Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Misconceptions of Librarianship

I was visiting my mother's family for the Fourth this weekend, and I was able to catch up with relatives I have not seen in years. At one point, I was describing library school to one of my mom's cousins, and he asked what kind of job I hoped to get. I explained to him how I want to do reference, but that I also really want to get into information literacy and instruction, helping undergrads learn how to use resources and information effectively. He thought it was cool that my experience of not having good information instruction in undergrad made me want to be able to give that to other students. He also commented that it meant that I'd be more than a librarian if I did that. It brought to mind something I have been wondering about and wrestling with since before I started school here at SLIS: what, exactly, is a librarian?

Well, because I'm a nerd, I naturally turn to the dictionary. This is the definition I found in my American Heritage College Dictionary:
Librarian n. A specialist in library work
I find that definition profoundly unsatisfying, because it begs the question of what constitutes "library work." I would be willing to bet if you asked twenty different SLIS students what a librarian is, or what library work is, you would get twenty different answers. And we like to complain that the public harbors misconceptions about what librarians do, such as the thought expressed by my mother's cousin. But if we, the actual librarians, cannot even define what we are, how on earth do we expect to educate the public about ourselves?

For many people, a librarian is the person who helps them check out books when they go to the public library. That puts us in a bit of an awkward position, because that is not what most people who call themselves librarians do. It's certainly not what I plan on doing. I have friends here who want to curate rare books collections, work in archives, help create digital libraries and repositories, and so much more. I don't even know how many of us will end up with the word "librarian" in our job titles. And I think that it is the public conception of what a "librarian" is that is leading the profession to come up with a large pool of other job titles. But does "information specialist," "archivist," or "manuscripts curator," really mean that much more to people outside the profession? Not really.

A major topic of conversation these days, particularly with this economy and the widespread use of the Internet (which can apparently tell everyone anything the need to know), is how to justify the existence of libraries and other similar institutions, how to make our work seem relevant and useful. I think that we need to begin by demystifying who we are and what we do for the public. But to do that we need to figure that out for ourselves. We cannot continue with simply defining ourselves by what we are not. Public libraries aren't day care centers and law libraries are not places to pick up future husbands. Well that's lovely. So what are we? Only once we can answer that question are we going to find ourselves gaining the respect and support that we would like from the public.


John said...

Well put, honey!

Roo said...

It's so true! I find myself struggling with explaining what it is I want to do as a librarian, because the only positions the common people know about are clerks and pages. Or the nasty, bun-haired, glasses-wearing lady from Hollywood.