Professionalism Reconsidered


  • Emily Drabinski The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, New York, United States of America



A Review of:

Bundy, M. L., & Wasserman, P. (1968). Professionalism reconsidered. College & Research Libraries, 29(1), 5-26.


Objective –
In their 1968 editorial for College & Research Libraries, Mary Lee Bundy and Paul Wasserman interrogated the nature of librarianship as a profession. They describe what they see as the limits of contemporary practice and offer ways forward for those concerned with the status of librarians.

Design – The article offers an analysis of the question, making use of selected contemporary literature on American librarianship, rather than empirical research or a literature review.

Setting – Bundy and Wasserman locate their critique in the daily work of academic librarians. Their descriptions are based on their own observations.

Subjects – The authors focus on “the real world in which librarians practice” rather than “abstract academic terms” (p. 7). Their subjects are library workers who, by virtue of the MLS, are identified as professionals in the library workplace. Bundy and Wasserman note that these library workers “often spend considerable time being concerned about whether or not they are truly professional” and go on to take up these concerns themselves (p. 5).

Methods – Bundy and Wasserman compare librarianship to “what is customarily considered to constitute professional behavior” (p. 7). Their comparison is structured through an analysis of three categories of professional relationships: librarian to client, librarian to institution, and librarian to professional association. This taxonomy of relationships is their own; the authors do not refer to analyses of professionalism in other disciplines such as nursing, social work, or education, fields where similar questions have arisen. The authors describe each of these professional relationships in turn through their own observations as a professor and Dean of the library program at the University of Maryland.

Main Results – Bundy and Wasserman argue that librarianship does not meet the threshold for professional behaviour in any of these three categories of practice. The relationship between the client and the professional requires expertise: “the professional knows” (p. 8). According to the authors, most reference transactions involve questions that “would not overtax the capacity of any reasonably intelligent college graduate after a minimum period of on-the-job training” while an “essential timidity” prevents them from clearly stating what they do know (p. 8). Given this, the relationship with the client can never be professional: the client knows as much as or more than the librarian. Bundy and Wasserman make an exception for children’s librarians, arguing that their clientele benefits from the “close control of the content of collections to reflect excellence” (p. 9). Otherwise, librarians are “in awe” of both the expanding bibliographic universe and the “growing sophistication of middle-class readers” (p. 9). Unless librarians understand themselves to be experts, and engage as experts with their clients, they cannot be professionals.

Professionals also see themselves as superior to their institution, struggling against “institutional authority which attempts to influence [their] behavior and performance norms” (p. 14). The professional resists disciplinary mechanisms that force workers to conform to institutional norms, maintaining authority over their own work.  In Bundy and Wasserman’s view, librarians instead display “rigid adherence to bureaucratic ritual” where “the intellectual and professional design is sacrificed upon the altar of economic and efficient work procedures” (p. 15). Librarians focus on the efficient completion of narrowly defined tasks that enable compliance with institutional demands instead of placing their relationships with clients at the center of their professional life. Library administrators encourage this restriction on the status of their employees. The authors argue that the librarian who attempts to maintain a professional relationship “is seen as a prima donna, impatient with necessary work routines, unwilling to help out in emergencies, a waster of time spent in idle conversation with his clientele about their work--renegade and spoiled” (p. 16). Acting “like a professional” is incompatible with the ways librarians normally relate within the larger institution.

Finally, professional status requires professional associations. These associations should ensure the quality of education in professional programs while facilitating the growth of connections between professional librarians. Again, librarianship fails: its professional association is guilty of “accrediting and re-accrediting programs of doubtful merit thereby giving its imprimatur to schools very distant from any ideal or even advanced attainment” (p. 21).  When it gathers librarians together at annual meetings, those committees “consist of members explaining why they have failed to complete assignments or committees which deliberate weightily the means for perpetuating themselves instead of considering the purpose or program, or still others which consume hour after hour preoccupied with minutiae” in organizations that are reduced to “the associational excesses of the ritual, the routine, and the social” (p. 23).

Conclusion – For Bundy and Wasserman, librarianship fails to qualify as a profession because the field cannot lay claim to a particular area of expertise, slavishly follows the rules of the institutions in which it is embedded, and is governed by professional associations that fail to ensure the rigor of professional education while reducing relationship-building to the reproduction of the association itself. Unless the field works to become more thoroughly professional, they argue, librarianship cannot advance or innovate, doomed to “not only decline rapidly, but ultimately face obsolescence” (p. 25).


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Author Biography

Emily Drabinski, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, New York, United States of America

Interim Chief Librarian




How to Cite

Drabinski, E. (2020). Professionalism Reconsidered. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 15(3), 191–195.



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