Librarians – Undervalued Professionals

Pharmacist at work

The Pharmacist - A Valued Professional (from The U.S. National Archives' Flickr stream).

I was mulling over writing a blog post yesterday, but I had nothing to write about.  Why waste everyone’s time writing for the sake of it?  So, instead, I spent most of day mulling over a few things in my head.  Most of these were prompted by this wonderfully ignorant blog post about school librarians:

How much “training” and “certification” do librarians need to be “responsible for the children”? They are just librarians! One would think that all the school need do is run a background check and then show them the Dewey Decimal system and everything is set! How much expertise do you need to put books on shelves and check out kid’s selections? It ain’t rocket science.

It hardly seems worth bothering with the ignorance on display here (although many wonderful people have added comments calling him on his provocations).  Although it is more likely than not he is simply trying to get a rise out of people.  Being deliberately provocative in a way I never would. Er….

Anyway, one of the things I was mulling over today while out with my wife is the interesting parallels the library profession has with other professions (and not just in terms of the ‘profession’ bit of course!).  Particularly in terms of the criticisms they face and the lack of understanding about what they do.

First, a bit of background.  Before working in libraries, I worked for a well-known chain of high street chemists (yes, that one).  Although initially starting out on the photo department (which was great fun – at least until someone’s negatives were chewed up in the machine – not so much fun then), I ‘progressed’ to the healthcare/dispensary side of things.  As a result of which, I worked with pharmacists (the professionals in this long-winded story) to deliver the healthcare side of the business.  Interesting work, that gave me a real insight into many aspects of the medical world (not least the wholesale cost of drugs in comparison to the cost of a prescription – believe me, you would never complain about paying that small fee if you knew how much some medicines cost).  And not only was it interesting, it introduced me to my wife, who just so happens to be a pharmacist!  Anyway, I digress.

One of the most common refrains from members of the public when waiting to pick up their medicine was “how much longer is this going to take? They only need to put the medicine in a bag!”  Of course, we knew it was much more than this, but the experience of the customer was only the front end and they couldn’t see what was going on behind the scenes.  The checks a pharmacist has to make, both with the patient’s medical history and the drug itself.  It is not just a case of shoving things in a bag.  Accordingly, the pharmacist was often, in the eyes of the customer, reduced to the role of ‘very well paid bag packer’.  Not always, but often this seemed to be the case.  And yet……

Despite this perception of pharmacists as glorified bag packers, no-one calls for pharmacies to close or that pharmacists are over-qualified for what they actually do (although I’m sure some drug companies wish this were the case…there’s nothing they would like more than a deregulated healthcare market, enabling direct-to-consumer advertising….oops, digressing again!).  The reason for this is obvious.  Despite the perception of some, the majority of people understand that pharmacists are the middlemen/women between themselves and life-saving medication.  Medication that, despite the beliefs of some people to the contrary, the majority accept is far more complex than X simply cures Y.

Compare this to librarians.  They are often portrayed as glorified book stampers and shelf fillers.  Yet what they do is so much more than that.  They provide access to a wealth of information that benefits society as a whole.  They enable people to navigate the largest information source that the world has ever known.  They provide the skills to enable people to find their way through the overwhelming amount of information out there and find the stuff that they need.  But that’s not what they see.  Like the bag stuffing pharmacist, they only see a part of what librarians do.

This is a great difficulty for professionals to overcome.  Whilst pharmacists have the tangible benefits to demonstrate their worth to society, what librarians deliver is far less tangible.  This makes it easier for the media and various commentators (and loonies like the one at the top of this post) to claim that librarians are ‘unnecessary’.  This is in turn leads to the library narrative in the media that I have blogged about before.  How can this be addressed?  I’m not sure I can even hint at an answer.  That said, I do think an attempt to steer the narrative in our favour is one way of addressing this problem.  However, one thing is for certain, this situation does need addressing before librarians become a relic from a more enlightened age.