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Term Limits: A Profession Ponders Its Very Name

Last week, members of the Special Libraries Association were asked to vote on a radical renaming of their organization: it was proposed that the SLA become the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals, or ASKPro. The contentious wrangling over the proposal revealed deep ambivalence about the words library and librarian in the digital age. We asked Stan Friedman, senior research librarian for Condé Nast Publications, for some insights into the terminological debate.

In the summer of 1909, a librarian named John Cotton Dana gathered 26 of his colleagues and took a meeting on the porch of the Mt. Washington Hotel in New Hampshire to address a common concern. The Industrial Revolution had worked its magic, and with the urban onslaught had come an increased need for business libraries, with reference and research capabilities that could support the new technicians and corporate CEOs of the day. It was time to get organized. In what came to be known as the Veranda Conference, they devised a group which would "promote the interests of the commercial, industrial, technical, civic, municipal and legislative reference libraries." They christened their baby the Special Libraries Association. Dana would later write that the name "was chosen with some hesitation, and rather in default of a better."

By 2009, the SLA boasted an international membership of 11,000. But there was dissension in the ranks. A vocal minority, building for at least the last decade, had fallen out of love with the century-old nomenclature. The intended meaning of special (as in 'specialized, pertaining to a specific field') had been mangled in a pop culture haze of Special Sauce, Special K, Special Needs and ABC Afterschool Specials. "What makes your library so special," was the feared reaction whenever an SLA member spelled out the acronym to the uninitiated.

More surprisingly, many librarians no longer liked the word libraries, thinking it an antiquated representation of their high-tech career choice. For just as the Industrial Revolution had created a cornucopia of jobs that never before existed, the Digital Revolution has spawned numerous new roles for those with an MLS. Today there are Cybrarians, Information Architects, Information Professionals, Media Specialists, Digital Archivists, Special Materials Catalogers, Bibliographic Database Managers and scores of other non-librarian librarians. And they work in Second Life or Info Centers or Information Services Departments or dozens of other non-library libraries.

Fresh blood craves change, and while finding a new name to represent so many different job titles seemed a daunting task, it didn't stop the SLA from trying. In 2003, after three years of research, a vote was held at the annual convention. The membership was presented with two options. One was to go with an acronym-only branding, just SLA and a tag line, with no meaning to the letters. This, perhaps, was not the wisest choice for a profession charged with the task of unearthing knowledge. The idea was voted down overwhelmingly. Option 2 was to re-name the organization IPI, Information Professionals International. Not the worst choice ever, and indeed the final vote was 656 to 343 in favor. But convention rules dictated that a two-thirds majority was required to pass the motion. SLA would live on, and that year's conference would go down as one of the most contentious in the association's history.

Those who remember the past are doomed to find a new way to repeat it, and such was the case this year when SLA gave name change another try. Outside consultants were hired, a major study conducted, and it was decided that the membership would be given a single choice, and an online vote would be held with a simple majority needed to declare victory. After much analysis of "words that work," the board presented their offering: The Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals, or ASKPro.

Let's just say that the reception for the acronym was such that, days after the announcement, a missive was dispatched from HQ advising members to forget about it. The vote would be only on the full name and not on ASKPro. Whatever you do, please do not think about ASKPro. (Which was much like saying, "Please do not think about a polka dot elephant holding a martini glass.") Listservs, Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with name-change pros and cons for weeks, and when the smoke finally dissipated on December 10th, the vote came in at 2071 in favor, and 3225 against.

Some suggest that these results are more a denunciation of strategic than an affirmation of libraries. Nonetheless, it doesn't take a Knowledge Integrator to see that concocting new terminology is never going to be the solution to this problem. The best approach is to enrich and breathe new life into what is already there. Or, actually, simply to promote from within. Look far enough down in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for library and this definition appears: "a great mass of learning or knowledge." Simple enough, and totally representative of the professional workplace in all its guises: a branding-friendly definition for the ages.

Sure, special still has its special problems. But it is time to realize and promote the fact that librarian describes a multitude of careers (it is a genus, not a species), and that the meaning of library is vast.

Stan Friedman is the Senior Research Librarian for Condé Nast Publications. He is also a two-time champion in the Ultimate Couch Potato Competition.

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