Reflective Practice: The Importance of Professionalism


I recently read Katie Clausen’s blog post entitled “The Importance of Professionalism” and the ensuing comments that it produced, and I have to admit my first reaction was incredulity at such a hegemonic, assimilationist argument. She goes on to list 5 distinct elements that she defines as being necessary elements of the ALA’s Core Values, which are: professionalism in our speech, professionalism in our attitude, professionalism in our dress, professionalism in our character and professionalism online. On the same day in which her post was published, one commenter named Brianna Marshall expressed reservations about the essentialist framework of her argument in which she compellingly argues that “that this sounds so cut and dry… like you either are or are not a professional and there’s this whole checklist of behaviors that you have to constantly appraise yourself by. Librarians aren’t automatons, we’re humans–and I know I couldn’t conform to this description (I don’t think I would want to, either)”. I tend to agree. She concludes by noting that “we need to be cognizant of how we are presenting ourselves and content to live with the consequences. Own it and be smart and find your own comfort level. This is important to me because I want to love my profession and I can’t love it if I’m constantly worried about being “un-librarianlike.” And I think this too is a poignant observation because there is only so much one can do to manage how others perceive us, and there is a question whether and to what extent we should be required to manage other people’s expectations and accommodating their beliefs about what should or should not define “professionalism” as a Librarian. There’s a plethora of evidence in the news today that speaks about how SOME people of color are racialized as a threat by the police, even when doing the most innocuous of tasks of daily life, and yet these unarmed people are significantly killed at higher rates than their fellow Caucasian citizens. Being racialized as inherently dangerous, uncooperative, antagonistic or haughty, even when in uniform – as this most recent example below illustrates, is something over which few people can control.

And dare I say that other identity categories like gender and sexuality bring with them varying levels of stereotyping that also implicate how patrons can perceive (accurately or not) one’s professionalism at work, despite one’s best efforts at aspiring to the lofty goals our profession espouses in its Core Values. Another commenter names Lesley Firth importantly stated that “I’m also uncomfortable with anyone thinking that their worth as a human is directly linked to their employer’s opinion of them” and invokes an important principle about the relationship between librarians and their institutional value. It almost goes without saying that stereotypes about “women’s work” (Radford & Radford, 1997) is persistently related to the profession and have distinct implications in terms of how female versus male librarians are valued across a panoply of work-related issues like pay, ageism, leadership & advancement potential, complexity of work responsibilities as simplistic, etc. The same can also be said about men and assumptions about their sexuality whenever they appear as librarians in the popular consciousness (Carmichal, 1992).

Ultimately I think we’re best served as actively fighting against this believe that relies upon others perceptions of our qualifications, character, worth or “professionalism”. Indeed, we certainly can speak with authority and respect simultaneously but policing our language or censoring our speech isn’t a winning strategy to defeat stereotypes about our profession. And, I really dislike Clausen’s assertion about what one’s attitude is supposed to be in order to be assessed as a “professional:. Indeed, there’s been scholarship that recently calls into question the legitimacy of civility as a type of social construct that’s inextricably linked to racial inequality. If anything, the assertion that we must censor our attitudes, is an anathema to our belief in the freedom of expression for our patrons, but are denied to ourselves? While Clausen argues that how one’s clothing communicates much about our social status (and its implication for our perceptions as information professionals,) I’m wary of the conformity that might ensue were we to take her argument to its logical conclusion. Surely we’re not going to make decisions about one’s professional competency on such superficial factors as their clothing choice, her caveat for individual self expression notwithstanding. And finally, while I wholeheartedly believe in the need for Librarians and other information professionals to possess good character (as defined as one’s collegiality, general disposition towards patrons, etc.), far too often “character” in the workplace has had a paternalistic moralizing history that has excluded many qualified people from the profession (Carmichael, 1998). It’s my hope that future discussions about “professionalism” are held with more robust, thoughtful self-reflexivity than the superficial one dimensional checklist Clausen’s produced.

Carmichael Jr., J. (1992). The Male Librarian and the Feminine Image: A Survey of stereotype, status and gender perceptions. Library and Information Science Research, 14, 411-446.

Carmichael Jr., J. (1998). Homosexuality and the United States libraries: Land of the free, but not home to the gay. 64th IFLA General Conference. Amsterdam: International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

Radford, M., & Radford, G. (1997). Power, Knowledge, and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the stereotype of the female librarian. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 67(3), 250-266.