Featured image by Kate Ter Haar under a CC 2.0 license.

Taking the first step into a profession can be an unsettling experience to say the least. I should know as I am about to finish my MLIS, unfurl my diploma, and navigate the intimidating currents of the job search. Even as I write this post, I am pondering what my experience is going be like this afternoon as I walk into my first day of reference internship at a local academic library. Will I be equal to the task at hand? Will I somewhat resemble that of a real librarian—especially that of a scholarly nature?

At times, I feel as though I am Pinocchio — desperately wanting my best potential to be immediately realized. I pondered all my courses that I’ve taken and began to ask myself questions about the unique field of expertise do librarians offer in academia. Do we have one?

Throughout my MLIS curriculum, I consistently heard repeated phrases that broadly described us as information literacy experts, information scientists, data management specialists, scholars, or educators. Those job descriptions are all quite fair, but in the realm of scholarly communications numerous professional disciplines also exhibit such expertise. So what in particular is unique to our professional domain?

Way back in my undergrad, I had the fortune of working in the college library as a circulation assistant. Since the college did not have a library science degree at any level, I majored in interdisciplinary studies. I often heard librarians described broadly in the form of metaphors such as bridges, connectors, or catalysts. For those of you not familiar with interdisciplinary studies, these descriptors are key “passwords” or “tools of the trade” for interdisciplinarians who constantly seek to interweave or transcend two or more distinct disciplines into a lifelong pedagogical experience.

What intrigued me about librarianship during this time was the interdisciplinary idea information literacy (IL). I was sold. We were bridges, connectors, transdisciplinarians! In my mind, the tenets of IL coalesced into the unique cornerstone of the library profession.  In my naiveté, I thought its concepts had long been molded and accepted within the librarianship.

I was somewhat taken back to learn that the conversation was somewhat new, and not everyone thought it was peachy — c‘est la vie, I suppose. My dismay was not helped by an article I stumbled upon last week. Lane Wilkinson, author of the blog Sense and Reference, is currently writing a series posts on revisiting the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. In last week’s post, he challenges the notion that information literacy is specifically the domain of librarians. He continues, “The cynic in me wants to say that the Framework is intricately tied to the well-known imposter syndrome that saturates librarianship. That the Framework is a desperate attempt to prove our value and legitimacy to our faculty colleagues.”[i]

It was then that I remembered Pierce Butler’s 1951 article that outlined a brief synopsis of our development as profession from the ancient Greek and Roman catalogers to our development as technicians of inventoried collections in the 19th century.[ii] In it, he purports that librarians have been “inclined to imitate the outward forms of the other professions before attaining the corresponding internal development.”[iii] Butler also insists that our professional organizations have only served the purpose of “vocational propaganda.” Wow!

Like Wilkinson, I’m not entirely sure that I want to play the cynic — we do have a unique skill set to add to the academic community. We are not merely spewing forth vocational propaganda in our conferences, but are we focusing on our true contribution to academia? Does the Framework actually provide us with an outline of such a skill set, or is it rather a mere attempt to insist that “we have a discipline too”?

I am not sure. I am just a novice librarian in the making, and many times along this educational journey I have felt like an imposter. The interdisciplinarian in me usually wants to resort to the broader metaphors of librarianship as bridges and connectors in the scholarly conversation —academia’s “conversational lubricants” as David Lankes from the University of South Carolina (USC) puts it[iv]; yet I know that Wilkinson in this week’s post about “scholarship as a conversation” rakes this metaphor over the coals as a novice position and only meant for an easier exposition to first-year college students.[v] I won’t unpack that here, but it forces me to beg the question of all my colleagues: am I destined to be a seeming imposter, never really attaining a sense of professional identity in a field? This existential question is high on my mind as I enter into librarianship.

By Joshua Salmans

[i] Luke Wilkinson. (2016, August 9). Revisiting the Framework: Is research inquiry [Web blog post]. Sense and Reference: a Philosophical Library Blog. Retrieved from https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/revisiting-the-framework-is-research-inquiry/

[ii] Pierce Butler. (1951). Librarianship as a profession. The Library Quarterly, 21, pp. 235-247. doi:

[iii] ibid. p. 237.

[iv] R. David Lankes. (2016). Librarianship in the growing information domain…or how I learned to stop worrying and love information [Video post]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/154465735

[v] Luke Wilkinson. (2016, August 12). Revisiting the Framework: Is scholarship a conversation [Web blog post]. Retrieved from https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/revisiting-the-framework-is-scholarship-a-conversation/

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2 thoughts on “Librarians: Professional Imposters?

  1. Hi Joshua–
    Welcome to librarianship! Thanks for linking and thanks for sharing the Butler article. I hadn’t read that one before but now it’s going right into the favorite articles folder (I especially like his call for humanism). I think Butler is right that we need to start taking our scholarship seriously if we want to be considered a profession and as far as I’m concerned the Framework is a perfect example of not taking scholarship seriously. But it sounds like you’re taking things seriously and are willing to question the profession and that’s great because librarianship needs more constructive criticism. As far as professional identity goes, that’s a great place to start.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lane,

      Thank you for the warm welcome! My rather romantic, even if naive, view of librarianship actually came from our poet Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish. Oddly enough, he was not a card-carrying, ALA approved librarian. But I loved his call to higher professional development–He once said that librarians cannot simply be vending machines passing out books if it means to survive or be taken seriously. I just figure that to be taken serious one must take their endeavors seriously. I’m glad you enjoyed the Butler article! I sure have enjoyed your posts!


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