “all those involved in the practice, study, and teaching of scholarly communication” and, “professionals engaged in librarianship and scholarly communication” and “information professionals.” It’s exciting to think of all these people with new skills, new ideas, and new expertise joining us under the “librarian” tent… or at least having an adjoining tent.

But I must confess, I struggle with the loss of simple, single word definition of who I am. While working on this article, two poems on the 1970’s children’s album Free to Be… You and Me have been rolling around my head. I just can’t get the sound of Dick Cavett telling me, “Maybe the problem, is in trying to tell, just what someone is, by what he does well” from “My Dog is a Plumber” and Billy de Wolfe’s unique voice saying, “A person should do what she likes to, a person’s a person that way” from “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron”.

While the core message of these poems are completely different, the ending line in each somehow speaks to me when thinking about this question. ATLA, its members, and me are not the only ones pondering this question. This question is talked about in all types of libraries and library associations. I’m sure I’ll continue to have engaging conversations about this question with folks as they thoughtfully consider whether to become an ATLA member.

My title – Director of Member Programs. My place of work – American Theological Library Association. My work – I sit at a computer and write on paper … and sometimes talk to people.

Catch me in an elevator? I’ll tell you I’m a librarian.

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