Well, here goes another Annoyed Librarian American Libraries column. The topic of this one was almost about how if I got through it I'd only have seven more to go, and then I'd be through it and have only seven more to go.
I'm going to assert, just for the sake of argument, that librarians get no respect, or at least very little respect. When people think of glamorous or challenging careers, the don't think librarian, unless of course they're deranged somehow. When people think of interesting and desirable professions, the same thing. And when people think of challenging and worthwhile education, they don't think MLS. People think of librarians as staid, boring, nice, chubby, cat-loving, bun-wearing, poorly dressed, middle-aged women. And, as we all know from looking around us at our libraries and library conferences, there's a reason for that. Except we're not all nice.
But what can librarians do to get respect? What is respectable about our profession? My regular readers (thanks, you two!) will probably be surprised to hear that I'd say lots of things. I could list a few, probably, if I scratched my brain really hard, but instead I want to discuss two different ways to think of librarians, and consider which one of the two is the more respectable and the most likely to gain librarians the respect they desire.
First, librarian as retail clerk. Earlier this month I criticized someone for trying to make librarians into retail clerks. While it's true that public librarians need to, in some sense, give the patrons what they want, and all public service librarians need some of the skills we might label "customer service" skills, I think modeling librarians after retail clerks and libraries after malls are huge mistakes, and will prove detrimental to the status of librarians. Retail clerks don't get any respect, and if librarians model themselves after retail clerks, they'll get even less respect than they do now. Any worker who, when abused, takes the Christian injunction too far and turns all four cheeks to the abusive patron will never get any respect. Bootlicking sycophants and servants get no respect and deserve none, and as long as this toadying image is promoted and tolerated among librarians then they don't deserve any respect.
But what about libraians as intellectual workers? I don't mean as "intellectuals," since often people who identify themselves as intellectuals are usually just pretentious and annoying. But librarians certainly perform intellectual work. They don't do much physical labor, which is why they're in such bad physical shape.
But most librarians do perform some intellectual work. Catalogers analyze and organize information. Reference librarians have to understand the organization of knowledge and be able to mediate between library patrons and that knowledge. Bibliographers have to know the organization of various fields and what to purchase. These are intellectual tasks that rely opon our brainpower.
Certainly librarians often have to do things that require very little brainpower. Clearing printer jams is my bete noire. But these are the tasks that seem the most unlibrarianlike. They are the biggest waste of any education and ability we bring to the job. Tolerating abusive patrons is something else that doesn't require much brainpower, and as long as librarians continue to act like abused puppies longing for love then they'll be treated with disdain.
So there is a choice of how librarians present themselves. Are we sales clerks or intellectual workers? Which do you think will get us the most respect? Or the most money?
One of the things the ALA could be doing is promoting this image of librarians instead of the image of handmaidens to the public, tech geeks gone wild, or idiots who don't understand what censorship is. The problem, I suppose, is that if we promoted the image of librarians as intellectual workers, eventually we'd have to back up our claim.