Wednesday, 22 June 2011

What does 'professional' mean?: CILIP New Professionals Conference 2011

On Monday I attended the CILIP Career Development Group New Professionals Conference in Manchester. The theme was ‘Professionalism and Activism in a Time of Downturn’. With so many threats to the library and information profession at the moment, it’s important that information workers build on the qualities that make us valuable: among these, professionalism and the enthusiasm to get active. Having met so many professional and enthusiastic library folk at the conference, I believe we’ll be able to face whatever future lies ahead for the profession.

For me, the conference tackled the mysterious word ‘professionalism’. What is ‘professionalism’? What does it mean to call oneself a library and information professional? Who are ‘new’ professionals? Do these distinctions mean anything to people outside the library community – outside the echo chamber?

People within the profession tend to use the term ‘librarian’ exclusively for people in a professional post or who have The Qualification. When I’ve discussed this issue with people in the past, it’s always been my view that ‘librarian’ is just a label and I tend to apply it to anyone who works in a library or information context. This is partly because I think this is how users see library staff and because I think that having specific and esoteric labels for ourselves can appear alienating to users and others outside of the profession. Sam Wiggins and Laura Williams tackled this issue in their presentation about people’s perceptions of what makes an information professional. I was pleased by their conclusion: that being a professional is mostly a matter of attitude. Professionalism is in one’s conduct, is in getting involved with libraries and librarianship, is in how one stands in relation to the rest of the profession, and is in holding to an ethical code. In the words of Batman, “it’s what you do that defines you” rather than what qualifications, experience, or labels you have. 

This definition of ‘professional’ works both ways: someone without The Qualification can be a professional and equally someone with The Qualification in a ‘librarian’ post might not be a ‘professional’. Some people – including myself – can get complacent once they’ve qualified and got a ‘professional post’. Part of the professional attitude of a librarian is the continual development of skills and knowledge: this can be done in the workplace as demonstrated by the outreach projects in Katie Birkwood and Naomi Herbert’s award-winning presentation; as part of university studies as discussed in Ka-Ming Pang and Jo Norwood’s presentation; or outside work through the kind of volunteer activism that Alice Halsey and I discussed in our workshop. 

The conference also provided a handy way for me to work on my CPD. Helen Murphy gave a presentation on the 23 Things for Professional Development project. I’d heard of CPD23 and thought it was a great thing for people to get involved in but, rather arrogantly, I’d not considered that I needed it. The conference taught me that professionalism isn’t about resting on my laurels: it’s about working to continually develop myself and build up my skills/knowledge. Helen told us that we don’t have to do this in work: we can do it outside an organisation in the informal structure of CPD23. So hopefully it isn’t breaking the rules to make this my Thing One blog post

Developing yourself is only one part of professionalism though: being a professional means being part of a community and accepting responsibilities beyond yourself. Conferences are always fantastic for meeting new people and it was great to meet so many tweeters and other library folk. Isolation is something I feel acutely in a small military library surrounded by people with completely different cultural frames of reference (my casual references to pop culture are wasted!). As I mentioned in our workshop, being part of the Voices for the Library team has been really important for keeping me connected to other librarians and, in all likelihood, to prevent me from burning out on my own. This was touched upon in Megan Wiley’s presentation on librarians in careers services and the issue of communities in LIS was a major part of Rachel Bickley’s presentation on encouraging dialogue between new professionals and experienced professionals. Rachel talked about crossing the boundaries of technology and experience to bring these two communities together. She also raised the very real concern that new professionals can be cliquey. It worries me that people might see the new professionals on Twitter or in LISNPN as ‘exclusive’ and ‘insular’ and it presents a concern for the professionalism of the community: Michael Cook has written about this here.

As Alice Halsey and I discussed in our workshop about activism for new professionals, professionalism doesn’t have to be confined to the workplace or the classroom. We discussed how and why library and information workers should get involved in advocating libraries and actively campaigning for them. We owe big thanks to our wonderful enthusiastic workshop participants and to the organisers for asking us to come and for bringing everything together. Copies of the guides to library campaigning that we gave out can be found here and here and if anyone has any questions about getting involved or wants to help out, please contact us or anyone at Voices for the Library

In a time of downturn, professionals stick together. Through events like Monday’s, we come together, we help one another, and we all leave as better people.

What other people thought


Tom Roper said...

And, the very next day, there was this presentation by Suzanne Hardy (aka @glittrgirl) on Digital Professionalism, given at the 2011 University Health and Medical Librarians Group (UHMLG) Conference

michaelhealthlibrarian said...

Thanks for the mention! Thought it was a really interesting point you raised about getting complacent and having made it once in post. If you compare that to say, nurses, who qualifing is only the 1st step in their development - maybe we should be conditioned that way as well?

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Michael.

After qualification, there is Chartership and Revalidation and most workplaces do CPD-related stuff but it seems to me that this is less about a continuum of development than moving to 'the next thing'. It's about attitude and I think of lot of CPD depends on what attitude you take towards it.

meimaimaggio said...

"Developing yourself is only one part of professionalism though: being a professional means being part of a community and accepting responsibilities beyond yourself."

I would have to disagree with your comment there. If being professional really means taking on responsibilities outside of the workplace then a huge number of librarians and info pros are not behaving professionally.

I think we should frame professionalism within the library world as we would view professionalism in other, er, professions. Professionalism means inspiring confidence in what we do because we're qualified and/or experienced, because we do what we do with care and forethought and because we are accountable.

CPD is undoubtedly an important part of being a professional but how can we dictate what others do in their spare time?

Simon Barron said...

Meimaimaggio: You're quite right and I didn't mean to say that LIS professionals should take on projects outside the workplace. I said they should take responsibilities beyond themselves by which I meant focusing on things other than their own individual development: this could be outside work but is most likely to be taking responsibility for the organisation one works for or studies with.

Katie Birkwood said...

Just a quick comment to say hurrah for Helen being so persuasive!