When I meet new people, pretty much the first question they ask me is, “what do you do?”
I feel like I need a better answer than “I’m a librarian”.
It is sometimes awkward, especially when I supplement this information with the fact that I’m also studying a Masters in… Librarianship.
“Wait, you can get a degree doing that?”
I really don’t mind if people don’t know that much about librarians or their work. I’m cool with that. But I need a way to briefly summarise the actual content of my job, not the name, because for many people “librarian” too riddled by stereotypes. Sometimes I say, “I’m am information services librarian… I help students find stuff.” That usually starts a better conversation.
Sometimes they’re strangely hostile. I’ve had someone say “what do librarians actually DO? Because they seem to be paid a whole lot for not doing very much!” This might have been an outlier response, because I have never met anyone else embittered about overpaid librarians. I’ve also had someone say to me, point plank: “That sounds really boring.” I mean, what the hell? Are people this rude about other professions?
The other manifestation of this ignorance is well-intentioned, but patronising.
“Aren’t you cute! But isn’t it terrible how everything is online these days…..”
(No, it’s not terrible. But thank you for calling me cute.)
“Do you get a lot of time to read the books?”
(No, no-one’s paying me to read books. That would be nice though.)
At a dinner party one time, upon hearing that I’m a librarian, someone said to me, “Oh, a part of me has always wanted to be a librarian!”
I knew what was coming next: “because I love books / I would love to be able to read all day / because it seems like such a quiet peaceful job, etc”.
But the next sentence surprised me.
“…because I like INDEXING THINGS!” And she proceeded to explain how she nerdishly tries to keep a database of all the books, CDs and DVDs she owns, and was actually interested to hear about my library. I was overjoyed. I had found someone who gets it. That the core of librarianship is managing information and resources.
But why is librarianship a vocation veiled in so much mystery? I have a few theories.
- The persistent stereotype of the librarian still lingers in many people’s minds. She is a middle aged woman wearing pearls, glasses, a cardigan, a tight bun and a sour expression. Activites include: shelving, stamping due date stamps and shushing people. She thinks computers are straight from hell. She relishes the opportunity to charge patrons with overdue fines, making “tut-tut” noises with an evil smirk, and charges extra if you give her “attitude”. But why hasn’t this stereotype died yet? And how do we kill it?
- Most library work happens “behind the scenes”. Librarians are more likely than average to be introverted, and don’t put themselves “out there” as much. Unless you are a student or library enthusiast, you don’t go to an actual library all that often, and if you do, the staff you see are doing shelving, circulation, customer service, etc. So you conclude that’s all there is to being a librarian.
- Extending from point 2, people think libraries are just not-for-profit book renting stores. With Kindle, cheap books available everywhere, and the existence of the internet, people think surely this service must be reaching obsolescence. Part of the solution to all this might be better marketing, but it’s proven to be difficult.
Fellow librarians, how do you explain your job to people?