Rewards and Recognition in Librarianship

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In Brief

This article explores the professional award structure (formal and informal) of librarianship. The goal in doing so is to discover what the field values in terms of bestowing honors at the individual level, and in which ways the awards system is perpetuating or progressing those values. Broadly, the article inquires where librarian awards fit into the larger context that include Nobel’s, Guggenheim’s, etc. and ultimately asks the questions: what qualifies as prestige within our field, and how is that scale of prestige viewed from outside librarianship? My goal is to expand the conversation, to question our current rewarding structures and to inspire a collegial, professional competitive spirit.

NB: The author would encourage readers to also read Valerie Forrestal’s The In Crowd, or Fear and Loathing in Library Land, published last week in The Journal of Creative Library Practice, which comments on many of the same points addressed herein.



There is a push at my university to become one of the top 25 public universities. As one could imagine, this has come with a certain amount of reconsidering what initiatives or marks can push a school into that next level of competition. Aside from the obvious (increase student graduation rates, substantial increase in research funding), a memo from the Provost outlined a plan to monetarily reward faculty who achieve various levels of prestige, based on awards, recognitions and honors; a more prestigious faculty will equal a more prestigious university. The plan is based on the National Research Council’s two tier system: Highly Prestigious (Nobel, NEH, Guggenheim, etc.) and Prestigious (Fulbright, NSF Early Career, etc.). The Provost did leave room to reward honors that are comparable to these in fields not commonly represented in lists like this, for example Library and Information Sciences; all of which lead me to ask, what are the awards, honors and recognitions that I should be aware of in librarianship?

There are many layers of complexity when taking on a topic like this. First, how to write about it without it becoming a “librarianship is the red-headed step child of professional disciplines,” invoking a long-held inferiority complex, especially between working librarians and the LIS professoriate. Then, how to differentiate between service awards and professional achievement awards, which underline the ever-present discussion about the variety of specializations within the field (public/academic/special). Finally, how can one approach this topic without at least acknowledging recent discussions of “Tall Poppy Syndrome” related to popular recognitions (informal) rather than practical accomplishments (formal). ((See also http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1080/00049538908260088/abstract and http://stephenslighthouse.com/2012/11/28/personal-editorial-managing-high-potential-employees-in-libraries-the-rock-star-dillemma/ )) Taken together, these points sum up a majority of our field’s position on awards and honors: that it is often more complicated than it is worth. While I take these points into consideration, I plan to approach this study from a different angle; how can we as a field elevate the awarding structure we already have to meet public perception of value? And how can librarians step outside our disciplinary lines to apply for and nominate one another for existing awards that are already conferred with honor? In so doing, I hope to inspire others to prize collegiality and constructive professional competition, and slowly but surely change the conversation.

Before beginning, it’s necessary to acknowledge my biases. I am an early career academic librarian, and due to one good idea that was made possible by many people other than myself, my name is recognizable. I hold a point of view on reward structures that is slanted toward my own circumstances and experiences, and so the scope of this article will lean toward academic librarianship. I hope to move beyond that and address this topic as objectively as possible while encouraging others in other sub-disciplines to do the same. What is important to me about writing about prestige and awards in librarianship is to give credit where it is due, and encourage a culture of innovation that will continue to make librarianship a vital cog in the wheels of modern culture.

The Value of Prestige

Institutions of higher learning point to prestige as the preeminent goal by which quality is assigned.  Arbitrary as it may be, linking the professional work of academicians to reputation-building efforts is a way administrators can indicate competitiveness. We see this in the imposed “choice” of publication venue (Journal A is worth more than Journal B), name-currency of the school from which one received a degree, and criteria for promotion and tenure. The corollary in a different professional environment might be “power” or “status,” leaning toward a Weberian definition, but the academy would shy away from endorsing “power” as a career strategy. Exploring this idea a little, the sociological understandings of how and why groups organize into hierarchies must be addressed – why is it that we feel the need to praise one member over another? Prestige carries notions of honor, status, respect, esteem and more, all related to the valuation of an individual within a group. Pulling these various strains together, a useful summation of why any of this matters is that these qualities overlap with those prized in leadership, or the capability to lead.

This is a no-brainer. Those who are honored and respected often hold positions of leadership, figuratively or in practice. However, the underlying issue may not be “why prestige”, but “how is prestige attained?” Vasiliki Kantzara, a professor of Sociology of Education at Pateion University in Greece, points out an important distinction in the treatment of prestige through sociological literature, writing,

In general terms, there are two avenues or modes of attaining prestige, called ascription and achievement (Linton 1936: 115; Ortner & Whitehead 1981). Ascription refers to traits that are usually considered inborn, such as gender, age, “race,” or ethnicity (also called status characteristics by Berger; see Berger & Zelditch 1998). Achievement refers to level of education, income, occupation, and skills. Authors suggest that both modes are prevalent in a society and the question that arises is in what ways one mode is related to the other; and secondly how ascription may hinder or enhance achievement (Kantzara, 2009).

Often in our professional circles, this separation between honor earned and honor granted, is part of the complexity of rewards that creates animosity within the ranks of peers; “So and so had one good year, won some award and then never did another good deed.” As Weber and Kantzara suggest, linking power – what we could call professional agency – with prestige, based on some level of accomplishment, introduces competition to a work environment. Wrapping all this in the context of institutions such as universities or librarianship, which are founded on ideals of community-born free thought, makes for a very, very messy method of valuing our best and brightest.

I propose that librarianship’s current system of professional valuation is based on recognitions rather than rewards, principles rather than prestige, which is why it is difficult to measure against similar award structures in other fields. Librarianship, a field that is focused less than the individual professional and more on the object of our profession (patrons/users), is more apt than research-intensive disciplines to emphasize service awards than awards based on merit. Not that the two cannot exist simultaneously, but when comparing the pinnacle achievements in LIS to the Fields medal or to a MacArthur Fellowship, the essence of “prestige” in each instance carries a different weight. As librarianship intersects with culture, society, science and the arts in a multitude of new ways there are many more awards and honors outside our field that we can and should be considering. The value system on which we base our current awards may not fully encompass the best ways to honor and promote those of us that represent the future of the profession.

Rockstars, Emerging Leaders, Movers and Shakers

Beginning with the easy targets, Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers (M&S) and ALA’s Emerging Leaders (EL) program seem to be librarianship’s most visible and broadly-known recognitions. ((Full disclosure: the author recently received recognition as a 2013 Mover and Shaker.)) These titles, given for different reasons, one reputation-based, the other project-based respectively,  have produced a multiplicity of blog posts, discussions and arguments about “library rockstarism.” For better or worse, the M&S list and ALA’s EL  participants have come to symbolize the future of the profession. These two award programs stand out because they are two of the few that recognize professionals from across the library sub-disciplines, including library-adjacent work in technology and more. I’d like to propose that EL’s and M&S-ers represent one distinct, narrow aspect of rewarding – extraordinarily discipline-specific, popular recognition.

The differences between the Movers and Shakers and Emerging Leaders are worth noting when thinking about them as reward structures. The Movers and Shaker program is initiated by nomination, vetted, culled and announced by Library Journal, a leading trade publication, and is intended to celebrate “up-and-coming individuals who are innovative, creative, and making a difference.” ((Library Journal, http://lj.libraryjournal.com/awards/)) ALA’s Emerging Leaders, on the other hand, is an application process handled by an ALA Committee, built around a team project with the goal of inculcating the EL’s into ALA’s governance and professional organization work. Both recognize approximately 50 individuals annually, and sometimes there are crossover individuals who receive both recognitions, although not often in the same year.

Other fields and disciplines have similar programs to reward early career innovation, often with the expectation that that individual will go on to bigger and better things. The popularity contest that these types of recognitions become is perhaps a product of the desire for establishing oneself as a revolutionary thinker, especially early in the career. Situating this type of recognition in the grander scheme of awards, positive press is more the effect than prestige. The “Emergent Leader” and Mover/Shaker is complicated for librarianship because we want to produce innovative individuals that fall in line, join the team and buckle down to do good work. The nature of work that we do, team-based, collaborative, can at times be at odds with individual-fueled enthusiasm, and ultimately the innovators either move just beyond librarianship proper, or find ways to crunch their ideas into how things are done. These are recognitions given for potential, but that potential, especially in regards to ALA’s Emerging Leaders, is tagged with “… as long as you remain one of us.”

Returning briefly to the measuring stick that I began with, the National Research Council does recognize eight awards given by the American Library Association in their “Prestigious” category (none in “Highly Prestigious”). ((View the entire list of Nation Research Council vetted awards here – http://ofr.fsu.edu/Award-Application-Information/NRC-Awards)) Interestingly/appallingly, these awards are predominantly “best book” types of awards. Two of the eight are given for articles/essays in the field of library history, with one 2013 award going to a librarian. ALA’s Professional Recognition awards range from Lifetime Achievement to Advocacy, none of which appear to measure up to the standards of the National Research Council. ALA/ACRL’s Academic/Research Librarian of the Year may be the nearest in gravitas for my specific area of work. To be clear, the NRC is focused primarily on research-based awards, which represents only a small percentage of librarian works, but I include these points to contextualize the perception of prestige and as a point from which my inquiry in this topic began.

The role of the professional organization in awards is at the crux of this exploration of prestige. As mentioned before, the Emerging Leaders and Mover/Shakers work well because the pool encompasses tech services, YA specialists, web developers and project managers. Digging any deeper into library award structures means circumnavigating the round tables and aptly-titled “Divisions” that comprise ALA. Blaise Cronin, writing for Library Journal in 2001, articulates a salient point that our field, due to its breadth, has watered down the value of our own awards. He writes,

When we turn to the homepage of the American Library Association (ALA), it’s clear that we have moved into the big leagues. There are hundreds of awards, prizes, citations, and named scholarships. Pay your dues, stay sober, keep your hand out of the till, and you should get some kind of ALA award before the sun sets on your career… The proliferation of honors creates a variant of Gresham’s Law: trivial awards drive serious accomplishments out of sight… The commodification of awards diminishes and calls into disrepute the whole process of bestowing public honors and recognition (Cronin, 2001).

Indeed, ALA and other professional organizations help to define the measurement of value for librarians. However, since ALA represents librarians as professionals and also libraries as our employers, their involvement is at the cost of “Prestige,” making our award structures doubly insular. ((This point was raised by Matthew Ciszek, the external reviewer of this article. He wrote, “Other fields, like social work, make a distinction between professional organizations for social workers and those that represent the human services agencies in which social workers are employed.”))

I point this out not to diminish the importance of the awards that are given, but to show that librarianship places more emphasis on the principles to which we cleave, many of which are embodied in “the book,” rather than on attaining some external standard of what it means to exude greatness. This clearly affects how our awards are understood and accepted outside our circles. These brief examples are barely representative of the many ways we honor one another, and rather than delving further into librarian awards I’d like to move to the second point: it is time for a librarian to be named a MacArthur Genius, or Nobel Prize winner, or receive popular acclaim and recognition that the greater world acknowledges as prestigious.

Homines Novi

The American Dream, pull-oneself-up-by-thebootstrapism, self-madeness, from rags to riches archetype provides a useful point from which to continue. For all the talk of reinventing the profession, new roles for new times, librarian as jack of all trades, one would think we’ve about worn out our idiomatic expressions. However, the current reframing of the professional life can, and should, include a glance toward the potential we could reach in regards to public perception of our job. Related to the sociological definition of prestige is the concept of Occupational Prestige, basically what jobs are thought of as the most important. (( A journal article, “Socioeconomic Indexes for Occupations: A Review, Update and Critique” offers some perspective on this idea: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/cde/cdewp/96-01.pdf. Also, this Harris Interactive report fleshes out the concept: http://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-Pres-Occupations-2009-08.pdf. The Wikipedia entry is useful as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_prestige )) I don’t think I need to point out that “Information Profession” is not high on the list. Aside from the selfish reasons to be awarded and recognized, announcing our presence to the public from that platform may go a long way toward “communicating value.”

Every two years ACRL’s Research Planning and Review Committee releases a report on the “top 10 trends in academic libraries.” The 2012 report’s opening point – communicating value – cites Carol Tenopir’s article in Library Management, stating, “Librarians must be able to convert the general feelings of goodwill towards the library to effective communication to all stakeholders that clearly articulate its value to the academic community.” ((2012 top ten trends in academic libraries: A review of the trends and issues affecting academic libraries in higher education. Accessible at http://crln.acrl.org/content/73/6/311.full)) In light of the apparent lack of prestige in our current award system, I propose that librarians must assume the responsibility to articulate our value by working diligently prove our worth and earn awards that matter to our communities of service.

Several questions must be addressed at the outset: outside of the professional organization, how else might one be awarded or recognized? And, what are these “highly prestigious” awards given for? Thanks to my university’s Office of Faculty Recognition, there is a handy list of awards that influence university rankings. ((Again, my exploration is filtered through my own circumstances working as an academic librarian, not to discount other measures and reasons for awards.)) I’ll highlight just a few that have the potential to be awarded to a librarian, and hope to answer those questions in doing so.

1) The Fulbright Program: The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” With this goal as a starting point, the Fulbright Program has provided almost 310,000 participants — chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential — with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

2) MacArthur Foundation Fellows: The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.

3) Woodrow Wilson Fellows: The Woodrow Wilson Fellows and Scholars Program supports research in the social sciences and humanities. Men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds, including government, the non-profit sector, the corporate world, and the professions, as well as academia, are eligible for appointment. Through an international competition, it offers 9-month residential fellowships to academics, public officials, journalists, and business professionals. Fellows conduct research and write in their areas of interest, while interacting with policymakers in Washington and Wilson Center staff.

 The glaring and obvious reason these awards are not often sought by professional librarians is what you “win” – these three fellowships grant the awardee funded release/research time, a luxury most librarians cannot often take. The type of work we do, especially those of us outside of academic libraries, doesn’t lend itself to taking six months off to research and engage with other colleagues and ideas. An opportunity that is perhaps unknown, that solves that exact issue, is the Fulbright Specialist Program which grants awards for 2-6 week projects. They even go so far as to invite applicants from public, special and school libraries. If nothing else, there should be 1 librarian every year that earns this award.

Returning to the idea of occupational prestige, it’s obvious that scientists, doctors, lawmakers and CEO’s hold some cultural worth that we librarians don’t necessarily embody. The twining of expertise with prestige puts librarians at a disadvantage by nature of being generalists. ((Another excellent point posed by Matthew Ciszek in the review of this piece.)) But, aiming for awards like these (and many others not mentioned) has the potential to significantly affect our cultural worth, not only in the award itself but in the new and different type of work these would charge us to do. For example, a librarian could use a Fulbright Specialist grant to study and share information literacy programming ideas with a public library in the heart of Cape Town, South Africa. A Woodrow Wilson fellowship could allow the advocates among us to spend time learning the ins-and-outs of public policy. There is obvious good that comes from involvement in programs like these, and communicating the value of the variety of work that we are involved in, from information access to promoting literacy and everything in between, is an ideal that should be recognized and rewarded in many more instances than it currently is.

Fulfilling much of what I hope for in this article, librarians are already earning these honors. The 2012-2013 Fulbright cycle awarded two librarians.In “Librarianship and the Fulbright Fellowship: Challenges and Opportunities for American Librarians and Polish Libraries” Maria Anna Jankowska, a 2002 Mover and Shaker, former guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Fulbright Fellow, writes that between 2003 and 2006 eighteen librarians participated in the Fulbright program, illustrating that it’s not that these highly prestigious awards are unattainable or unrealistic (Jankowska, 2007). As a challenge, to use popular perception of prestige for our own goals of retelling the story of librarianship, I’d like to hear of a flood of library applicants for these programs. Ultimately, I would hope that such honors would feed back into our professional organization’s rewards and recognition system.

The “So What”

Prestige and what qualifies as meritorious work are difficult to nail down in librarianship because of the gaps in professional practices between different breeds of librarians. Obviously, if one goes above and beyond they deserve recognition, but there is no easy standard by which to measure an archivist at a historical society against a school librarian in a rural district, and perhaps such a standard would be useless. What we do have is a shared sense of professional values, perhaps articulated to us from ALA, or our library school program, but still it is on these values that we may be best able to honor one another. Access to information is a right. Spaces that are free and open to all. Fighting for intellectual freedom and against censorship. These values are expressed in a variety of work ethics across our subfields, including service to the community, teaching, research and writing in formal and informal venues. Many of the awards within our professional circles are born from these values, but I’d also posit that organizations, foundations and agencies outside our field hold these same values and that it would be of great worth for us to seek out those opportunities also. More so now than before collaboration outside of disciplines and building/making is being rewarded by organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Regardless of job titles, molding our professional values to meet the challenging perceptions of prestige opens the door for approaching our work in a new light.

I am left with perhaps as many questions as I began, and no concrete answers. How do we understand excellence in library work, and in what ways should we celebrate with those colleagues? Are informal recognitions as useful and productive as formal awards? In comparing ourselves to other fields (which might not be a useful practice either) do we function more like teachers and social workers than researchers and creative professionals? A goal for those reading might be to take these questions and apply them to our various fields of practice. There may be a better way to value our high achievers, and to promote that value to our communities.

One thing is certain, that arguing over who won what why is not a productive stance. Better to celebrate those who do well, and take it as a challenge to exceed our own professional aspirations. Prestige builds over time, whereas quality, in our individual work and in our profession, is something we all contribute to.


A special thank you to external reviewer Matthew Ciszek, who inspired some of the thought process behind this article, and who is also working on a forthcoming article on awards and recognition. Eternal gratitude to my colleagues on the Editorial Board, especially Gretchen Kolderup, Emily Ford and Ellie Collier for challenging my ideas and offering gentle reminders about how grammar and sentence structure is supposed to work.

References and Further Readings

Billédi, I. (1989). The Status and Social Prestige of Library and Information Profession : an international survey. 55th IFLA Council and General Conference Paris, France 19-26 August 1989, 30–32.

Cronin, B. (2001). For whom the Bell curve tolls. Too many library awards drive serious accomplishments out of sight, 126(1), 70–70.

Dries, N., & Verbruggen, M. (2012). Fresh perspectives on the “new” career: Introduction to the special section. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 81(2), 269 – 270. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2011.11.001

Kantzara, Vasiliki. (2007). Prestige. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (Ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Accessible at http://www.academia.edu/2185008/Prestige

Kuenn, S. (2012). ALA Award Winners Visionaries & Innovators. American Libraries, 43(9/10), 34–39.

Jankowska, Maria Anna. (2007). Librarianship and the Fulbright Fellowship: Challenges and Opportunities for American Librarians and Polish Libraries. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, 8(2). Retrieved from http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v08n02/jankowska_m01.html

Perkins, G. H., & Slowik, A. J. W. (2013). The Value of Research in Academic Libraries. College & Research Libraries, 74(2), 143–157.

The distribution of power within the community: Classes, Stande, Parties by Max Weber. (2010). Journal of classical sociology : JCS, 10(2), 137–152. doi:10.1177/1468795X10361546

9 Responses

  1. Jason Martin

    Excellent article. Seems to me many of the awards in librarianship are “lifetime achievement” awards and honor skills that are no as relevant as they were 30 years ago. Very recently the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor (formerly Godspeed You Black Emperor!) won a Polaris Music Award for best Canadian album. They donated the award money, refused the tour van that came with the award, and released a statement deriding awards. One of their statements was awards and award shows do not “serve the cause of righteous music at all.” Maybe these awards, whatever level of “prestige” they may carry, do not serve the cause of righteous education or librarianship.

    1. Jason, I had thought the same, that our awards tend toward lifetime achievements, which is why I spent time on the Movers/Shakers and Emerging Leaders. Both of those programs are “early career” type recognitions. I’d like to see or hear if there are more types of early-mid career awards.

      Very interesting to hear about GYBE turning down that award. It’d be interesting to hear if any of our peers and colleagues hold the same attitude toward recognitions for their work. Do you think theres a self-righteous angle to turning down an award? Or, is it a higher moral ground, upholding the “righteous cause,” for the good of the community as you point out?

  2. Dan C.

    Interesting topic. I think everyone loves accolades, but it is definitely in the academia that this sort of thing is touted and promoted to assist in rankings. And, as such, some of these awards, like the Fulbright, require some sort of academic affiliation, so that’s rather limiting to larger librarian workforce. A lot of “subject specific” awards, with the possible exception of literature and the arts, tend towards that kind of affiliation. You rarely see “independent” scientists getting NSF or NIH grants.

    I think perhaps, if we want to show that kind of winning accolade, why not focus on librarians who won huge IMLS Grants? That would rank as prestigious.

    But also let’s not limit ourselves to just our field, award-wise. A library school classmate of mine, Gregory Leazer, won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) back in 1999 or so, the first and (as far as I know) ONLY librarian to do so. It can happen, it just takes that ability to move beyond where we would normally think.

    However, again, this is really only a needed “cause” for academia. You’re right in that it shouldn’t matter. But it does for academia. That’s why CVs for academics are 5x as long as anyone else’s CV. They HAVE to list all accolades! No one reads that. :)

    Very thought provoking piece!

    1. Dan,

      To your point about the Fulbright – that’s why I point out in the article that there is a Fulbright Specialist Program, designed especially for professionals who are NOT affiliated with an academic institution. I agree that academia makes a bigger deal out of awards than others. I think also that perhaps non-academic librarians are honored at the local/regional level and that those accolades aren’t often noted beyond those boundaries.

      I’d just like to see more of us being recognized for how our work matters outside the field, exactly as you mention your friend was able to do.

      Thanks for reading!

      1. Dan C.

        Micah, having spent most of my library career outside of academe, I never saw that intense striving for accolades as I do now among academic librarians. Is it about tenure? The academic process? I don’t know, but it does permeate all of academia.

        I think we, as a profession, are so diverse in our subjects and our jobs, is it possible to have a “Library” accolade? Movers & Shakers does sort of mix it up, but how is that seen outside out own circle? Someone winning a MacArthur or a Pulitzer or a Fields Medal is recognized (as you point out) more universally. Can we do that in a profession that’s ALA vs SLA vs MLA vs OtherLA? Do we need a more recognized centralized body?

        Good topic when it leads me to so many questions! :)

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  5. Brita

    In her book Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand, Valerie Gross includes winning the Howard County Educator of the Year award as a prime example of how her library’s effort to communicate value attracted recognition beyond the library field. She had to request that they be considered as candidates, but once they were included, the victory came swiftly.

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