In defense of Shambrarians

A week ago, the ALIA National Advisory Conference came to Perth. The topic was ‘Future of the Profession’. You can get some idea of what was said from the Storify, but the guest speaker was my good friend and mentor Kathryn.

Kathryn made a number of excellent points and at one stage she asked the room to embrace shambrarians. Now this is an easy thing for me for reasons I’ll get to, but apparently not everyone in the room was so supportive. Indeed, in the last week, Hoi and Peter have both written excellent blog posts on the matter, which I’d encourage you to read.

So just what is a shambrarian? I would count them at minimum as qualified professionals who work in a library doing librarian-y tasks but have non-librarian qualifications. I’m talking teachers, historians, people with degrees in communication, IT, etc.

In my job I’m fortunate enough to work closely with a number of shambrarians. My opinion on this topic was formed early in my time as a librarian when I was accepted into the graduate program at the State Library of WA. The year I started, the program included me and one other graduate, Theresa. She and I quickly became close friends and I gained a great deal of respect for her intelligence and capabilities. She had a degree in teaching and had just finished Honours in history. This meant that from the outset she was far more knowledgeable about the State Library collections than I was, as she had used them in her research.

Theresa (R) and I (L) at NLS5
cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Matthias Liffers:

Unfortunately it didn’t stop some people from treating her differently because she didn’t have a library degree. This irked me because it was apparent that she was a fast learner and was no less capable than I. Indeed, I could see that her skills and knowledge were really useful because they were different to those of the other staff (in the same way, skills I’d gained before becoming a librarian were also particularly useful).

It seems that some people believe that their library degree automatically makes them better at everything to do with libraries than people without one. This sentiment was somewhat apparent at the NAC when mention was made of non-librarians getting jobs in libraries (with the implied subtext of ‘stealing our jobs’). I believe that no degree is a meal ticket. If you want to get a job, you need to ensure that you’re the best candidate. If you’re not, then it’s wise to look in the mirror before casting elsewhere for blame. I know that it’s a tough time to get a library job, but I have a lot more sympathy for the librarians in this discussion who are looking for ways to improve their technical skills rather than those who would shut the door to a more diverse range of skills.

Now I work in a team with, among others, Theresa and Carina (another ex-grad shambrarian) as well as Jocelyne who has a teaching background. My manager is also an ex-teacher and my director is a historian. Shambrarians to the max and I love it! I also really enjoy working with library officers who often show as much or more initiative and willingness to learn than some librarians.

I believe that a certain amount of diversity is going to be vital for libraries if we are to survive and prosper. Hiring people from different work and study backgrounds really helps to avoid myopia and brings a broader wealth of experience and ideas to the table. I can see many ways that this is of benefit to my workplace and to the profession. I don’t feel threatened by shambrarians and I love working with them. I’d love to see them become more welcome in and involved with our professional organisations and conversations.

Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from people who have alternative viewpoints and can give me (preferably objective ) reasons that they are not in favour of shambrarians.


15 thoughts on “In defense of Shambrarians

  1. I see many possible positions and roles in libraries for those without a professional degree in librarianship. While those with a library degree may not be doing *every* job within a library, and probably shouldn’t, those with the degree will continue to be library managers, directors, and leaders and continue to shape and redefine the profession. Libraryland is a big place, and there are plenty of roles for those without the professional degree.

    • Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for commenting. I think you’ve hit on a key part of this issue, that it doesn’t have to be either or. I’m a great believer in sharing and collaboration and I think that getting the people with the best skills will help to make libraries stronger. In many cases that includes library qualifications, in others it doesn’t.

  2. Yay for shambrarians! (I am one after all). I get really mad about this issue. In New Zealand, only one university offers a Masters in Libraries. One long distance only institution offers it at undergrad level. A lot of people don’t even realise that it’s an option as a career. I certainly didn’t when I was doing my degree (history + sociology). It’s only when I fell into a library job that the world opened up . . . and I got told that if I wanted to do my job ‘professionally’ I need another degree and if I want to stay in this country, I have no choice as to what institution I attend to get it. Bla. How can you expect people to become professional librarians if you have a set up like that?

    • That is tough! I didn’t realise that was the case. We are luckier to have more options than that here in Australia, but I still don’t believe it should be an expectation.

      Sadly, I keep seeing wonderful library officers going off to get various degrees (usually in other disciplines). Many of them would be interested in coming back to libraries but don’t believe that they would be welcome/able to get decent jobs. It’s not good.

  3. Ooooh, this is a seriously contentious issue! And before I give you my opinion, I should emphasise that this is *my* opinion, and doesn’t reflect what anybody else I’m associated with thinks, blah de blah.

    So here it is.

    I am a big fan of the shambrarian, but not a big fan of the term. I see people like the wonderful Paul Hagon and I think Amazing Web Developer With An Interest In Collecting/Cultural Institutions, not Sham Of A Librarian. We need people like Paul in libraries, because no matter how much we hate to admit it, librarians are not good at everything. We are not accountants; we are not historians; we are not web developers; we are not programmers.

    Some librarians might be these things in addition to being a ‘qualified librarian’. Some of us (like me) have undergraduate degrees that qualified us to do nothing (hello BA in Art History and Literary Studies… which couldn’t even be teaching areas if I wanted to do a grad dip and be a teacher – and actually, I *did* want to be a teacher, but that’s another story). Armed with my library qual, I might have made a good librarian in an art library… But really, as a new graduate, what I brought to libraries was my qualification: the skills and knowledge I picked up in my library studies (and my retail experience). I knew stuff about art – but not Australian art, really. Ditto on the literature front. Sure, this stuff helped me answer some reference enquiries, but that’s about it. What I really had to offer was my librarian self.

    When we get a crossover of skill/qualification sets – librarians who also have other professional qualifications – it’s a good thing. I know fantastic systems librarians who have quals in both computer science and librarianship. Often people who come to librarianship as a second career are looking to break away from their first profession; other times, their other qualifications are an advantage to both the individual and the organisation. The reality is, libraries are complex organisations and we need to bring in other professionals from other professions to do some of the activities that are core business in libraries, and they don’t always need to be librarians. And sometimes it’s better that they’re not – like you said Molly, having different perspectives in the organisation is a good thing.

    The best reference librarian I ever worked with was not a qualified librarian. But here’s the thing: he didn’t think of himself as a librarian. And I think that’s fairly key. Here’s another example: Like you, I did a graduate program at a NSLA institution and like you I did the program with someone who didn’t (and doesn’t) have a library qualification, but she did have qualifications relevant to the library (curatorial qualifications, and other discipline knowledge). Again, though, if you asked her what she does, I am 99% sure she wouldn’t tell you she was a librarian. Sometimes ‘shambrarians’ don’t identify as librarians because they don’t identify ‘librarianing’ as their role in the organisation; other times it’s because they don’t want to *be* a librarian.

    Actually, as an aside, it would be so great to do a research project on how people without library quals see themselves – librarians or not.

    Anyway, back to the opinioning.

    Let’s go to trusty Wikipedia for the definition of a profession: “A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training” ( And this, for me, is the guts of it. Librarianship is a profession. Those that have gone before us worked hard to have librarianship recognised as a profession. Librarianship has historically been a feminised domain and this has contributed to perceptions about ‘professionalism’. We are in a position now where librarianship is perceived to be a profession and we have professional associations that recognise our qualifications.

    A librarianship qualification gives you a broad overview of the profession, the theories that underpin what we do, the big issues, the important underpinning concepts…

    Does everyone who works in a library need a library qualification? No. But I would argue that if you were a graduate, heading into your first ‘professional’ role, having a library qualification will give you a big head start if that role happens to be in a library – especially if it’s a ‘librarian’ role.

    On the topic of whether people without library qualifications who work in libraries should go out and get library qualifications: What if I worked at Big Law Firm X, managing corporate records, and I decided that I’d hit the ceiling in terms of career potential in the organisation and I thought I might like to change roles, and become a solicitor. Should I go and get a qualification?*

    I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer when it comes to librarianship, but I just want to put it out there for people to think about. We teach stuff in library school that you don’t get taught anywhere else. We teach Big Stuff. Values and principles and ethics and theory and… Can you learn that stuff on the job? To varying extents, maybe… But… I just don’t think the average person is going to learn about information theory (for example) on the job. And I am of the firm belief that stuff does matter.

    Sorry, that turned into a treatise! Thanks for kicking off an important discussion, Molly.

    * The standard response to this kind of question is: “But we’re not solicitors! We’re not dealing with the law!” This may be true, but what we do is still important; our clients are still important; our practice should still be grounded in theory, in research and in evidence.

    • Ooh, this is a great response! Thanks Kate. 😀

      I see what you’re getting at with the term shambrarian. It’s not great, maybe we could come up with a better one. I agree that the people I’m talking about are definitely not shams.

      Regarding the profession, this is more juicy and contentious. I should acknowledge that I am new to it, so don’t perhaps have as much buy in as most. I can, for better or worse, take a step back and view it with a somewhat cynical gaze.

      While it’s true that I did learn concepts of the profession at uni and enjoyed grappling with some of the tough ethical issues that we face, I believe I have learned more from talking with and listening to members of the profession (yourself notable among them). I think it’s pretty clear that we’re in a transformative state brought on by all things digital, and I’m not seeing a great deal of agreement about future directions.

      Matthew Cizek’s latest blog post* talks about moving on from Ranganathan and taking another look at the theoretical underpinnings of librarianship. I think he has a good point. I’m hoping that some of the discussions coming out of the new librarianship MOOC and similar online discussions will get a stronger groundswell of change happening and lead to a bit more consensus.

      I’m not advocating that we ditch library degrees, I believe there is still value in them. At the same time however, I’d struggle to argue to library officers at my work that they should spend years and thousands of dollars to learn about the concepts. I know that there is more to a library degree than this, but much of the rest consists of more generic skills that can be obtained from other degrees.

      I’d like to see the degree go through some more reinvention as well. I know this is an ongoing process and I can only really speak to my own experience with my fairly recent master’s degree, but I think there are some additional practical skills that could be included which would be of great benefit to a new generation of librarians. I don’t want library degrees just to become a meal ticket for entry into a dying profession.

      Please excuse my bluntness, I believe that you and other LIS educators of my acquaintance do a wonderful job and I’m really glad that you believe so strongly in what you do. It’s some of the old guard who have so much valuable experience and knowledge but also sometimes want to cling to outdated methods that will need to be convinced. It’s not likely to be easy either.


  4. “I don’t want library degrees just to become a meal ticket for entry into a dying profession.”

    Well said. And me neither.

    There is no way I want to be handing out meal tickets. I want our graduates to leave with the skills and knowledge they need to make a start in this profession, or to move their careers forward if they are already in it.

    I think the variable in the mix here might be the course.

    As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to ensure students have a quality educational experience. If my students left the course and 12 months later they said they’d been challenged more on the big issues or learned more about the profession than in their degree, I would question whether I had done my job right. It is my job to make sure my students are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to function as an LIS professional.

    But likewise, if my students came back to me in three years time and told me they’d learned everything they ever need to know from their studies, and they weren’t learning more everyday on the job and through their own self-directed professional learning, I would also question whether I’d done my job.

    We encourage our students to be professionally active from day one; we bring practitioners into our classrooms to nut out the big issues; we try to provide a holistic experience that balances grappling with the big picture and dealing with the minutiae of very specific skills and knowledge (and my personal view is the balance should be significantly in favour of the former – details change fast and are often very context-specific). This is domain specific knowledge that you won’t get in another degree, and in my opinion, this knowledge is an important foundation for many library jobs. I think this knowledge can be empowering. It can position new graduates to go out and be professionally engaged and to keep learning.

    But you are right. Unless we are 100% on top of what’s happening in industry, and constantly reinventing what we teach and how we teach it, we have a fundamental problem. I feel strongly that the course I teach in is continually evolving and the people I teach with are continually reevaluating what they teach and refining their units. Nothing we do is static. The pace of change is too fast. I believe in what I teach and I believe it’s important stuff for new librarians.

    Students come to us at various stages in their careers. Sometimes they’re already working in libraries and they’ve reached a point where they can’t move on or up without a professional qualification. They might come to use feeling like they need the piece of paper to move on. But I NEVER want to graduate students who leave feeling that they’ve got the piece of paper they need to get a leg up, but that they didn’t really learn anything they couldn’t have found elsewhere. Education should be transformational. It should be empowering. It should be inspirational. It should impact on people’s lives. It should impact on their careers – and not because it gives them a license to do a particular job, but because it empowers them to do great stuff.

    I think we do ourselves a disservice by suggesting there is no domain specific knowledge in our degrees that is worth knowing, or that can’t be picked up on the job. It’s like saying that someone with a BA in history can teach high school history and learn stuff from their colleagues as they go. I am sure there are things you know and perspectives you have that your colleagues without LIS degrees may not share. And I bet your colleagues have benefited from approaches and viewpoints and skills and knowledge that you developed through study. You mention you have learned from engaging with people like me. I don’t think I would have anything to offer you in terms of peer learning if I hadn’t done my library qualification, because my studies shaped my approach to professional practice and gave me a strong commitment to evidence-based, research-led practice.

    We need to break this meal ticket perception. (And as an aside, I agree that we need to breakdown some of the entitlement around holding the qualification – in particular, we need to make sure graduates understand their qualification is only the beginning of their professional learning and that they are responsible for keeping themselves up-to-date and for furthering their professional development.)Your library officer colleagues shouldn’t study because the qualification is a meal ticket. They should study because the course is awesome and it’s going to equip them for a great library career. It makes me sad to think there are new graduates out there who wouldn’t recommend their degree to others who are already in the industry and thinking of studying. How did that happen? And how can we fix it?

    • I’m very glad that you believe in what you teach and I wish I believed in it as strongly as you do. My experience with the graduate program suggested that there wasn’t as much domain specific knowledge as I would have thought. It surprised me quite a bit at the time but since then I’ve also observed this in other contexts.

      I think the main thing that we are perhaps not agreeing on at this point is the amount and importance of the domain specific knowledge. I’m glad that you see it as constantly evolving because I think some librarian educators are not as behind this as they need to be.

      Also, in terms of evidence-based practice and research, I can compare my initial BSc to my Masters in Information management and I feel that I got far more out of the BSc in this respect (which is not entirely unsurprising). The Masters did expose me to a humanities approach to essay writing which I hadn’t done previously, but in terms of academic rigour, it didn’t come close. I don’t think that’s just down to the course that I did either.

      I agree with breaking down the entitlement around holding the qual, although I see that less from new graduates and more from established librarians (often the same who don’t bother with further learning). I still recommend the degree to others although I tend to suggest it as one option for them to consider rather than the automatic default.

      I’m certainly not advocating stopping offering library degrees. I think they have an important place in the profession. I just want to see them all be this awesome and inspire new librarians to be awesome in turn.

      • Oh, I wasn’t suggesting you can only get the evidence based practice / research led practice stuff from LIS studies, just that these are some of the things I personally picked up in my studies, and I think they are probably what I have to offer in terms of informal mentoring. You mentioned you had learned lots from people (like me) and I just wanted to say that if I have shared anything valuable, I think it’s probably in large part attributable to the foundations of my study.

        I actually had the reverse experience to you in my graduate program. When I did rotations in places like HR and events, my ‘library knowledge’ helped me to find my feet fast. I also did a rotation in cataloguing (and subsequently I was permanently placed there) where I learned quickly that I knew very little about the practice of cataloguing – the nuts and bolts – but I did know about how databases were structured, how indexes are built, how information is retrieved and so on. This is knowledge that I would never have had as a BA graduate. It’s knowledge that helped me learn how to catalogue but more importantly it’s the big picture view of the profession and what we’re all about. If I learned to catalogue on the job as a BA graduate, having done no LIS studies, I wonder if my focus would have been different? As it was, I went charging in there with my belief that cataloguing is a crucial customer service function. I’m not sure if I would have had that perspective if I hadn’t studied ‘the bigger picture’.

        Just as you’re not advocating people should stop offering library degrees, I’m not advocating that everyone who works in a library should have one. But I think there are many roles where having a library qualification is useful – so yes, you’re right. It’s on the importance of domain specific knowledge that our perspectives differ.

        I want librarianship programs to be awesome and inspiring too. And I want our students to leave as engaged, awesome new professionals, just like you.

        Thanks for kicking off this discussion, Molly, and sorry for monopolising the comments. I will now run away and be quiet!

      • Please don’t ever be quiet. Your comments are incredibly worthwhile and have made a very positive difference to this post. Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts. 😀

  5. Thanks for referencing me Kate. I actually get really offended by the term “Shambrarian”, it’s not a term I use even in jest, it’s so degrading. When referenced in that way it does make me feel like an unwelcome impostor, when in reality, I feel absolutely welcomed by a profession that seems to appreciate me for my ideas and abilities. There’s nothing more rewarding than being recognised by your peers for the work that you do, particularly when you are (to a degree) an outsider. I would like to think that this is due to my skills, experience, ability to learn and dedication to my job, rather than which piece of paper I have.

    I’m proud to work in a library, proud of my contribution to the profession & proud not to be a ‘qualified’ librarian.

    • PS. I’d just like to add that the reason Paul’s name popped up in my comment here is because he invests so much in this profession through his work, and because he is so generous with his time and expertise. I am exceedingly grateful for people like Paul, and for Paul in particular. He is a regular guest lecturer in my classes and I (and my students) appreciate the contribution.

      So thanks, Paul. There’s nothing sham-ish about you and you are indeed welcome in this profession (and in my classroom – anytime!).

    • Thanks for posting this Paul. I intended no offense in my use of the term, it was one I picked up from somewhere I can’t recall and ran with. I have the greatest respect for my non-librarian colleagues. I’m really glad that you and they are working in libraries and I’d like to find ways to make you and them feel like less like outsiders.

      It would be great if we could come up with a new term that doesn’t have the negative connotations. It can be useful to have a blanket term (partly so that we can advocate for more inclusivity) but it’s not good if it offends people. I will put my thinking hat on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s