The Politics of Professionalism: A Retro-Progressive Proposal for Librarianship

Chapter One

from The Politics of Professionalism

Fateful Choices

Almost everyone will find fault with some or all aspects of this book. It will be labeled by many as unhelpful or far-fetched. People will say that I have misconstrued things; painted too dire or too simplistic a picture; that I can’t be serious. Despite what readers may think, I love libraries and librarianship. But I also think librarianship has lost its way and is heading down the wrong path to a tragic end. I don’t want this to happen.

I therefore present a radical proposal for the education of librarians that some might call counter-productive: the removal of library education from the jurisdiction of universities, which in recent decades have become increasingly corporatized, internalizing market-based concepts such as performance metrics and “audit culture” (Shore & Wright, 2000: 57) to the extent that, ideologically speaking, they are indistinguishable from corporations (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). As such, aspiring librarians would no longer be required to earn a university-level professional degree. Concomitantly, they would no longer be obsessed with being thought of as professionals, nor with enhancing their professional standing. This would be a positive development because the notion of professionalism has devolved to a point where it is more about credentialism, careerism, and the accumulation of power and prestige than about the possession of meaningful knowledge that can be turned toward social good.

Unfortunately, the foregoing assertion applies just as much to what Roma M. Harris (1992: 20, 163) called the expert-focused “male model of professionalism” as to the care-based and service-oriented “female professionalism” model; just as much to what Steven Brint (1994: 8-11, 40-44) identified as “expert professionalism” as to “social trustee professionalism.” Female professionalism and social-trustee professionalism were once viable categories, but as Brint (1994: 8, 11, 12) noted, “[o]ver the last thirty years, the idea of professions as a status category has become increasingly disconnected from functions perceived to be central to the public welfare and more exclusively connected to the idea of ‘expert knowledge.’” Indeed, contemporary professionalism—whether that professionalism is exercised at the “core” or at the “periphery” of the professional stratum; whether it is exercised in the private or public sector—must be viewed primarily “in relation to the development of markets for professional services and in relation to the interests of organizations that employ large numbers of professionals.” And because these organizational interests are more and more associated with market-based criteria in their various quantitative forms, professionals, while retaining some of their “priest-like” qualities with regard to “their authority over secular knowledge bases,” have become “merchants of the cultural and human ‘capital’ that is their major source of mobility across and up organizational hierarchies.”

In other words, professionalism is synonymous with the market-oriented expert model. To be sure, there are differences between “upper-level experts” possessing “marketable skills and location in resource-rich organizations” and “lower-level experts” possessing “less marketable skills and location in resource-poor organizations.” But by the end of the twentieth century, all professionals, no matter their level, were guided by a single set of “commonalities,” including a “strong commitment to [formal higher] education and meritocracy as principles of advancement”; “the simultaneous experience of a large degree of technical control over work … combined with the constraints of organization life and the fluctuations of market demand for expert labor”; “expectations for a middle-class (or, where possible, an upper-middle-class) style of life”; and “a rationalist outlook on problem solving” (Brint, 1994: 11, 12).

As a stark illustration of what professionalism entailed at the beginning of the twenty-first century, consider the debate about individuals who constantly used their BlackBerrys® and iPhones® during meetings to check for and send messages, among other sundry tasks. As Alex Williams (2009) reported, although some organizations banned the use of smartphones during meetings because they were concerned about enabling a culture of distraction, disrespect, and impoliteness, a consensus nevertheless emerged in favor of their use. Williams concluded with this telling paragraph.

Mr. Brotherton, [a Seattle-based media] consultant, wrote
in an e-mail message that it was customary now for
professionals to lay BlackBerrys or iPhones on a conference
table before a meeting—like gunfighters placing their Colt
revolvers on the card tables in a saloon. “It’s a
not-so-subtle way of signaling ‘I’m connected. I’m busy.
I’m important. And if this meeting doesn’t hold my interest,
I’ve got 10 other things I can do instead.’”

Certainly, not all professionals are like this. Yet some of the mindsets and skill-sets emphasized at university-based professional schools—the importance of market-based criteria, performance metrics, social networking, multitasking, and technological determinism—build the foundation for defining professionalism in terms of “I’m connected. I’m busy. I’m important.”

Accordingly, education for librarianship should reject the science- and technology-based information model that is associated with university-based library education and whose origins can be traced back to Charles C. Williamson, especially his article, “The Place of Research in Library Service,” in the early 1930s. Instead, it should resurrect Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1870/2007) “professor of books” model, where “accomplished librarians” teach library users what F.B. Perkins and William Mathews (1876: 231, 251, 249-250) refer to as the “science and art of reading for a purpose.”

Although Perkins and Mathews use the word science in the above quotation, they employ it differently from how it is currently understood (i.e., where the idea of science is informed by positivist logic; where decisions are based on the results of quantitative research and statistical computations). For Perkins and Mathews, teaching the “science and art of reading” meant, among other things, encouraging library users to read “by subjects and not by authors”; to “perus[e] a book not because it is the newest or the oldest, but because it is the very one they need to help them on to the next stage of their inquiries”; and to “re-read[] the masterpieces of genius again and again.”

Modified and recalibrated in the way that I explain in the following chapters, Emerson’s model, as further defined by Perkins and Mathews, has the potential to revalorize and reintellectualize the practice of library work. I like to think of this recalibrated model as retro-progressive, a term referring to “any behaviour that draws from past ‘best practices’ to create a better life in the world we inhabit now” (Tennier, 2007). This model would make librarians extremely well-read subject specialists who, having taken the time to become highly knowledgeable in a number of subject fields and areas, are capable, as Emerson (1870/2007: 96-97) put it, of differentiating between the “fifty or a hundred blanks” (i.e., worthless books) and a single “prize” (i.e., a good book).

Librarianship would therefore become reintellectualized, in the process divesting itself of what I believe to be harmful characteristics associated with scientific and technological determinism and adherence to market-based criteria—characteristics that are defining features of the twenty-first-century university because of its embrace of “academic capitalism” (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997). When librarians have more time to think, to ponder, and to comprehend the materials that they have read—when they make concerted efforts to transform libraries into oases or sanctuaries (Levy, 2007a; 2007b) that are conducive to sustained reflection and contemplation instead of venues that enable what Susan Jacoby (2008a: 246-247) describes as the “culture of distraction”—library users are the ultimate beneficiaries. When librarians commit to gaining the kind of “deep comprehension” that is the result of what John Miedema (2009: 8-17, 41-46, 63-65) calls “slow reading” instead of undertaking a “personal learning management strategy” based on playing with items contained in Web 2.0 “technology petting zoos” (Abram, 2007; see also Blowers & Reed, 2007), library users are, again, the ultimate beneficiaries.

Some thirty years ago, Bonnie R. Nelson (1980/1981: 50) told librarians to “stop chasing the chimera of professionalism,” arguing that the headlong rush for professional status detracted from the real work of librarianship, which was to bring meaningful education to library users. I concur with her analysis. Rather than striving to achieve the type of in-depth, subject-specific knowledge that can change the lives of library users, librarians who chase professional status become participants in the “theology of achievement,” an approach to life in which “the advancing self” is convinced that “individual betterment is the center around which the entire universe revolves” (Brooks, 2004: 142, 148, 276-278). Put another way, they become individuals whose motto is “I’m connected. I’m busy. I’m important.” They are so time-stressed and distracted by their pursuit of professional goals that they are unable to provide library users with insightful service based on “deep comprehension” of a given subject or topic. The opportunity for transfer of meaningful knowledge is thus lost.

Librarianship and Conformity

Too often books adopt conventional and safe positions, declining to challenge deeply held assumptions. Even books that purport to present provocative ideas more often than not fall somewhere within the safe middle ground of an acceptable range of discourse that has been determined by elites to be rational, fruitful, and useful: discourse that works to advance the field in ways that they think that it should be advanced. To take a political analogy, Democrats and Republicans may differ on many issues, but they still operate within a relatively narrow spectrum of mainstream views. Some analysts have described this as the Coke-or-Pepsi syndrome: in the long run, it really doesn’t matter which beverage is chosen, or which policy is adopted, because the end result will more or less be the same. There really is no true choice, because the supposed choices uncannily resemble each other, with the only difference being the branding that accompanies each product or policy proposal.

One can only go so far to the left or to the right in one’s political or social opinions. If someone expresses an opinion that does not fall within approved parameters, that person is relegated to the inglorious exile of marginal status. Think of the infamous Free Speech Zones, which invariably appear at important political events or conventions so as to, ostensibly, provide a forum for the expression of the most radical opinions imaginable, but which in reality function to contain and control those views in a typically remote location, safely away from the serious speeches, discourses, and debates taking place at a given event’s or convention’s official venues.

And so it is in the small world of librarianship too. Views that fall outside the narrow band of conventional wisdom are met with condescension in an attempt to explain away such apostasy or render it harmless. Consider a passage from Bill Crowley’s Renewing Professional Librarianship: A Fundamental Rethinking, a book which, overall, contains a number of astute observations. However, commenting on what he clearly believes to be an egregious idea, Crowley (2008: 145-146) writes as follows.

Recent suggestions to consider lowering the level
of education for new librarians to the bachelor’s
degree level, such as that advanced by George Needham
at the Thinking Ahead Symposium 2006 … are useful only
if the possibility is immediately dismissed. The author
is a twenty-year friend of Needham, and is well aware
of the thoughtful approach to library issues taken by
this former executive director of the Public Library
Association, Michigan State Librarian, and current OCLC
vice president for Member Services. In consequence,
he would find it out of character if Needham had
brought up this option for other than discussion purposes.

For Crowley, Needham’s views are dangerous, much beyond the pale of what has been determined to be the kind of helpful dialogue that should exist among and between professionals. Little wonder that the above-mentioned passage appears under a chapter sub-section called “What Not To Do.” And so Crowley sets out to bring Needham back into the comfortable circle of legitimacy by repositioning his opinions as a hearty joke told by a long-standing acquaintance who simply wanted to stir things up. Crowley implies that serious and realistic debate on this topic, led by serious and realistic people, can only resume when Needham returns to his previous thoughtful self.

But this debate must occur within the tightly delimited boundaries that Crowley himself sets: only then will it meet the criteria of being considered to be truly serious, thoughtful, and realistic. And so we are faced with an eminently logical, but inexorably vicious circle, where the only solutions on offer partake of the Coke-or-Pepsi syndrome. There is a delicious irony here, given that the sub-title of Crowley’s book includes the words “fundamental rethinking.” Now, Needham’s ideas represent a courageous attempt to undertake fundamental rethinking. Yet those ideas are peremptorily cast aside, with Needham chided for his impertinence. One can only conclude that there is acceptable fundamental rethinking and fundamental rethinking that is not acceptable.

The fate of librarianship, however, is too important to be left to Coke-or-Pepsi thinking, to fundamental rethinking of the acceptable kind. And so I try to challenge some of librarianship’s core assumptions by making a proposal that would alter the very terms of the debate about the future of librarianship as an occupation. Simply put, once librarianship dispenses with the idea of professional status, as granted through graduate-level degrees from corporatized universities, then and only then can it begin to live up to its civic responsibility to be a positive social force working toward the meaningful educational development of all individuals.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford (2009: 2-6, 21, 147-149) eloquently argued for the revalorization of the “ideal” of “manual competence” and “the experience of making things and fixing things,” not the least because manual labor involves great “cognitive richness.” Wanting “to do justice to intuitions that many people have, but which enjoy little public support,” he set about trying “to understand the greater sense of agency and competence [he had] always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’” In so doing he also wanted to “rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work,” especially in light of the fact that a university degree does not so much guarantee the acquisition of meaningful knowledge, but is, rather, a credential that signals that the holder of the degree possesses not only the discipline needed to meet official graduation requirements, but also the necessary “complete personality package” to succeed at contemporary white-collar work in organizations that encourage everyone to “identify with [their respective] corporate culture[s], and exhibit a high level of ‘buy-in’ to ‘the mission.’”

Librarianship, of course, is not considered to be a manual trade, but I suggest that, just as there exists a dichotomy between white-collar knowledge work and blue-collar manual trades (a dichotomy that Crawford [2009: 103-125, 130-137] explores by describing, on the one hand, his work as an indexer-abstracter compelled to churn out a given number of abstracts of academic articles per day irrespective of whether he understood the articles or not and, on the other hand, his experiences as a motorcycle mechanic), so there also exists a sharp contrast between a librarianship based on extensive subject-specific knowledge that is itself based on extraordinary amounts of reading and a science- and technology-based information model of librarianship that many universities privileged at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And just as the manual trades are derided by numerous individuals (Crawford, 2009: 11-13, 161-163), librarianship that is based on in-depth subject-specific knowledge is also derided. And just as the kind of indexing-abstracting knowledge work that Crawford briefly performed is exalted, so too is the librarianship that is based on the scientific- and technological information model.

I therefore want to turn the tables in the same way that Crawford (2009: 126-160, 189-192, 140, 191, 134, 198-199) turned the tables. He painted a picture of knowledge work that was degrading, conformist, and governed by soul-sapping quotas and other performance metrics. Knowledge work often led to “stupidification,” as in the case of mortgage brokers, or, as in Crawford’s own case, to an “active[] suppress[ion]” of the “ability to think,” because thinking would have prevented him from meeting his daily quota of abstracts. And so the mortgage banker and the indexer-abstracter function in a “depersonalized” state of autopilot. On the other hand, the manual trades “resist [the] tendency toward remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context … [and] are embedded in a community of using.” As a result, the work accomplished by the manual trades “approach[es] the good sought in philosophy, understood as a way of life: a community of those who desire to know.” Here is the crux of the issue. I think that the science- and technology-based information model of librarianship taught at professional schools in universities inhibits the ability to think deeply and comprehensively, to acquire meaningful subject-specific knowledge that would be of real value to library users who, when all is said and done, also desire to possess meaningful knowledge. When future librarians are educated in professional schools of corporatized universities that are part of an “audit culture” largely defined by performance metrics, they too cannot help but adopt market-based and quantified ways of acting and thinking that privilege “the advancing self” and that make their graduate degree a credential rather than a tool for social good.

By removing education for librarianship from the purview of universities and by reintellectualizing librarianship through an educational approach centered on extensive subject-specific knowledge, my proposal hopes to create “a community of those who desire to know,” a community committed to “deep comprehension.” Crawford suggests that it is far better to be a thinking manual tradesperson than a depersonalized knowledge worker. I suggest that it is far better to be a thinking non-university-educated librarian committed to “deep comprehension” than a university-educated library professional who operates by remote control, mechanically following the precepts of the science- and technology-based information model of librarianship and internalizing the market-based criteria that inform it.


Chapter two provides background information about the corporatized university, focusing on the negative consequences of performance measures, audit culture, and “academic capitalism” (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). It functions as a rationale for my proposal in chapter three about removing library education from the jurisdiction of the university. Once library education is removed from the university, librarians can stop worrying about the idea of professionalism and professional prestige, concentrating instead on reintellectualizing every aspect of their work as librarians. As I explain in chapter four, this would be beneficial, since professionalism has a troubling heritage—a heritage exacerbated by the ideological direction that the contemporary university has taken. In chapter five, after discussing the anti-intellectual tendencies besetting early twenty-first-century librarianship, I present a historical overview of library education, showing how the desire to achieve professional status for librarianship was a significant disservice to the work of librarians. Chapter six places the effort to professionalize librarianship within a broader socio-cultural context; it concludes by suggesting that a reintellectualization of librarianship along the lines of my proposal in chapter three addresses significant ethical issues.