SINTO is running a seminar on personal and professional development in November. It is aimed at front line library staff. But what exactly do we mean by "professional" in this context and why is it relevant to libraries?
Tim Coates in his Good Library Blog takes issue with the MLA over the following statement:
"Change to the library service has to be part of a broader agenda of change and the service has to be seen as part of the whole – integral to delivering the wider ambitions of the (local) authority"
Coates (or his cat Perkins) says that "this is in contradiction to the law which says that 'public libraries are for the benefit of those people who wish to use them' - not for the benefit of the agenda or ambitions of local councils, which are, quite naturally, entirely different to those people who simply want to use libraries". He continues:
"The constant, but silly and illogical, attempts to shoe-horn public libraries into the social service agendas of both local and national government have been what has reduced its qualities to a low level".
The idea that 'public libraries are for the benefit of those people who wish to use them' needs to be treated with care as it might suggest that libraries should focus on the type of person who already uses libraries rather than trying to reach out to excluded groups. However I agree that public libraries should have their own agenda and that this is not just about delivering the aims of local councils. As Bob Usherwood makes clear, this agenda should include developing people's potential through education and the promotion of good literature. It would be hard to imagine that this could be in opposition to the wider ambitions of the council but it is not necessarily integral to its agenda.
I understand why senior library managers want to promote the role of libraries in delivering the council's agenda. For a start they are employees of the council and their job description probably makes specific reference to this role. Also "he who pays the piper calls the tune". When chief librarians are fighting with other departmental heads for limited funds the game rules make clear that the goal is to contribute directly to the councils agenda. There is no National Information Policy or overarching idea that librarians can cite to promote an independent mission for libraries. I don't think that many chief librarians (sorry, Assistant Deputy Directors, Culture and Communities (Library & Information Services)), would stand up in a departmental budget meeting and proclaim that "The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization" as a way of getting a bigger share of the budget.
Finally we know that libraries can contribute to all these other aspects of the council's agenda - but there has to be more to it than that.
One aspect of this is the way in which front line library staff are seen by the council, library managers and themselves. They are often perceived as "customer care officers" or some such term and not as librarians. Of course there have always been library assistants (sometimes called paraprofessionals or even non-professionals) but they used to work under the direction of professional staff. Today few libraries require or even expect professional qualifications for their staff and many people working in libraries do not accept that membership of a professional body or even qualifications in librarianship are essential. Many librarians (and very good librarians at that) question the relevance of professionalism.
I believe that there is a concept of professionalism that is of value in libraries (of value to the individual, to the library users and to the organisation). This concept does not depend on qualifications or membership of a professional body (although both are ways of achieving professionalism). Rather it is an understanding of what libraries are about and a commitment to personal and professional development in order to deliver this. "What libraries are about" is of course the key issue and one that must be constantly reviewed. It must be approached from a core of understanding and values. Customer care does not provide that core - professionalism does.