March 16, 2018

Ten Easy Pieces on the Profession of Librarianship | Peer to Peer Review

There are plenty of reasons to be downhearted about things. Google Reader is going away, reminding us all that many of our favorite digital tools are not really ours at all. Our private lives have become products, and there’s no place to hide. Serials prices keep going up. Higher education is underfunded, under assault, and unaffordable. Income inequality is worse than it’s been in my lifetime. The bankers who brought us the great recession are making out like bandits, bandits who haven’t yet been arrested and probably won’t be. Yet we’re constantly being told by overpaid campus leadership that we need to operate more like a business. You mean, like those that are laying off workers, hoarding cash, and paying their CEOs crazy amounts of money? Somehow, I don’t see that act-like-a-business thing working out for us.

But sometimes you just have to look on the bright side. We have the Kirtsaeng decision to celebrate, for one. Whew, that’s one disaster averted. That we take these issues so seriously is part of why I enjoy being a librarian. This morning I found myself thinking about why I find this profession so rewarding. Here are ten easy reasons, in no particular order.

  1. It’s never boring. There is always something new coming along, something to learn, something to try out, some new idea to consider. It’s hard to get in a rut when no two days are alike. Anyone who claims our profession is doomed to extinction hasn’t used a library in a very long time.
  2. It’s a social profession. We help each other out. It’s terrific to live in an era when we can have so many ongoing conversations to tap into whenever we need to recharge our batteries, ask a question, or try out an idea. Locally, we bounce ideas off one another, and I can hop on a venerable email list or FriendFeed or Twitter and get instantly educated, entertained, and inspired, often all at the same time. I have a lot of friends who are librarians, and they are some of the smartest, most generous people on Earth.
  3. The work we do is important, but we don’t get hammered by our user community the minute something goes wrong the way IT departments do. Our users trust us to figure it out and generally give us the time to troubleshoot without complaint. Considering how deeply frustrating it is to me when a book I’ve run into the stacks to retrieve isn’t where it’s supposed to be or a link doesn’t resolve the way it should, I’m grateful our patrons are as patient with our failings as they are.
  4. We get to help students find their way in the world of ideas. There’s something magical about that moment when you can see it click, when a student realizes knowledge is something she participates in creating, that she has a voice that matters. It’s a renewable pleasure. New students arrive every year!
  5. Our profession is built on values that matter—and not just for libraries and librarians. We play a role in preserving culture for future generations. We defend people’s right to explore and express unpopular opinions. We protect privacy in the service of intellectual freedom. We have even been called “radical militant librarians” by the FBI. These aren’t issues that belong only to us exclusively, but it’s great to be involved in them.
  6. People usually are grateful for our help. Sure, we wonder how to get our foot in the door with that professor who always makes impossible assignments, and we cringe when we overhear a senior bragging that he’s never checked out a book. But when you walk a stressed-out student through an assignment or help a junior put together the missing pieces in a research paper or locate some hard-to-find source for a faculty member, they act like you gave them a gift. How many professions are there where people think, when you’re simply doing your job, that it’s a special favor just for them?
  7. Our libraries serve as the common ground for our campuses. There’s something really neat about working for a cultural institution that so many people feel belongs to them, personally, and working in that common ground means we can see the big picture on campus in ways others often can’t. We can’t hold irrational prejudices against the STEM departments or the humanities or the preprofessional programs, because we know and serve them all. We do, however, need to work on thinking more globally, or overcoming Information Calvinism, as the Library Loon has put it. If we turn off access to information on graduation, we are defeating our own efforts at information literacy as a foundation for lifelong learning. If interlibrary loan didn’t exist, we would think it was an amazing idea. We need to build that kind of everyday mutual aid into a more open and equitable information infrastructure. (See what I mean? Never boring.)
  8. We have a budget. It’s not much of a budget, and it may be under pressure and shrinking, but it’s bigger than most campus budgets and is a framework within which we make our priorities and beliefs concrete. There’s a lot of power in our hands, and we tend to forget how many riches we actually have compared to libraries in other parts of the world—or how much we could change the world if we used those budgets strategically.
  9.  I get to buy books with other people’s money and—just as delightful—I get to weed the collection. Since I have tenure I can say out loud that I love books. (A word of advice to new professionals: never say that in a job interview for an academic library position. You will mark yourself as a clueless throwback.) I love books enough to want to make the good ones findable and to retire the ones that have passed the point of finding readers. I try to spend one hour a week in the stacks, and it’s strangely affirming and peaceful, my weekly moment of zen.
  10. I love that I don’t need to be a specialist with a narrow research agenda. Being a librarian means I have the freedom to be interested in anything and everything. You have to embrace randomness when you aren’t sure whether the next reference question will be about primary sources on feminist political organizations in Latin America or for data on the public financing of sports facilities. If I were another kind of scholar, I’d have spent years training to be an expert, going through a hazing so intense and time-consuming that I might be too cautious to step outside my zone of expertise in future. We librarians are kicked out of the nest half-fledged and know that we have to keep on learning, that a lot of our further education will be DIY, and that the world is full of interesting things to explore. The MLS comes with a license to be widely curious and unafraid of things we don’t already know.

I realize this sounds like Pollyanna talking, but every now and then I have to remind myself that librarianship is a noble profession—and a lot of fun, besides. Now, let’s go slay some dragons.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. It’s interesting and funny the way put it but I like the ten pieces.
    I’ve been a librarian before and enjoyed it but not for long. Haha.

  2. Brian Coutts says:

    What a great summation of what it means to be a librarian these days!

  3. Laura Gilham says:

    Love my job and love your description of what we do – well done!!

  4. Thanks, all – I’m often full of grumbling and complaints, so it was fun to think about the positive side.

  5. Margaret Driscoll says:

    Thank you, Barbara. There are days when I’m amazed I get paid to do what I do, and these are the reasons why!
    I’m going to put the first sentence of each on a poster and put it on my wall for those days I’m not so amazed. =)

    • Yes, I was thinking along those line too! Good idea to just use the 1st sentence!

  6. Thank you for this. I’ve been having a hard time adjusting to my current job and these reasons are mine as well. I love being a librarian and want to be a great one for my students, I just have to figure out how since I don’t have much support.

  7. This is what I was searching for…

    I’m 32, have been working as a librarian for a few years (was a support staff before), and thinking seriously about career advancement, retirement, legacy. I’m studying Interactive design and media, and debate if changing fields (if possible) is a better bet with my new skills and expanding skills.

    Could or should I be a career librarian? I’m at a crossroads.

    Thanks for sharing these points.

    • Kate, that’s too bad. I hope the students make up for the lack of support. Is there any chance of some sort of structural change in your library organization? Any allies who can provide mutual support? Things do change sometimes, but it can be very s-l-o-w.

      Michael, it sounds as if you’ll have all kinds of options! The profession needs the skills you’re developing, and I’ll bet you’d be able to advance with them. But then, you can probably take your librarian skills into another kind of work, too. There are alt-librarian roles out there, though I imagine being able to do creative things with media would make you a great asset in a library organization.

    • Barbara,
      I’ve had been several conversations with people at design firms, and their overall impression is that libraries are these Arcadias with no deadlines; when in fact, the same issues they face are the same ones facing libraries (competition, organizational changes needed, etc). This shows the misconceptions out there; I thought, if I ever had the actual chance, to manage a library like a design firm; I am trying to do that where I am (successfully I think).

    • …. well, if you ever want to write something about managing libraries like a design firm, I’m sure there would be interest. (And let me suggest the Journal of Creative Library Practice, though full disclosure, I’m an interested party, being on the editorial board –

  8. Elisa Coghlan says:

    What timing. Barbara, your library-related writings around the web have resonated with me time and time again in their unabashed, level-headed critique of some of the larger troubles facing librarianship and scholarly communication. Now on the cusp of graduating with my MLIS after also having worked in a research library for some time and experienced many of its daunting challenges, I have been uneasy about the future, post-graduation. Honestly, only a few days ago in a wry moment, I thought to myself, “I wonder how Barbara Fister feels about the profession these days.” And voila. Even if my concerns remain, your post here is an uncanny tonic. :)

  9. Well done! I share so much about your outlook. But am sad to hear #6 – does that really happen to other librarians? I thought I was the only one. No, seriously, I often wonder what our patrons think our job descriptions are if not for servicing them? Don’t know how it works but I’ll take it!

  10. Amy Fry says:

    Now this is why I became a librarian! Thanks for the reminder, BF.