A rose by any other name…

I have included a discussion about what we call the folks who use libraries (members) in several presentations and it’s all over my book. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what we call ourselves. Over the past month across two continents and four different venues this question has come up.

Before I get too far down this road, I realize that I am treading a well-worn path with plenty of wreckage along the way. I am not playing coy here for a push for a new name. I am honestly struggling with this personally, and I’m looking for help.

So here is where it all started. I was talking with our board of advisors for the iSchool and reviewing the LIS program. We have a great board made up of business folks, technologists, librarians, and educators. I was making the case that librarianship was a skill set that extended well beyond libraries and asked how the school could open up opportunities in the business sector.

The answer? Don’t call them librarians. They bought that librarians would be great in institutions facing big data problems, helping out analysts and research scientists in communicating and conversations, the whole bit. The problem was that when you threw in the name “librarians” all they could think about was the building, and really the public library they visited as a kid (to be fair this was not a universal comment, as I said there were plenty of librarians in the room).

We even started talking about the possibility of the profession splitting into folks who work in the building called a library and folks with the skills that worked outside of it. I want to reiterate that this was a very positive conversation, and not riddled with the stereotypes, except to say many thought the name itself got in the way because of the widely held stereotypes.

I threw out that it was time to retake the name and associate it with the real progressive work librarians were doing today. Then one member of the board asked “so which is more important, the name ‘librarian’ or what librarians could accomplish in these other settings.” That got me thinking.

I went directly from this meeting to a summit in Salzburg. There I met amazing librarians and museum professionals from 24 different countries. We were talking about libraries and museums in the era of participatory culture. I was part of the discussion around the skills needed for librarians and museum folks (more on that later). After my presentation, during a panel discussion, someone asked, you guessed it, should we still call these folks librarians?

What started to develop at this meeting was a line of reasoning that goes like this: If as librarians we need to shape ourselves around our communities, and if part of what we need to shape is the language and terms we use, then shouldn’t we be flexible about the titles we use? If the community wants to call us librarians, then fine. If they want to call us “awesome epic cool people” then so be it. AASL wrestled with this in going back to the title school librarian from school media specialist. At the time I thought (and tweeted) “how boring.” A school librarian pointed out that the name just caused confusion, and a name doesn’t gain respect or attention, performance does. In essence call me what you want, it is my action that will show me as a librarian.

Fast forward to this past week when I presented at the New York Library Association. After I did my thing about what our mission was, up it popped again – does it make sense to call ourselves librarians. Here I talked a little about my developing “let the community decide” logic. But I added “no matter what the community calls us, we are still librarians.” In essence, I was thinking the term librarian may be more important in identifying ourselves to ourselves than to the community. So, I was thinking, let the world call us what they want, but know still you are a librarian with a common mission, values, and skills. This has worked with folks like accountants, that used to be people who worked in counting houses. Now they have the title of office manager, CFO, and so on, but they are still accountants with a common preparation and professional culture.

So here I am…librarian or not? Do I work to rename our degree to make librarians more marketable outside of libraries (keeping ALA accreditation)? Do I still push to retake the term librarian? Does it even matter? Help!

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