Social Class in the Workplace: Stop asking me if I’m going to go to library school

I know that title might seem like I’m some kind of agitator (maybe I am), but I do want to get a few things clear before I explain my point. I truly love and value libraries and librarianship. That might seem sappy, but I really do want to be in libraries for the rest of my career because I firmly believe in what libraries do and have the potential to do. I am not discounting the profession at all, and I want that to be clear before I move on. I am also not going to solve the staff/librarian divide that we all know exists, but don’t really know what to do about. This is about my experience as a non-librarian staff person, and how that impacts me and my career. I am choosing to write this post as a personal essay because I really wanted to share how my experiences have shaped what I want to do with my career.

I am going to be using the term non-librarian staff to describe my status. It’s still not the best term, but I have a lot of conflicts with “paraprofessional” and “support staff”. Because I might not have a degree, but I still consider myself a professional and not a diet soda version of a professional. In my experience, there is a certain level of underestimation that comes as being non-librarian staff. Now I can say that I have created enough of a reputation and earned respect that allows me space to participate in conversations that have direct impact on decisions. That, however, was not always the case. When I first came to the U-M Library, I often felt that I had to display my worth to a conversation before I could be really heard. I was met with genuine surprise when I would have something valuable or insightful to contribute. At first I thought it was a matter of newness, but it eventually became clear that I was being underestimated when entering the conversation.

Being underestimated also shows up in something I'm going to call academicsplaining, the academic version of mansplaining. This is where someone will take exactly what I have said and reframe it using more academic language. Please don’t do this. It is already intimidating enough to give input in a room full of people with higher professional status, but it is really demoralizing to have someone take your point and punch it up to make it sound “smarter” or academically palatable. This is not specific to this institution, and it is something I experienced in other positions.

I share this to make my point, that when I am asked if I am going to go to library school it is with that lived experience I am hearing the question. Often the question comes after someone recognizes that I am knowledgeable or have some kind of insight, and what that can lead me to hear is “are you going to school because you surely don’t want to just do this.” I have impact and value with my role as staff. All staff have value and impact in the library.  My having a degree should not influence the value I have, and give merit to input I am providing.

The real problem is that paths to promotion and recognized professional growth don’t exist for non-librarian staff. So the only real professional growth is to apply for a position that is a higher classification, or to become a supervisor which has another set of duties and responsibilities. I recognize that I also have privilege because I am a supervisor, and that gets me in rooms that other staff are not in. Consider if you have ever been in a meeting and there was only one non-librarian staff person in a room of people. Have you ever heard, “as the only staff person here” uttered? That is a problem.

In all fairness, I revisit the idea of going to library school every couple of years. How high can I go up in an organization without that degree? What if I want to be a library administrator? I need to have some kind of graduate degree for that to even be an option. But that is my personal path and journey. I am also acknowledging that this also strikes at my pride. I am so proud to be non-librarian staff. Most of my work is done with motivation towards staff empowerment. What would it mean if I am no longer non-librarian staff?

I had a realization a couple of years ago about how important this was to me. I was at a party and someone asked me where I worked so I told them the library. The assumption made was that I am a librarian, and my immediate reaction was to clarify that I am not a librarian. Why was that so important to me? That person doesn’t care about library dynamics, and it really isn’t a big deal. For me, it has been a lot of proving my worth. I have been put into situations that have opened up a lot of opportunities for me, but I have worked hard to be where I am. I deserve to be in the room. Don't perpetuate a class system that makes people feel like they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation. Don’t isolate people in meetings because they are not in the same professional grouping. Practice inclusivity by believing that everyone is valuable and has something to contribute.