Office Hours May 2012: Professionalism Matters

By Michael Stephens

As the school year wanes, I’ve spent the last few days grading electronic portfolios for a cadre of SLIS students. The portfolio is part of their culminating experience at San José and serves as a lexicon of learning, detailing experiences and evidence of their mastery of our competencies. It promotes a high degree of self-evaluation by articulating a statement of professional philosophy. Truth be told, both students and practitioners can benefit from careful consideration of what it means to be a professional in libraries in 2012.

A crowded field

In a market where one library job may have 200 applicants, how do you set yourself apart? Demonstrating skills is one way. A well-crafted cover letter outlining pertinent experience and pointers to an e-portfolio or online vita with links to social networking presence and other evidence is a good start. [For sample cover letters that work, see, the brainchild of LJ Mover & Shaker Stephen X. Flynn.–Ed.] Focusing on professionalism, foundational values, and service throughout all of these resources can set you apart. No library experience? Seek out an internship or volunteer opportunity to establish some evidence of your own contributions to the field.

Model online behavior

Professionalism matters online just as much as it matters in the physical library or information workplace. As a professor, I can model the characteristics of a professional to my students online via our interactions in class chat, my lectures, blogging, and Twitter. But my students are also learning from those they meet virtually. If you are a professional participating in online conversations, be aware that you are influencing the next wave of librarians even before they graduate.

Quality over quantity

A student recently asked if she should include the number of Twitter followers she has on her résumé as she applied for a technology position. I advised that a carefully worded statement about her experience participating, teaching, and sharing online might make for a better selling point than citing those figures. I reminded her of a blog post from Seth Godin that included this advice for up-and-comers: “There’s no limit now. No limit to how many clicks, readers, followers, and friends you can acquire…. Instead of getting better, you focus obsessively on getting bigger” ( I urged her to provide substantive details of what she could bring to the job instead of an indication of her reach.

The online world so easily becomes a popularity contest. Folks fall over themselves to get retweeted, liked, linked, and noticed. Sometimes it feels like a weird, online version of high school. I’m more interested in those folks who are working hard, with little notice, day in and day out, to enact change within their communities. Teen librarian Justin Hoenke, a contributor to my blog, Tame the Web, shared a success story with me: one of his teens recently gained U.S. citizenship.

Contributions matter

Lasting contributions can be made online. It does not matter where you write, but you must write professionally and with an eye toward the future.
I still return to seminal blog posts such as Karen Schneider’s “The User Is Not Broken” (, as well as other blog posts, LJ articles, and studies that have inspired me. Professional writing, no matter whether it’s on a blog, in a professional journal, or an academic paper, should always be of the highest caliber.

The nature of professional contributions, however, is broader than just mass appeal on blogs or Twitter.

Framing the future

Defining one’s approach to professional contributions should begin in library school. One section of our e-portfolio asks students to summarize how they will contribute to the cultural, economic, educational, and social well-being of their communities. The act of writing this frames students’ future work around the people they will serve.

I recall a writing exercise as part of a staff development day right after I finished my MLS. Looking back, I realize now I was being asked to craft my own professional philosophy. Later, when I moved to LIS education, I was asked to articulate my philosophy of teaching. If you haven’t done an exercise like this, give it a try.

What is your current professional philosophy? Include a focus on who you serve (the public or internal staff), how you will contribute to the purpose of your specific workplace or environment, and how you will continue to learn. Find your professional focus and stick to it, developing it as you go.

Let your actions speak louder than your words, however; professionalism matters, popularity is illusory, fleeting, and short-lived. Your contributions to the field, enhancing service, creating new models to replace outdated practice, quietly working to improve communities, matter most.

2012 May Library Journal