Saturday, June 26, 2004

Professionalism is an attitude, not a definition

Homo sapiens (the male variety) must be hardwired to be obsessive about things that are new. Only my second day as a Blogger and I’ve spent hours (it’s 5am as I post this) crafting articles which probably no one will read. Still…

Just read Shel's latest blog, "The Digital Media Island Hub", which he'd based on his recent trip to Singapore. Compared to his posts and others he’s linked on his Blog, I realised my recent posts were no different from the typical Blogger I had complained to Shel earlier – the ones whose Blogs show nothing but the “About Me” kind of postings, and who are basically using the Blog as an outlet for their verbal diarrhea.

So I’ve decided to post this piece about Professionalism in Librarianship.

I know of some librarians, posted in public libraries, who tend to feel that their work (perhaps an ultimate reflection of themselves) is not as “professional” as their peers in Reference or Technical Services (i.e. acquisitions, selection & cataloguing). Over the years, many have opted to become reference librarians or to work in acquisitions and cataloguing.

Those public librarians possibly felt that way because much of the work in our public libraries inevitably centered on day-to-day operational issues: circulation matters, customer complaints, demanding readers, and rigid work schedules (in adherence to operating hours).

To top it off, groused the librarians, most readers would ask mundane enquiries like “Where’s the toilet?” when REAL librarians should be dealing with REAL reference or research enquires (i.e. something more intellectually challenging).

The Oxford Dictionary (4th ed.) on my BESTA CD-75 defines a “Professional” as (1) “Of or belonging to a profession”; (2) “Having or showing the skills of a professional”. Then I looked up “Profession” and it says, “Paid occupation, esp. one that requires advanced education and training, e.g. architecture, law or medicine”

Personally I’d disagree with the above definitions. My thesis is simple: Professionalism is a question of HOW you do things, rather than WHAT you do.

If a person employed to clean the toilet shows the right attitude and display the correct actions regarding hygiene and even customer care (ensuring toilet rolls are replenished, polite and courteous, taking pride in the work, sharing good practices with co-workers etc.), then that person is a professional in my book. A librarian with a PhD, who thinks answering directional enquiries is beneath his or status, isn’t.

Some of my colleagues might argue that it’s not that the librarians think they are too good for mundane questions. The complaint was about the lack of opportunities to act professionally. Then I say, “If opportunity does not come knocking, we just have to create our own opportunities”.

What is to stop the librarian from engaging the reader? Even for readers who simply want to know if they have an overdue book, we could attempt to make small talk with the reader, e.g. “Mr. Tan, I noticed your book by John Grisham. Are you aware that his latest novel is out on shelf?” Doing so might lead to an actual full-fledge reference enquiry or Readers’ Advisory. At the very least, we let the reader know you are there to help.

Ok, I don’t mean to preach (I have a tendency to do that, besides rambling). Yes, I may have oversimplified the issue but my main point is that professionalism isn’t so much to do with training or specialisation. It all boils down to attitude. If we don’t deal with the 'attitude' aspect, then all else is moot.



  1. Dear niravana, 'professionalism is an attitude", well said. Let's have an attitude of a hair dryer - the type that blows people's mind away. Try this - wear sunglasses, hold a hair dryer at the reference desk and put on this tee shirt (u can get it from Harvard Coop) printed with a kewl slogan "I have a PHd from Harvard". And in small font size right below that it says "Professional Hair Dryer"

  2. Well said, Rambler. No wonder job search sites have listed your thoughts on professionalism. Keep up that optimism and I hope it infects other public librarians in NLB. Sometimes, I suspect that the people who really think PLS librarians are not professional are the PLS folks themselves. If you don't see yourself as professional, very hard to convince others you are. On the other hand, I do see the need for recognition from other divisions. It definitely didn't help to receive emails with proposals saying things like "let's get the PLS librarians contribute book reviews for my publication, as this will make them more professional." HARLOW! This is like imposing "benefits" on others in order to get them to do your work. So rubbish!

    The part about creating opportunities for oneself is SO VERY RIGHT. I used to have this brilliant colleague who was so damn good at creating wonderful programmes using powerpoint. Becoz he was so damn good, he ended up being transferred to where he really like while I was stuck at the same place. I could have spent the rest of my life lamenting why he has better luck than me. But from his example, I saw one thing. It wasn't just talent and being at the right place and right time. He created stuff which the company needed where he cleverly matched his interest and showcased it to the right person. To put it in simpler terms, he knew how to "position and sell" himself strategically.

    Lesson learnt. Find a niche area which you are truly good and interested in. Even if there is no such position or skill required in your library right now, it's ok. You can actually create that need. Advertise yourself to many people. Share your ideas on how it can work, sell it and get buy-in. Most importantly, let your boss know your interest. If your boss is supportive like mine did, then you'll see something going. Ultimately, your goal is to establish yourself with a reputation that you are THE reference person for this subject area. Finally, do not be CALCULATIVE. If you have to work overtime, take on extra duties or be involved in a thousand and one projects to achieve your objective, DO IT. If you start picking and choosing what you want to do, then you're not going all out to pursue your dreams.

    I see this as a critical skill for anyone who wants to succeed in their area of work. It's not about being "shameless" or "hao lian" in the Asian moral context. But knowing how to promote your skills is as necessary as having the skills itself. If anything, you can at least do something about your own career. Afterall, why blame your boss, your company or the whole world if you're stuck where you are. Are you doing anything about it to move to where you like?

  3. Anonymous12:33 am

    Wow. Glad I found your Blog! I was just feeling sorta lost, because I really want to be a Librarian at NLB and people around me are going, "PAH, LIBRARIAN?"

    After I read it, I was going, YAY! I found another person who likes books and is a librarian!

    I'm going to use your Blog as a source of strength, haha! I already submitted my form online...Thank you for writing this Blog and...Wish me luck!

  4. Anonymous1:39 am

    I agree with what you said. Professionalism does not lie in what you do but how you do it.

    Many a times, big things are well done but it's the small things that set the difference of those who are great from those who are average.


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