In the comment section of my last post, Will Manley asked, “why do librarians love to trash library work?” Another commenter responded, “because it’s a thankless job,” to which Will replied, “whose fault is that?”
There are plenty of librarians who do trash the work, whether in the comments section here, their own pseudonymous blogs (wouldn’t want to be caught criticizing librarianship under your real name!), and occasionally in person.
Even if they don’t trash library work itself, a lot of librarians are very unhappy with their work. I’ve met or heard from lots of librarians who are stressed, burned out, overworked, and generally depressed by their jobs, even if they don’t connect the malaise over their own job with the profession in general.
I have some hypotheses about why people do and do not trash library work, and you can test them with librarians you know.
The librarians least likely to trash library work are the librarians who, by some definition or other, are successful. They could be directors of major libraries or directors of libraries in communities with lots of money and library support. They could have their dream job, whatever that might be. Perhaps their job isn’t that great, but they spend so much time writing and speaking for big audiences they don’t care. Whatever we call them, it’s the group of librarians who have been successful on their own terms, and probably in the eyes of others as well. They don’t trash library work because libraries have been kind to them.
There’s another big group of librarians who don’t seem to care one way or the other. They plod their way through work, probably unaware of their mediocrity. They’re sometimes diligent if not effective. They’ll never be anyone’s star librarian, but they show up every day and do a little bit of work and shuffle home in the evening without griping too much.
And then there’s a third group, which is where the trashers come from. They haven’t been successful in their own eyes or the eyes of others, but they are incapable of the bovine bliss of the majority. What explains them?
Their lack of success isn’t necessarily a personal failing, though sometimes it is. Dream jobs are hard to come by. There just aren’t many of them, and if one does come along it takes a bit of luck to be at the right time and the right place and not facing competition from a hundred other overqualified librarians.
Some people are geographically challenged. They might complain about their job and the profession, but it’s not the profession’s fault if they choose to keep their family together rather than move away for a job.
These are sometimes librarians who, under the right circumstances, would love their jobs if their jobs didn’t suck. They’re often hardworking, dedicated, intelligent, and honest. Then they’re stuck with an evil boss and mediocre coworkers and they feel trapped and wonder why they ever became librarians. They’re surrounded by mediocrity and indifference.
And then they start “trashing library work.” Should they?
In some ways, it’s hard not to. There are a lot of mediocre librarians plodding along who are an embarrassment to the profession if we identify either them or ourselves with “the profession.” Frankly, there are some who are an embarrassment to the human race. Sometimes a number of them get concentrated at one library. But is it fair to trash libraries in general because of this?
Or maybe there’s a concentration of these folks in most libraries. Incompetence at the top, mediocrity at the bottom, and a few bright lights in the middle, most with little hope. When the standard for success at a workplace is mediocrity, excellence gets you vilified, not promoted.
Or maybe most people are mediocre and most jobs are unsatisfying because they’re not the sort of jobs that inspire people. I can understand the appeal of being a gardener or an auto mechanic, of creating beauty or restoring order, but is being a clerk at a supermarket or a fast food store anyone’s idea of a dream job?
But librarianship should be different, right? It’s not just a job, but a noble calling! A vocation! A career! Librarians educate the people and help the poor and ensure democracy and all that jazz.
Some people are drawn into librarianship by talk like this, only it turns out a lot of library work isn’t any more inspiring than being a supermarket clerk.
Maybe the third group, the trashers are the ones who were the most idealistic, and whose fall from grace was the hardest among us. They’re dedicated people who want to do something meaningful with their work who find themselves amidst mediocre indifference.
Or it could just be that they’re cranky people with sucky jobs who want to blame anyone but themselves for their professional unhappiness. I’ll let you all decide.