When I became a librarian, I didn’t know what I was getting in to. Certainly I knew I’d entered a profession with low enough standards that it was easy to shine brightly with little effort, and that outrageous success and a corner office were mine for the taking, but other than that I was clueless. For example, I never thought about the librarian stereotypes. Since I wasn’t one of those people obsessed since birth with becoming a librarian, I didn’t develop all the typical librarian habits, I suppose, and thus get annoyed both at the stereotypes and at the people who insist that we forget the stereotypes. Despite all the protest, they’re about as likely to go away as the stereotype of the "crazy cat lady."
The latest reference to the librarian stereotype comes in a very annoying article in U.S. News and World Report. The article tells us that Librarian is one of the "Best Careers" of 2009. I’m glad they’re so optimistic for the future, because it hasn’t been one of the best careers of 2008 or any previous years. Maybe they know something about the profession we don’t. The introduction is nauseating:
"Forget about that image of librarians as a mousy bookworms. More and more of today’s librarians must be clever interrogators, helping the patron to reframe their question more usefully. Librarians then become high-tech information sleuths, helping patrons plumb the oceans of information available in books and digital records, often starting with a clever Google search but frequently going well beyond."
What can anyone say about this paragraph but, "yuck"? The mousy bookworm? If only. Clever interrogators? Makes it sound like we should go work for the CIA. High-tech information sleuths? Maybe we could all wear tee shirts saying "human search engine." And I don’t want to help anyone plumb an ocean of anything. It doesn’t get any better:
"Librarianship is an underrated career. Most librarians love helping patrons solve their problems and, in the process, learning new things. Librarians may also go on shopping sprees, deciding which books and online resources to buy. They may even get to put on performances, like children’s puppet shows, and run other programs, like book discussion groups for elders. On top of it all, librarians’ work environment is usually pleasant and the work hours reasonable, although you may have to work nights and/or weekends."
Shopping sprees! Yay! Put on performances! Whoopee! Maybe we could use the old barn, Spanky! All I’d need is a lobotomy and some sock puppets.
Is the work environment of a librarian usually pleasant? My work environment is, but what about the rest of you? Comfortable, ergonomically designed furniture? Roomy, well lit office? Affable, intelligent colleagues? Chip mixing your drinks and giving you massages? The absence of porn-surfing perverts, screaming teenagers, vagrants bathing in the restrooms, drunks passing out on the furniture? If so, then you have a pleasant workplace.
The "Day in the Life" set in a "small municipal library" may or may not be accurate. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in such a library. I only know it bears no relation to anything I’ve ever done as a librarian. The left out important parts of the daily life of a lot of librarians: attend committee meetings, pretend to care about the issues under discussion, form task forces and working groups, write reports no one will read, wonder what the hell you thought you were doing when you applied to library school.
Library school is the one thing missing from the overview, as one of the commenters noted. The article uses words like clever and persistent, and implies that the profession is well suited for smart, intellectually curious people. I don’t necessarily disagree. It just seems the honest thing to do to inform people – and we librarians like people to be informed – that smart, clever, intellectually curious people will find themselves frustrated in library school. Library school students typically aren’t exposed to any of the interesting intellectual work going on in library schools, because it has nothing to do with librarianship. Instead, they’re exposed to the dullest work going on in library schools, which also has nothing to do with librarianship. Perhaps that’s why some library school professors give up and just have their students play video games. The ALA-accredited MLS is just a burdensome barrier those of us who have made it use to make it harder for those of you who haven’t to enter the profession. There has to be some barrier, or we wouldn’t know where to begin when tossing out the job applications.
We can be glad the article hasn’t bought into the ALA "librarian shortage" myth, a myth long posited and much beloved by people too stupid to understand the idea of supply and demand. It even hints at the truth, which is that there is in fact a job shortage, especially for the entry level librarians who would be wooed into the profession by articles like this one: "The job market for special librarians . . . is good but is sluggish for public and school librarians. Nevertheless, persistent sleuthing—that key attribute of librarians—should enable good candidates to prevail."
This is the honest path I’ve long thought the ALA should follow: "If our propaganda about librarian shortages wooed you into library school, but then you can’t find a job, it’s because you’re not good enough. As the U.S. News says, good candidates should prevail. Are you not prevailing? That’s because you suck. What? Shouldn’t the MLS program have weeded you out? Of course, but it needed your $20,000. You’d have known that if you didn’t suck so much!" ALA, the truth shall set you free.
My favorite bit was the assumption that public and school librarians are librarians, while the rest of us are "special." We are special, of course, and a superior breed, but amongst ourselves we don’t call librarians who work in colleges special librarians. They’re certainly saner and less interested in self-flagellation than their public librarian peers, but not necessarily "special." Besides, then those higher paid "special librarians" will want to know what’s so special about that git who sits at the college reference desk teaching someone how to search ProQuest for the ten-thousandth time. But then it says that special librarians, like those that work at colleges, have different job hours than public and university librarians. If the U.S. News can’t sort out librarian jobs properly, can we really trust them to give us career advice?
After all this buildup about how underrated and "best" librarianship is as a career, it’s a bit of a letdown when we get to the end: "Salary Data: Median (with eight years in the field): $47,400. 25th to 75th percentile (with eight or more years of experience): $42,800-$63,700." Unless you live in flyover country or down in Dixie, those salary figures aren’t going to do much more than make you chuckle. i guess it’s okay if we assume most librarians have husbands who support the family while the librarians just work for pocket money.
I suppose the pleasant working environment and the opportunity to use persistant sleuthing techniques make up for the salary. For me, just having a major national magazine call my career one of the best careers around makes up for everything. Pretty soon I’ll be converted to the dominant ideology and cleverly interrogate some children’s puppets as I discuss old people in my book group. Then I’ll have a martini, Tanq 10, 5:1, served straight up with a single olive. After one of those, I love being a librarian. Chip, get to work!