Defending your chosen profession to friends, family, and complete strangers
15/01/2014 § 6 Comments
Today’s post was supposed to be a fluffy list of librarian-centric movies you could work into a nice Netflix binge on your last weekend or two before the spring semester starts up. I had actually started to compile a nice little list for you. But then Saturday night I stumbled onto an article in The Guardian about an increase in volunteer-run libraries in Great Britain. The volunteer question is worth discussing (Anna-Sophia addressed it nicely a few months ago), but the thing that made me sit up and foam at the mouth for a few hours was the comment section. We had some defenders, but there were also a whole lot of people saying very blatantly that librarians aren’t real professionals, and not worth our salaries. Some were trolling but others seemed to genuinely believe that being a librarian is a simple job that can be taught with a few hours training.
I get a softer version of this attitude all the time. It’s constant and insidious, and rectifying these misconceptions without pigeonholing your listeners can be really difficult. I’d love to hold forth for an hour or five, but in the social situations where this question often comes up a snappy soundbite is all people really want. Soundbites are difficult to create on the spot, especially if you’re like me and blind fury and/or nerves sometimes make it hard to reply coherently at a moment’s notice. But it can be done. Here are some of my standard fallbacks for fighting off the inevitable vultures:
The most maddening question is often “why do you need a Masters degree to shelve books?”. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but the “more” can vary widely depending on what type of librarianship you intend to pursue. Most people’s chief experience of librarians is in the public library though, so I like to start this answer by listing a few things these librarians do with their degrees. Assessing the educational needs and levels of students, maintaining the library budget, and providing job-seekers with computer training are typically crowd pleasers.
Public library defense can then shift to a few statements of what type of librarianship you intend to pursue. If that’s public librarianship you might choose to stop there, but if you’re into something less well known like medical librarianship or performing literature reviews for researchers, throw that in. If you’re really pressed for time, a short “actually I’m planning a career in X librarianship where I would like to do X” should do it. Unless more information is requested, you want the social equivalent of an elevator pitch.
The great thing about this little formula is it often takes care of the listeners’ potential follow up question of where you’ll ever find a job in this age of touch screens and listicles. If not though, it doesn’t hurt to keep a few atypical library jobs in tucked away in your brain. Public Health Departments have librarians. The CDC has librarians. NASA has librarians. The FBI has librarians. Moving away from the government, NPR and Food Network have librarians. Rodale, the company that publishes Runner’s World, has librarians (and one of their sister companies is looking for a research library intern in La Jolla, CA if you’re interested). Major corporations have librarians. Your MLS is partly a degree in making large amounts of information functional and accessible to those who need it, and that is a truly valuable skill.
You may also get the witty observation that “Amazon and Google are my library now.” Your retort will depend on the listener, but my tactic is normally to A) remind the speaker that books and internet access are too expensive for many people, making public libraries their chief source of information, B) bring up the many journals, books, and other publications not found on the internet but freely available in libraries, or C) discuss the numerous eBooks most library patrons can borrow for free without leaving their homes or even their beds. You may also decide this is a lost cause with some people, but give it a shot for the sake of professional loyalty.
Finally, there’s the inevitable assumption that because you want to be a librarian, you must be a sad person with no social skills who wants to spend their life hiding with the books and shushing people. Protesting probably won’t help you here; all you can do is laugh and be fabulous.
I’m hoping this conversation will get slightly easier when I finish my degree and find a library job to which I can point and say “I told you so.” Defending my chosen career every time I meet someone new gets tiring very quickly. It does have its benefits though. Learning to articulate my goals concisely and persuasively will serve me well in the coming job hunt, it feels better than fuming disjointedly, and I occasionally create a new library supporter in the process. So don’t let the haters get you down, and please chime in with your own defense strategies below the line!
 This doesn’t mean you’re a bad library student, it means you’re flustered.