Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Top 10 Reasons to Be a Librarian

I've been poking around the ALA website lately. Perhaps it's in response to their call for criticism of the website. There are so many problems with it I wouldn't know where to begin, so I'll leave that subject for the techie bloggers.

However, in my exploration, I ran across this little gem, the Top 10 Reasons to Be a Librarian. Oh my. It certainly was inspirational. Just what I've been looking for after my dark night of the library soul. The writer first discloses what inspired her to write this piece, which appeared in American Libraries a few years ago:

Recently, one of my favorite students informed me that after earning her humanities degree at a tiny private college, she was pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies. Congratulating her, I jokingly said, “Watch it. That’s awfully close to a master’s in library science.” She laughed and said: “Oh, I’d never do that.” Somewhat defensively, I replied, “You could do worse.”

Long after this brief conversation, I wondered, where did we, as librarians, go wrong? Why is there such an onus on this profession that a bright, young person would choose, well, any career but that of librarianship? I think it’s sad. Librarianship has much to offer, and I think we can do better in promoting our profession. Toward that end, I present my top 10 reasons for being a librarian.

Why indeed is there such an "onus on this profession that a bright, young person would choose...any career" over ours? Gee, if you have to ask, I'm not sure I could explain it to you. One reason could be that librarianship attracts a lot of dullards. Bright people don't like to be around dullards. It bores and annoys them. I remember looking around at my library school classmates and thinking, I'm glad I'm competing with most of you for jobs, because that should make it easy for me. Then I befriended the handful of highly intelligent students and now we hang out together at ALA laughing at the losers.

And considering how intellectually easy most library jobs are, it's no wonder the dullards pounce on the profession. They probably think, "Hey, I can get this 'professional' degree just by showing up to class for a few semesters, and then I can get a 'professional' job, and I don't even have to be intelligent or educated. It's perfect for me!" (ALA has my permission to use that for recruitment literature.) That's why we say, it's library science, not rocket science.

But then we get the top ten reasons, which I, because I'm procrastinating while writing a real article, will critique for you, so you don't have to bother to think for yourself.

"10. Ever-changing and renewing." Well, perhaps, but not in any interesting or thoughtful way. And how great is changing all the time anyway? Doesn't that imply that you still haven't gotten it right? That's one of the medieval scholastic arguments against God being able to change. When you're perfect, any change will be into imperfection. Doesn't ever-changing and renewing mean that you've just screwed up again? What if by some wild chance you worked in the perfect library, and then it changed? How would you feel? "If the new books don’t excite me," the writer says, "the new technologies do." You certainly don't need to work in a library to read exciting books or play around with new technologies. "Most importantly, I learn something new every day. Can you say that about working at McDonald’s?" I can't really answer that question, since I've never worked at McDonalds, but is this the standard against which I am to judge the profession?

"9. Romance." Umm, okay. "I may be stretching things a bit here," she says. "I married a librarian." Congratulations? "My case may be extreme, but there is help for the lovelorn in libraries—either in the wonderfully interesting colleagues we meet or in the books and resources libraries offer." I think you're case may indeed be, as you acknowledge, extreme. Once on a study date in college I did make out in the library stacks with this really cute boy, but I certainly wouldn't have done it if he'd been a librarian. That definitely would have creeped me out. I'm still waiting on all the wonderfully interesting colleagues to appear.

"8. Useful skills." Sure, useful for a librarian.

"7. Great Conferences." Possibly. I've had great times at conferences, when I wasn't in a meeting or presentation and I could go drinking with my friends. "Librarians host good conferences." Whatever. "I love the hustle and bustle of ALA Annual Conference." What I don't like is that all the hustlers and bustlers weigh 400 pounds and waddle across the exhibit floor. "I consider my state conference to be so necessary to my mental well-being that I often pay my own way." My goodness, that certainly shows dedication. I wouldn't pay my own way to a workshop across town. I don't even go to events in my own library unless they're offering coffee. "Conferences are blessed events, and you don’t have them when you work at Wal-Mart." First McDonalds, now Walmart? Well, I guess if you lower your standards of success enough then librarianship does start to look good. "At least you don't work at Walmart!" More great ALA recruitment fodder.

"6. Time off." Can't argue with this one, actually. I get plenty of time off, and it is an attraction. Again, that would be great ALA recruitment material. "It's a boring, low-paying job, but at least you don't have to work at it much!"

"5. A job with scope." Whatever that means. With my temperament I always thought I'd like a job with a scope, like international assassin. La Femme Annoyed Librarian. You get to travel, the hours are light, the pay's good, etc. I could either be hot like La Femme Nikita, or perhaps calm and sedate and cool in that old European sense, like Max von Sydow in Three Days of the Condor, except I look more like Faye Dunaway.

"4. It pays the rent." ALA should put that on some inspiration recruitment posters. If that don't fetch 'em, I don't know losers, to paraphrase Mark Twain. "I have made a living as a librarian for almost 25 years and I’m not on the street corner selling pencils yet." Again, if you lower your standards enough....

"3. Good working conditions." Relatively speaking, of course. "I’ve worked in factories where I stood on my feet for nine hours. I’ve worked in kitchens where I came home smelling of puréed peas.... In a library, you’re clean, dry, warm, and working with people who are generally happy to be there." Well, my library is certainly better than a factory or a kitchen, but talk about trying to find the silver lining. I'm not sure about people being generally happy to be here. Most of my colleagues didn't just stumble in from a pea factory, though, so perhaps they're not as grateful as they should be. But yes, I'm clean, dry, and warm. If I were a puppy, this would be the perfect job.

"2. Cool coworkers." My goodness, I don't know what to say about this one. Coolness is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. "We are intelligent, cultured, well-read people who bring a myriad of skills, backgrounds, and interests to the job." Are we, now? There are certainly plenty of intelligent, cultured, well-read librarians, but can we really say these attributes define the profession? Not in my experience. Perhaps my standards of intelligence, culture, and erudition are higher than hers, though. "Most of my fellow librarians, myself included, have degrees and/or work experience in other areas." How fascinating. I once knew a successful librarian who'd been an education major in college, and also had an M.Ed., an M.S.W., and an M.L.S. I wanted to remark that she'd spent ten years in school earning four degrees, and still hadn't studied anything intellectually respectable. "I backed into librarianship after realizing that a major in English and German wasn’t going to make me very employable." Smart move. "I know librarians who are former attorneys, truck drivers, teachers, and factory workers. This experiential, intellectual potpourri makes for an interesting mix." No, it doesn't. Are any of those fields very interesting? What it tells me is that librarianship is the field for those who have failed at everything else in life. (Again, ALA has my permission to put that in their recruitment literature.) "And librarians are readers. The conversational gambit 'Read any good books lately?' is met with a din around librarians." Most of the librarians I've known don't read much but mysteries and popular novels, which aren't really my cuppa. And having Orca the Librarian detail the plot of the latest bestseller is a good way to ruin a coffee break.

"1. Grand purpose." Like offering videogaming in the library? No, I guess that isn't it. "As librarians, we support the freedom to read." Woo-hoo! Of course we're not that interested in promoting reading. We're interested in getting people into the library regardless of what they do. "We champion the right to access information for all people, regardless of race, creed, religion, or economic disposition." Bully for us. "Access to Information." What a grand purpose. I'm ready to die on the barricades for that one.

And then the finale.

"In sum, I feel very much like Evelyn Carnahan in the film The Mummy. To refresh your memory, our leading lady is in the midst of describing—and defending—what she does for a living to a roguish male. They have been drinking.

Evelyn: Look, I—I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But I am proud of what I am!

Rick O’Connell: And what is that?

Evelyn: I am . . . a librarian!

I couldn’t have said it better."

No doubt. Evelyn does sort of remind me of me, except I'm cuter.

Frankly, I think this is bizarre recruitment literature, which is what it can easily be considered, since it's displayed on the ALA website so prominently. I don't think it's meant to be a joke, since the ALA seems to lack any semblance of irony, so presumably we are to take it seriously. And if it was a joke, there wouldn't be those points about working conditions and grand purposes. And if it is a joke, it's not very funny. So the top reasons to be a librarian, according to the American Library Association, are:

You could do worse. It pays the rent. At least it's not McDonalds or Walmart. At least you're clean and dry. And, finally, it's what you can do when you fail at everything else in life. Sadly enough, these may be the top reasons to become a librarian. If this is the best anyone can come up with, no wonder I don't take librarianship seriously.


Bunny Watson said...

Mein Gott, why didn't I think of this? The best way to recruit young, intelligent, liberal-arts school graduates is by telling them librarianship's better than two jobs they've never held and would never dream of holding (even when they were pimply teenagers)? Absolute genius.

AL said...

Yes, there does seem to be something of a disconnect between purpose and audience here. This sort of argument might attract the Wally Watleys of the world, but I'm not sure about bright liberal arts college students.

Bruit et chuchotements said...

Reason 11. You can take all the hype with some happy-pills-fuelled blogs !

Anonymous said...

They forgot two of the most important ones! You can renew your own books and never pay an overdue fine! And, you can wear the same comfy oatmeal colored sweater and sensible shoes every day and all your colleages will think nothing of it!

sassymoll said...

I have to agree that this is a bizarre recruitment effort; it's more like a warning to the bright young graduates. "It's marginally better than working at Wal-Mart!" I've been wondering why I'm a librarian lately, and I have to ask, AL, why did you become a librarian if you dislike the profession so much? (Pardon me if you've explained already and I missed it.)

brian said...

Rachel Weisz, mmmmm

Bob H. said...

I think that providing access to information is an honorable and necessary role that we play. In my day to day work, I am constantly surprised at how ill-equipped most people are to find information on their own - from applying for jobs or scholarships to paying their taxes to writing a research paper.

I'm not one to rah-rah go-team very much, but I think that this is important and I think that we fulfill this goal.

Otherwise, yes that list is pretty shoddy.

I am also fairly disappointed at the literary reading level of my co-workers; I was really hoping to be able to discuss what I am reading with someone likeminded, but the people that work here don't stray far from the best-seller rack.

AL said...

"providing access to information is an honorable and necessary role that we play." Honorable and necessary, sure. But a "grand purpose," I'm not so sure.

Privateer6 said...

brian said...

Rachel Weisz, mmmmm

I'ld second that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Although I bet she didn't have her MLS.

AL said...

"AL, why did you become a librarian if you dislike the profession so much?" Good question, sassymoll. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time?

Erika said...

Perk #56:

"They never suspect the librarian."

-- a friend's aunt, smuggling hard liquor into a Jazz festival.

fatwalker said...

Rachel Weisz. Yes! Right on.

Monster! said...

I wouldn't be so sure that the retail and food service jobs are out of range for bright liberal arts grads. At least in Puerto Rico, where BAs are a dime a dozen, you need a friend to get you a job at The Gap and consider yourself lucky to land a cushy Costco job ($10/hr! Optional health insurance!)

Of course, my economic realitiy is very different. I
got lucky. I had a friend land me a no-benefits, pay by the hour part time at a publisher's where I have minimal possibilities of advancement and insufficient equipment/funds/time/staff to do anything that's asked of me and working as a salesperson (my literature background fails me when I need to find an approppriate metaphor to decsribe how I hate marketing and sales.) Plus, I can barely make rent.

Around here, when we look at starting salaries for librarians in the States we think: "Woo-hoo, MAD money, y'all!"
Just started my MLIS this month and I have to say, "Better than Wal-Mart" was the perfect sales pitch.

ignatiusmonkey said...

For those of us who aspire to grander things, who want more out of life than a mindless paycheck and watching the years go by until retirement, this is a pretty weak list.

I became a librarian for a combination of personal and practical reasons, but the more I work in a professional capacity, the less convinced I am that my MLS was at all necessary or integral to anything. It sure beats the hell out of waiting tables, but as has been said about the McWalmart argument, that's hardly the right comparison. I feel like I work in a post office sometimes. I work with some lazy lifers. I stand in awe at their laziness. If I ever become like that, I pray for a painful death to at least wake me up in the final seconds of my sad little life.

I've been out of library school for less than a year and am already thinking about other possibilities. I do believe this profession has greater potential than it achieves, and a world united in rock star kick ass librarianship is possible. It's just not possible with just about everyone who want to get in the profession because they think it's going to be an easy job.

Anonymous said...

Best reason: "I'm a looser baby, and no else will take me"

Anonymous said...

see reason 6 (time off) and reason 4 (it pays the rent).
The librarian claims that library salaries pay rent (which in some states it doesn't even and in reason 6, the librarian proclaims the glories of all the free time (trips to France and Scandanavia and home remodel) - my God!! where does this person work and what is their salary - where do I sign up?

Anonymous said...

Whine on, you crazy diamond! (I doubt you'll get the reference, if you're as young as you seem.) And here I was thinking that sarcasm was the lowest form of wit, the easy refuge for those afflicted with post-pubescent ennui and anomie. Such an air of smug superiority, without much accomplishment to back it up--it's simply breathtaking. So lawyers, librarians, and the like are not "interesting" enough to a disillusioned new librarian? Pity. I suppose you imagine yourself hanging out with what, rock stars and the darlings of the NYC art scene? Boo freakin' hoo.

AL said...

Possibly you don't realize that I am one of the most successful and respected librarians of my generation. Regardless, you seem to be under the mistaken impression that darlings of the NYC art scene are at all interesting. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with one?

Anonymous said...

AL, you're still my heroine. Get the hell out, girl!

I escaped the sewer of public libraries after less than a year - I work for one of the largest drug companies in the world now, and life is grand.

What am I doing? I'm a technical writer. I started at $58,000, which is just a tick under what the director made at the library.

[nelson]HA HA[/nelson]

Anonymous said...

I can second the "lazy lifers" comment. I am in library school or whatever it's called these days. I work part time in my local library. Coming from acute care (ICU-I am an RN)--these people are the whiniest underachievers I've been unfortunate enough to meet. The staff are to be there one half hour prior to opening--why, I don't know, since this time is invariably spent discussing the latest vote on "American Idol", how much it costs to change your oil these days, and where X found a deal on (insert unfashionable shoe or top choice here). I've been working there for a year and I'm ready to staple things to all their heads.....
Oh, yeah--the List. Sorry, got off on a tangent there. It ain't much and it ain't inspiring. I'm sitting here wondering if this was the best they could do. Scary, if true. And I am so glad I found this blog--I was starting to think I had been taken in by pod people.

Linda said...

You also could include, as a recruitment incentive, that the profession allows you to move into management positions with no qualifications, training, skills, or desire to lead others.

Anonymous said...

Wow...there sure are ALOT of disgruntled librarians out there. I work in a library on LI for almost a year now and its great, I guess time will tell but if I'm as unhappy as some of these 'professionals' I will shine on somewhere else!!