Sunday, October 01, 2006

AL American Libraries Column #5: On Getting No Respect

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.


Anonymous said...

"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." Right on AL!

Erika said...

Let's look at this lack of definition strategically. (As much as one can scrutinize a void . . .)

In the career handbook for "what you can do with this degree" I always preferred the option: "knowledge officer."

Apparently, if we pursue this angle, we can start writing citations for stupidity.

Privateer6 said...

You hit the nail on the head, the ALA SHOULD be promoting librarianship and librarians like the the teachers' union, ABA, AMA, AHA and all the other professional organizations that has created standards, administers those standards, and promotes their members.

I'll give you one example of a professional organization supporting it's members. In the state I live in, the teachers union got a 5-6% raise for its members when the rest of government employees got a 1-2% raise. They organized themselves, the parents of their students, and the various school systems in the state to petition their state legislators to give teachers a large increase. Guess what it worked.

Additionally when money did come in for a 5-6% raise for everyone this year, teachers got it as well.

sassymoll said...

How about having to pass a licensure exam in order to be considered a professional, like attorneys and doctors? This is what allows those professions to be self-policing (whether or not they actually do a good job of it). (I don’t include teachers – and I've been one – in this group of professionals and I don’t know anyone else who does; my experience has been that they struggle with the same respect issues that librarians do.) As I've said before, everyone I know is surprised that one has to have a master's degree to be a librarian, and everyone thinks a paraprofessional is the same thing as a librarian. The perception is that if you work inside a library, you’re a librarian. I think ALA should absolutely be addressing these issues that help all librarians, instead of focusing on a few pet issues. The ALA is not only irrelevant to anyone outside of libraries, it’s rapidly becoming irrelevant to the profession! I think we should take a page out of the psychologists’ book and start another professional association, one that addresses actual librarian’s actual needs. I nominate you, AL, to be our first president.

AL said...

Well, there is the Annoyed Librarian Association. If I can just get a bunch of people to pay dues, I won't have to be a librarian anymore.

Privateer6 said...

While you are correct in that the teachers' associations/unions do not doo a good job with policing themselves, see every decent reform issue that they are against for proof, the teachers' unions DO protect their members from outside competition,i.e every instructor must be certified, they against charter school, etc., AND they are organized in getting their salaries raised, even if test results go down. IMO ALA could learn alot from the teachers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Sassymoll, I think "we" should start a new association that addresses the real needs of libraries & librarians. ALA & their political resolutions are worthless.

Dances With Books said...

Right on indeed. As someone in a workplace where the director expects us to take the abuse rather than stand up for us, thank you for saying it clearly and loudly. In my case, now I have to do some "roleplay" with my supervisor because I got angry at some unreasonable patron with an attitude problem. You know the type, the ones who think the rules don't apply to them. Guess what? I got the abuse, the manager bent the rule anyhow, and thus rewarded the deadbeat. All in a day's work.

All I can say, is keep up the good blogging.

Anonymous said...

Here's a thought, how about demanding higher standards when hiring public librarians? I'm a graduate from the MLIS program at Western Ontario. Previous to that, I earned an MA in History. I also have extensive experience in archival work. So why is it that I can't get ONE interview after applying for more than 50 jobs? I know people infinitely LESS qualified who've been working for over a year now while I'm still looking for work. Maybe the problem is with Library HR people who have their own ideas as to what makes a public librarian which, apparently, isn't much.

Erika said...

Where are you applying? My dad-the-sometimes-librarian said that Montana scoured the countryside looking for anyone with their MLIS to take over a medium sized public system. No takers. Another friend couldn't find a job ANYWHERE . . . until she looked at smaller markets. Then, she was employed in two weeks. Sometimes you have to claw your way up from the outskirts. Career colleges are almost always hiring too -- to meet accreditation standards. Icky as that option might be, the potential for self-directed resume padding are huge.

Erika said...

The potential ARE huge!! See, they even hire the likes of me.

AL said...

The potential are indeed huge, erika. It's hard to say why a well qualified person wouldn't get an interview. Possibly it's a matter of bad presentation, and you might consider getting coverletter and resume presentation advice from someone experienced. (Don't follow the AL's advice on that one.) Possibly it could be where you want to go or what you want to do. It doesn't seem hard to get a crappy library job. The problem is landing a good one, and we all seem to have different opinions on what that means. Some jobs are more competetive than others. I know at least 50 people applied to the my last two jobs. For the first job you sometimes have to bite the bullet and work someplace bad, and then use that time wisely to prepare yourself for someplace better.