Contributing Editor

Listen In: Discussions from the field

In this post, Symphony & Charlotte, our Listen In Contributing Editors, reflect on professional identify for LIS professionals based upon current research in the field.

The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.

This post was written by both of our Listen In Contributing Editors – Symphony Bruce and Charlotte Brun.

Oh, What’s in a Name?: Research on professional identity for MLIS graduates who work outside of libraries.

As Juliet stands on her balcony doting over her newfound love, Romeo, she questions: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet. Juliet’s ponderings can be applied to just about any title we use. Does the name matter? Does the place matter? When considering library science graduates who have the ability to land work in a number of workplaces outside of libraries, one might wonder if these professionals consider themselves librarians or something else altogether.

Melissa Fraser-Arnott’s 2017 study titled “Identifying as a Librarian: When LIS Graduates in Non-Library Roles Use the Title ‘‘Librarian’’” works to answer the question of what these workers call themselves. The participants in her research were graduates of a library and information science program who work in other fields like information technology or work for vendors who support library functions.  Through a small sample size, she identified four groups of people as seen in the chart below.

Research Methods

This research project is interesting beyond its result – the methodology that the author used is worth highlighting, and was one of the most interesting aspects of this research project. Fraser-Arnott’s review of the literature found no precedent for the study of LIS graduates in non-library roles. To remedy this gap, she decided to use grounded theory principles as her methodology. Grounded theory is a method of simultaneous data collection and data analysis, in order to develop a theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1999; Fraser-Arnott, 2017). Its aim is to bridge the gap between theory and data, by “grounding” the theory in the collected data. The key components of this method are theoretical sampling and constant comparison.

Theoretical sampling means that the researcher continues to collect data until sampling no longer brings new findings to the categories they defined, a stage called ‘theoretical saturation’. Constant comparison means that data analysis must occur at the same time as data collection, in order to define those categories which determine whether to continue sampling. The goal of grounded theory methodology is to discover, rather than test, theory.

Fraser-Arnott relied on snowball sampling: participants were asked to provide referrals for other potential participants. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews, in which participants were asked to describe their experience with their professional identity, and spoke without interruption. Follow up questions were asked during the second part of the interview.

This particular article is only a fragment of Fraser-Arnott’s larger grounded theory research on professional identity for LIS non-library workers. Rather than calling it a grounded theory study, she refers to her methods as “qualitative study conducted with grounded theory principles and practices” (Fraser-Arnott,  2017, p. 196)


Fraser-Arnott (2017) finds that 4 different groups emerged from the study (see table below):

  1. Always identify as a librarian
  2. Sometimes identify as a librarian
  3. Never identify as a librarian
  4. Identify as a non-practising, or non-active librarian

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 11.05.44 PM

(Fraser-Arnott, 2017, pg. 197)


“Others suggested they would not identify themselves as librarians for fear that they would be judged by “real” librarians who would consider them an other”

Of these four broad categories, those who reported never identifying as a librarian provided insight into the mindset of workers who would prefer to never use the title. Some participants described never feeling an association with the career beyond their coursework in the first place and therefore decided not to call themselves librarians. Others suggested they would not identify themselves as librarians for fear that they would be judged by  “real” librarians who would consider them an other.

Similarly, those who identified themselves as non-practicing, or non-active librarians, shared that they feared  how their colleagues who work in libraries would interpret it. However, they tended to retain a level of involvement in professional associations, suggesting that their ties to “librarianship” as an identity marker were sustained after graduating.

The idea of keeping ties to librarianship, whether ideological, professional, or linked to identity was also present in both groups that sometimes, or always called themselves librarians. Those who always called themselves librarians often mentioned wanting to use the title as a way to advocate for the field of librarianship. Both groups also mentioned using the term as a way to elicit a positive reaction from their interlocutors. For those who only used “librarian” some of the time, they did so depending on who they were talking to. They shared that “librarian” was connoted with stereotypes and only used it, or not, depending on their agenda. For example, if the person they were talking to had positive stereotypes of librarians, they were more likely to label themselves as such.

These findings reveal the way in which professional labels are not only shaped by the work that is performed or the space in which it is done, but by the perception held by others in and outside of the field.

Our Takeaways


“Additionally, we must mention those library workers without the MLIS degree who certainly do the work of a librarian often without proper compensation or recognition.”

We thought this study had many implications for those, like us, who actively label themselves as librarians: both due to the perception of the profession and the research methodology used.

  1. For example, librarians in any setting should work to include non-library workers with MLIS credentials as professional equals. While these information professionals may not be librarians in a traditional sense, they have the same training and have been exposed to the same values as those who work in libraries. Additionally, we must mention those library workers without the MLIS degree who certainly do the work of a librarian often without proper compensation or recognition. While the goal of this Fraser-Arnott’s article was to focus on degree-holding information professionals, the idea that they may be shunned as much as a non degreed library workers reveals much about our own possible biases within the profession. When information professionals and library workers of all sorts feel ostracized by or even rejected by us, librarians risk isolating a potential ally.
  2. This study points at how political the term ‘library’ can be. Using ‘library’ rather than ‘information center’, and labeling myself and others as librarians rather than information professionals has political implications. We ascribe certain values to libraries and certain stereotypes to librarians. The words we choose to describe ourselves can reflect or encourage certain biases.

Keep the conversation going

  • How can we make library workers and information professionals feel welcome, needed, and recognized for their work in our shared spaces and field?
  • As many library schools have become iSchools, what values are we putting forth as a profession? What values are we pushing aside?

Article Featured

Fraser-Arnott, M. (2017). Identifying as a Librarian: When LIS Graduates in Non- Library Roles Use the Title “Librarian”. Canadian Journal Of Information & Library Sciences, 41(3), 186-210.

Further Reading

Glaser, B. G., Strauss, A. L. (1999). Discovery of Grounded Theory. New York: Routledge.

Featured image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

1 comment on “Listen In: Discussions from the field

  1. Pingback: Listen in: Discussions from the field – The Librarian Parlor

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