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Magazines > Online > March/April 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 2 — March/April 2003
Certifying Information Professionals
By Marydee Ojala • Editor

The issue of certification for librarians and other information professionals is one of long-standing—it's never been completely resolved and is not destined to fade into the sunset. There are those that come out firmly on the side of academic degrees as representative of certification, obviating the need for a certification program. Associations representing academic librarians are the most vocal in affirming that a master's degree should certify the worth of the librarian, just as the Ph.D. certifies the professor.

But what of those not in academia? Many information professionals work in a non-academic environment, where a degree is the entry-level requirement. Would you trust a doctor who relies on a medical degree gained several decades ago? Or a lawyer whose certification rests on a law degree earned before recent changes in law took place? These professions not only demand certification, they insist upon continuing education to keep that certification valid.

Certification of librarians in the U.S. is almost entirely restricted to school librarians, many of whom don't have a master's degree and who are certified at a state level, conforming to the norms for teacher certification. The other group that supports certification is the Medical Libraries Association, although it favors the term "credentialing." Its Academy of Health Information Professionals (AHIP) cites seven areas of competence and requires professional experience and continuing education.

In the non-academic world, information professionals don't necessarily possess an advanced degree in library science, information science, or a related field. Certification could help these professionals validate their professional credentials gained through experience and training. One barrier is the extreme differences among professional librarians. What test can we devise that would adequately evaluate the skills of a public library reference librarian, a university library cataloger, and an independent online searcher?

Another avenue for certification is certifying a particular skill set. Thinking in terms of online research rather than professional librarianship, this type of certification could be done either at a subject level or a search engine level. Perhaps one could qualify as a patent-certified, scientific-certified, or business-certified online searcher. Alternatively, when considering certification by search engine, we could have Dialog, LexisNexis, CSA, Questel•Orbit, or Factiva certified searchers. If it's the latter, these companies should devise courses and examinations, much as Microsoft certifies its engineers. For the former, I think certification requirements would have to come from a professional association.

One impetus for certification just might come from the U.S. Patent Office. It is considering outsourcing some of the searching now done by patent examiners, but will only outsource to certified companies. Nobody yet knows what a "certified company" would be or whether a sole proprietor would qualify. Early indications are that certification would be by areas of technology and that certification might involve some of the quality criteria included in ISO 9000. This perspective is quite different from what most information professionals consider to be the elements of certification but should help further frame the discussion. If online searchers think that certification in a subject area and/or on a particular search engine would be valuable, now is the time to move on the issue by enlisting the aid of online search companies and professional associations.

Marydee Ojala [] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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