In the library world there is a longstanding love affair with professional hierarchy. To generalize, one can say that there are two kinds of positions–professional and staff level. One usually requires an MILS, MSLS, MLS, or the equivalent; the other doesn’t. Of course there are exceptions and there are also degreed librarians working at staff-level positions. But despite these variations and exceptions, and despite the fact that job duties and responsibilities between the two overlap more than anyone wants to admit, more often than not, my experience, reading, and anecdotal evidence has shown me that you’re either working as a professional librarian…or you’re not. And if you’re not, well, your voice doesn’t always get heard and your contributions are not always valued in the same way as your professional colleagues.

So what does being a “professional” in the library world really mean? Is it as simple as having the right credentials? Quite possibly, but not always. Does it mean that your employment status is exempt while your staff counterparts are non-exempt? Maybe. Does it mean that you have a seat at the table for important decisions, or that you are included on restricted email lists? Likely. Does it mean that you have more flexibility with your time and schedule? Hopefully. Does it mean that you have more responsibility and authority? Sometimes. Does it mean that you are actively engaged in the profession of librarianship or in the business of your organization and that you contribute in valuable and meaningful ways? Not necessarily.

Because none of these things–credentials, status, responsibility, or authority–makes someone a professional. These elements are only some of the characteristics of a professional position. What makes someone a professional–someone who is actively engaged and contributing every day–comes from within. And anybody can and should be a professional if they are working toward the greater good of libraries or their own library whether that is from within their own organization, or in outside organizations at the local, state, or national level.

I often hear librarians and staff at all levels say that they can’t afford to spend time keeping current with trends or professional news or reading blogs or following library organizations on Twitter or the like. I say, how can anyone afford not to? How can we move forward as an institution or within our own libraries and library systems unless we have all hands on deck? Does it take time–sometimes your own, personal time–to stay current? Sure. Do you feel like you don’t get paid enough to do that on your own time? Probably. Why should you then? Because it matters.

To me, a professional is anyone who shows up to work as expected, eager to do more than the bare minimum, actively engaged in not only their own work but in the work of their colleagues (both those above them in the hierarchy and below) and in the professional growth of their own library or organization and in the state of the library as an institution. A professional is someone who, regardless of job title, position, or education, conducts themselves in a manner that reflects positively on themselves, their organization, and the profession as a whole. Those are the only distinctions that should really matter when it comes to a professional hierarchy.

Either you’re a professional or you’re not. But that’s up to you. Granted, it’s up to your organization as to how it differentiates between employees. But that is beyond your control. You may not be a professional in name, rank, or title. But that doesn’t mean that you should sit back and let others determine your value. Watch, listen, learn, contribute, be engaged, and speak up. You may not be heard; you may not be invited to sit at the table; your efforts may go unnoticed. But you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your organization’s hierarchy does not determine how high you can go or how far you can see.