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On Being a Professional

I was taken aback, recently, when a friend asked, essentially, “Does your job have to be your hobby, as well, for you to be a professional?” I’m paraphrasing, a little. But he was telling me about his (newish) job, how all of his coworkers, in their spare time, read stuff about business and about the market they’re in, their competitors, the state of the art in the technology they deal with… and he doesn’t really want to. He’s not disinterested, exactly, but he already has hobbies, and none of those have to do with his work.

I don’t know if I gave him a satisfactory answer. I kind of needed to mull it over, I guess. Because I’ve been on both sides of that discussion: ever since beginning to seriously consider librarianship as a career (so, sometime in 2007), I have been a consistent reader of library blogs and listservs (I’m inconsistent in which ones I read, but consistently reading something on the topic of libraries or librarianship). I do a lot of that reading in my spare time. Though, to be fair, I spend some work time on Google Reader, Facebook, and Twitter, some of which is networking/continuing education and some of which has nothing to do with librarianship at all. So, as a librarian, my field is one of my many hobbies. But, as an engineer, I did pretty much no professional reading. I mean, when a new wireless standard came out, I probably caught wind of it and read other engineers’ comments on it, but I didn’t go out of my way to follow the field. I wasn’t involved in IEEE or ACM or any other professional organizations. I worked long hours, and then I went home and either answered more work email or did activities that had nothing to do with engineering. Continuing education in my field was not one of my major concerns. Nor was networking.

But here’s the thing: I’m not a practicing engineer anymore. I switched out of that field, in no small part because I wasn’t that interested in it. I knew that keeping up with the state of the art in the field was one of the expectations of an engineer–not an unreasonable one, either!–and I wasn’t really willing to do it, certainly not on top of the time I was already spending at work. (Now, if I had found my first engineering jobs on the west coast, or anywhere more laid back than DC, would I have found the time? Maybe. … There’s a reason I favored the Pacific Northwest in my library job search, though: I do enjoy having hobbies other than my work.)

I suggested to my friend that maybe I do so much reading about my field in part because I’m an academic. (OK, well, an academic librarian. I see a distinction between those two monikers.) But even as I was saying it, I was dissatisfied with that answer. If I were a public librarian, I would still want to stay up on what’s happening in the field. The idea that there might be librarians who don’t follow at least a couple of blogs & listservs, or something like Library Journal, upsets me. There’s so much change afoot, in our field, that I can’t imagine letting it all pass me by. There’s so much that needs to change, that we should all have some sort of view of the world outside our own libraries. Also, just by the very nature of our field, you’d think we would all be information junkies. So the idea of a professional librarian not staying at least somewhat up to date makes me pretty angry.

To get back to my friend’s question, though, I still find myself wondering: do I hold librarians up to these standards because we are professionals, or because of the nature of librarianship? Clearly, society needs doctors and engineers to stay up to date on their fields. While I wouldn’t call it a societal need, lawyers also have to stay up to date. As do scientists, veterinarians, academics, IT professionals, designers, consultants. … And librarians. Is that the distinction between “a profession” and “a job,” the need to stay up to date? What do you think?

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  1. One of the keys, in my opinion, is engagement. For folks who don’t keep up or are not involved in any way with things outside their 9-5 gig, it is likely just a job. I don’t see a lot of librarians like this. Most of the folks I see are passionate and really enjoy what they do and want to keep up because they want to improve themselves. They want to grow instead of stagnate because they believe in what they’re doing.

    I know I think about librarianship outside the confines of the office and work hours. And this doesn’t make things harder or more stressful. It makes it better because I enjoy what I do and be the best I can at it. You are at work for at least 40 hours a week. It’s worth enjoying what you do for that long. I think we all need to find that work/life balance and I think it’s different for everyone.

  2. I could’ve written the same thing — swap out engineering as a past career for teaching, but yeah — I find education issues fascinating but I didn’t have the kind of professional community & engagement I do in librarianship, didn’t even necessarily know where to look to find it, and was definitely way too exhausted on top of my day job to keep up.

    Which is to say: I don’t think it’s a distinction between being a professional and not being one. I think it’s about whether you’re in the right profession for you.

  3. Coral

    You both bring up really good points.

    Andy: I know I get stressed when I think about specifics on my to-do list outside of work–or at least when I do so too often. But thinking about librarianship as a whole, or interesting ideas for my library–that, I find energizing. Usually. :)

    Andromeda: I really like your second paragraph; that might be my advice to my friend. (Not that I was trying to say he wasn’t a professional–that was never my intent. But I think you’ve put your finger on what I was actually trying to say.)

  4. Carol

    I am a firm believer that one’s professional obligation should end when you walk out the door at the end of the day. It is unfair and unreasonable for an employer to expect you to essentially do unpaid work outside of work (with exceptions of course for required professional development coursework to maintain one’s certification and things like that). That said, I do think it’s important for people to make good, meaningful efforts to keep up with their field outside of their listed job duties. I just think that, for a professional, some time for that should be allotted during the work week for that purpose. IMO, expecting people to do specific profession-related tasks at home after already spending 40+ hours a week at work sets people up for career fatigue and burnout.

    On the flip side, I think that someone who does not have hobbies and interests outside of work that relate in any way at all to do with their chosen field might want to reevaluate their choice of career. Someone who is doing something they love at work will also be naturally drawn to related activities on their own time. But there’s a huge difference between, say, a naturalist who enjoys birdwatching in her free time, and one who feels compelled/expected to study scientific names, read environmental ed journals, and learn the latest animal tracking computer software program on her own. If she needs those skills and that information to excel at her job, she should be permitted some time to develop those skills and keep track of that information while at her job.

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