Profession vs Professionalism

A few weeks ago, I had a Facebook conversation with a group of librarians on apathy in librarianship and the fear of “rocking the boat”. Concerns were expressed that as a profession we were becoming apathetic in the name of “professionalism”. Librarians were characterized by one as “sterile, grey and beige, clean, unassuming, and boring”.

One of my biggest complaints and concerns about our profession is the lack of open and honest debate of issues in the same of consensus, team building, and professionalism. As a group, librarians tend to be conflict adverse and instead seek to build a bland consensus, especially in matters concerning the important issues surrounding our collective futures and our profession. We choose professionalism over profession.

Profession is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act of openly declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith, or opinion.” Any profession needs debate and discourse to survive. Librarians need to take a stand on what we feel is important, even if it makes us unpopular. Professionalism, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.” I would argue that librarianship needs more profession and less professionalism, especially in matters concerning the profession itself.

There are ramifications to taking an unpopular stand, but I would rather be on the side of right than on the side of “the right thing to do”. Being a professional means that we “profess” a belief in something, meaning that we need to take a stand. Too many librarians are more than happy to sit by like a wallflower at the Junior Prom rather than get involved, take a stand, and improve the profession and the world around us.

Stephen Abram is a smart guy, but I disagree with some of his characterizations of  Jeff Trzeciak’s presentation and the debate that followed in his recent blog post. What he sees as a “piling on”, I see as a vigorous debate over the future of our profession. This type of open debate is needed in the profession in order to ensure its survival. And I am not so concerned about leaving a digital record of our debates on the profession. Debates in other academic professions have be chronicled in academic journals and elsewhere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The blogosphere is just the newest medium of academic discourse.

I do agree that vigorous debate does not give license for ad hominem attacks on one’s character or person. But vigorous debate is not piling on or bullying, unless attacks are getting personal. We need to debate ideas, not personalities. And we need to stop penalizing librarians for taking a stand. We need debate in librarianship, with the security and freedom to do so in an environment where the ramifications are felt in the betterment of the profession, not in the career path of the individual.

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About Matthew Ciszek

Librarian and scholar at Penn State University, diversity advocate, LGBTQ activist, partner to Michael Wachter, parent to a mini schnauzer and all around nice guy!

Posted on April 21, 2011, in Librarianship and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Why does professionalism mean that we can’t disagree? I can disagree with a person, and profess my disagreement, in “a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner”. Making attacks on one’s character is not professional. Stating one’s position in a polite, well-thought-out manner is professional.

    But, then, maybe I have a skewed perception. I don’t think it’s very professional to sit back and let the tide take you where it will, never stating an opinion — if we’re going to do this, we need all hands on deck. Vigorous professional debate will spur creativity, forcing us to consider many perspectives and find the solution that best fits all stakeholders’ needs. Being wallflowers gets us nowhere — or worse, ignored and trampled on by those who are not afraid to speak their minds.

    • I agree 100%. A true professional debates and disagrees in a “courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner”, but may in our profession take that to mean no debate or disagreement whatsoever. I have heard recent discussions on the future of librarianship called an “echo chamber” where it has been suggested that the debate and discussion is somehow “harming” the profession. Taking a stand and fighting for what you believe in is not harming the profession in my opinion. It is the true hallmark of a professional life and shows the passion that one has for their profession.

  2. professionlism is only achieved aftera rigorous study and the implementation of those insights achieved through different perceptions of thinking pattern.

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