SLIS Director on Being an Information Professional

Dr. Kenneth Gariepy reflects on professional identity within the LIS field.

5 April 2023

Opening remarks to the Forum for Information Professionals, Feb. 17, 2023

Besides a category used to describe graduate librarians and other types of information and knowledge managers working in a wide variety of publicly funded institutions, businesses, and non-profit organizations, the term 'information professional' refers to a special kind of identity that is constructed individually, but not in isolation. For some of us, it might begin with an aspiration that we first experience as a vocational calling. For example, we might have an innate desire to help people navigate the complexities of human knowledges, creativities, and lived experiences. Or, we might have a keen interest in the record of those knowledges, creativities, and experiences, both material (physical) and non-material (digital). For others, it might begin with more practical purposes, such as self-improvement, self-actualization, changing careers, getting a promotion, earning more money, having more job-related prestige, or a combination of these. For yet others, it might begin with a response to the current state of global politics, as manifest in the labour market. For instance, we might perceive that becoming a particular type of information professional will allow us to side-step the proverbial ‘dog-eat-dog’ corporate world, or the high-stress and high-anxiety environments of some other professions. 

However we first experience it, the aspiration to be an ‘information professional’ has some basis in how we perceive others who already belong to that category of working people. We want to join them, and we ask about who and what they are. As it is with all our perceptions of others, what we think about information professionals is probably some combination of accuracies and inaccuracies based on our observations, interactions, assumptions, personalities, and biases, both conscious and unconscious. It is also informed by our other, co-existing and co-interacting identities, such as our socio-cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and social experience, as lived through these subjectivities and knowledges.

It is against this backdrop that we join a community of fellow learners with similar aspirations in a professional program such as the MLIS. We find our way to library school. Here, we encounter the possibilities of new knowledge, expectations, connections, ways of thinking, ways of understanding ourselves and others, and a new, professional identity that can lead to a different future. In these ways, if we are willing, able, and open, we may be transformed through a graduate-level experience that cuts across individual courses to reveal what it means–and what it takes–to be an information professional. Certainly, it requires more than earning the credential. That is because there is a difference between a professional graduate degree and a professional graduate education. A graduate degree is what we earn through a transformative education that is not just offered for passive consumption, but that we are willing to take up as critical thinkers, learners, scholars, and aspiring information professionals as our intellectual responsibility. In the educational encounter, we can be socialized into a different identity that is built upon professional practices, ethics, expectations, and norms, and our responses to them. For example, as information professionals, minimally, we are expected to be competent at our jobs. That means we should be able to do things such as:

  • organize and preserve human knowledge in ways that honour how it was created and the imperative to have future, reliable access to it;
  • help others who require our assistance to meet their unique information, knowledge, and recreational needs; and
  • create physical and virtual spaces where our fellow humans can engage with ideas, works of creative expression, and each other.

As aspiring information professionals seeking professional-level work, we are also required to treat each other with the respect, dignity, and confidentiality we deserve as human beings, and to which we are entitled (even if we do not like each other) because we are citizens governed by the same laws (however flawed). In our relations with the diverse publics we serve and our increasingly diverse co-workers, we are also required to adhere to organizational policies related to those laws. For example, more and more, employees of provincial and territorial governments and agencies (including universities) are required to complete anti-harassment and anti-bullying training, to prove that they have completed it, and are subject to disciplinary action if they do not, and/or if they contravene the laws and policies underpinning that training. That means, as information professionals, we must not slander, libel, harass, or bully the people we serve or with whom we work. It also means that by taking up graduate education as an ethical encounter, we learn how to treat each other in a different way by taking responsibility for what we say and do, gathering evidence to support our ideas, suggestions, and claims, actively listening to the various sides of a story before deciding if and how to act, and making effective decisions about how and when we can contribute critically and constructively to conversations and initiatives that might improve EDID and help us to be better stewards of the Earth. We learn about the complexities of our struggles, their contexts, and how to develop ways and means to challenge their limits thoughtfully and strategically. On the way, even as the bar is raised in relation to our competencies, understandings, and behaviours, we contribute to reshaping professional identity individually and collectively by cultivating more sophisticated approaches to work and work-related issues through the subtlety of mind required of an information professional.

To be sure, developing such an identity is no easy task, but we take heart in the fact that we are not alone. We have support and mentorship through extensive professional networks and opportunities for professional development, including events like FIP, which is an excellent example of how aspiring information professionals put education and ethics to work on the way to becoming inspiring information professionals.

Dr. Kenneth Gariepy, Director, School of Library and Information Studies