It sometimes seems that since the beginning of library science, librarians have been striving to become full professionals and stand alongside doctors, lawyers, clergy, and others. While it is important to distinguish a librarian as a professional, it is perhaps not so important to strive for the same standards as doctors or lawyers. There are, in fact, distinct advantages to remaining a soft profession.
As a soft profession, one of the advantages of library science is the ability to borrow from other professions. Librarians come from a variety of backgrounds and bring knowledge with them. This type of diversity allows adaptation and growth. Principles from other fields of study, such as sociology or computer science, can also be gleaned and applied institutionally or individually. If the American Library Association had the same types of strict guidelines and practices as other professions, it would be much harder for librarians to incorporate this kind of knowledge into their work. It would have to be molded to fit the strict guidelines of the profession instead of simply adapted to a new use.
Librarians also have the chance to connect directly with their communities. Strict professions create a dividing line between the people and the professional. People see doctors when they are sick and lawyers when they have legal issues. People visit libraries for everything from serious research needs to curiosity about the local cultural festival. Librarians are able to provide space and support for events beyond their professional realm through their professional environment. This kind of involvement would be curtailed if the role of the librarian were strictly defined and enforced. Worse yet, it may require the librarian to participate in community outreach in situations where those activities may not be to the benefit of the community.
In working towards the good of the community, librarians are able to experiment with new techniques, technologies, procedures, and programs. In this area, librarians have a distinct advantage by remaining a soft profession. If libraries were to have enforced guidelines, failed experiments could be met with fines or job loss. Libraries as a soft profession encourage experimentation and growth. In a strict profession, much of the growth and research comes from related fields or outside organizations. In libraries, growth comes from the librarian. This allows librarians to direct the ways in which libraries advance.
The types of enforcements and requirements a strict profession places on a professional would be crippling to a library. Librarianship as a soft profession allows the use of knowledge from other professions, a strong connection with the community, and encourages librarians to try new ideas without fear of repercussions.
– J. Cox