Thing 7: Face-to-face networks and professional organisations

I’m a bit late to Thing 7, but I’m quite glad because it means I’ve been able to read other people’s posts about professional organisations and think about where I agree, or where my thoughts differ. I was originally going to just reflect on what I’m involved in and how I think it’s been of benefit to me, which I find quite difficult because:

  • It’s hard to tell where involvement in certain things has given opportunities or helped to develop skills I wouldn’t have had otherwise;
  • I don’t keep good enough track of what I actually do;
  • It’s hard to assess the direction of causality;
  • And besides, that’s not the reason I’m involved in professional organisations or other networks.

The two blog posts that have stuck in my mind are lemurph‘s If only Benedict Cumberbatch were CEO of CILIP and meimaimaggio‘s Extracurricular committees and professional networks: I’m taking it lying down. I’d intended to respond to Helen’s post with a post saying “noooooo you must must must join CILIP!” and giving a lot of reasons, and then I remembered that Phil Bradley had written a post about it a while ago and I didn’t get round to distilling it all and working out how to express my own views. (There are lots of comments on Helen and Phil’s posts that are really worth a read, by the way.) Then I saw Mei’s post last thing last night (the perils of scrolling down your tumblr dashboard before bed) and it made me so sad that it reminded me about my intentions but made me think I needed to address it in a slightly different way. So. Here is my attempt, and I don’t want it to sound preachy but it might, but it comes from the heart, as usual.

The posts, though different in approach, pretty much say the same thing, when you boil them down: I’m not active in a professional organisation because I don’t think they’re for me. There are lots of reasons:

  • I already have a strong and useful alternative network
  • I don’t need the professional organisation(s) for training or as a network (at the moment)
  • It’s expensive
  • I don’t think I have anything to give to the organisation (time, skills etc.)
  • I don’t like networking in person
  • I don’t understand the difference between different organisations
  • I’m not interested in the CILIP groups and committees

These I can tackle by shamelessly cutting and pasting from Phil’s post. He basically says that regardless of the above (which you can only change by having some faith, becoming a member and seeking to change it from the inside, with the power of your vote and your input), the thing you can get from being a member of a professional body is helping to ensure that the professional body and professional ethics actually exist in the future:

If there isn’t a professional body, which sets standards, qualifications, monitors those and fights for their upkeep, we cannot have professional librarians. We’ll still have librarians of course – or at least, people who call themselves librarians, based on anything they want. They won’t need to have any kind of qualification because no-one can advise an employer on what they should be asking for; ‘a love of books and learning’ will be appearing on all job adverts (and not just a few at the moment) and anyone can apply. Now of course, at the moment it’s perfectly possible for an employer to get someone to look after their information centre without any qualifications – I think that’s bad and I suspect you probably do as well – but that’s the way that it’s going to be. An obvious knockon effect is that academic courses in various aspects of librarianship are going to be less common – as there is no actual need for librarians any longer (because remember, and it’s a point worth hammering home, no professional body = no professional librarians), no need for courses.

If there is no need for the academic aspect, I wonder how much work is going to be done in the field of librarianship and information science in the UK. Where is this stuff going to get published? Are we still going to have professional journals any longer? Will publishers see the value in them? Will foreign journals be interested in publishing material written in the UK from a UK perspective? ‘Well, yes it’s an interesting article but of course you’re not a professional librarian are you, so we’ll give it a miss thanks’ is a phrase that I find scarily possible. The people in charge of academic librarians are going to have even less credence than perhaps some of them do now for the same reason.

There will be no single coherent voice for librarians. It’s going to be down entirely to voluntary groups and local groups for that. The media will have no single organisation to approach. In this thought experiment I would encourage you to compare this bleak situation which doesn’t exist – yet – with the rather more powerful one that I’ve previously described. Regional groups will – or perhaps not, spring up, based entirely on just how keen particular individuals are. They’ll have to create their own rules, try and run their own training courses, and how’s this for another scary line ‘training? What do you want training for? You’re not a professional!’ No-one will know what’s going on, because these groups will be created and will break up almost on a whim or because of personal disagreements since there won’t be an overarching professional body to give them some backbone and consistency.

In short – there will be no profession. No professional librarians, no professional organisation. Let that sink in for a while. Nothing. That’s a very scary thought. It’s also a very possible situation as well. Are there any benefits to NOT having a professional organisation? I can’t honestly think of any, can you?

It’s not always obvious what CILIP is doing for you as an individual on a day-to-day basis (even if you have achieved a CILIP-accredited Masters and are working in a post that you could only have got with that qualification). But this is bigger than the individual and the day-to-day. This is actually quite similar to what I deal with when I’m campaigning for public libraries – and in the back of my mind there’s always the thought that I don’t use the NHS every day but I’m very glad it’s there if I do need it. The analogy doesn’t work perfectly, but the idea’s there. You might not think you need CILIP at the moment, but if you need training, or need careers advice, or need legal advice about employment, or your sector needs advocating for, or a million other things that CILIP provides, then you’re going to need the professional body to exist, and you’re going to need it to respond to the needs of its members. The only way CILIP can exist is through people paying for membership, and the only way CILIP can respond to the needs of its members is for the members to tell it what it needs.

As, for that matter, does your professional organisation!

It’s really hard to convince people to be a member, and I know that many of the reasons are big ones and often hard to get around – the main one being cost. I hope that changes in the future, I know it’s being looked at. But we really, really need members, and we really, really need ones who will actively contribute and if it’s not obvious how they can, ask about how they can.

One of the things Mei said felt like a kick in the guts (though I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way):

“Seems like if you’re not giving extra, not being exceptional, you might as well lie down with a duvet and let yourself get trampled by the hoards of new movers and shakers. It’s kind of cutthroat out there.”

It’s an important point and it’s important to address it. I feel like I can/ought to say something about it, because of what I do – I’m an actual Mover and Shaker this year, and I won an award during my Masters for my dissertation and my contribution to public librarianship. I do local campaigning and I co-founded a national advocacy group and I’m standing for Vice President of CILIP and I’m starting a PhD and no, I don’t really do anything other than work (in a non-library-related job) and campaign and tweet about work and campaigning. But I don’t apply the same unrealistic standards to others. I don’t expect everyone to be doing the same type, or amount of stuff as me. At the same time though, I’m not doing this so that nobody else has to. I started doing it because nobody else was, and then quickly, other people started doing it too. We got a bit of a profile, which by may be misleading or paint a picture different to the reality – we’re normal people with normal jobs and normal limits. We’re not superhuman, and there most certainly is not an army of us. We are few and far between. And to be honest, we’re knackered. We need people to participate. All kinds of people, all kinds of sectors, all over the place.

Just because other people are doing really well or doing a lot or doing something loudly doesn’t mean you get to feel insecure or unconfident or like you don’t have something to give. Just because you have a certain perception of something doesn’t mean it’s true. Professional organisations and other networks are really easy to get involved in. They’re desperate for your membership, your involvement, your support. They’re not exclusive groups. Librarians are one of the friendliest, most generous groups of people you could hope to meet. As a librarian or info pro, you have a professional reputation to uphold – and that professional reputation most certainly isn’t milquetoast! Yes, competition for jobs and awards and bursaries from organisations etc. is tough. Is that really an excuse to not be the best that you can be and giving the most that you can give? This isn’t about comparing yourself with others. No benefit can ever be had from that. If you ever feel trampled, the only person trampling you is yourself – because we’re really sodding nice and we’re going to drown you with our loveliness.