Monday, March 7, 2016

Librarianship As Calling

My mentor warned me that librarianship was thankless work. He constantly reminded me that I would get a lot of complaints for doing a job that most people found dispensable, and it would cost me a lot of money to end up there. I would be treated like a second-class citizen in the academic world. Yet, even after all of that, I still couldn't help myself because librarianship feels like a calling.

So when I ran across another librarian's post about librarianship as a calling, it resonated with me.

From the public librarian:
I’m training to be a professional librarian, having just finished a lecture on “semantic web ontologies” and “linked data,” and sat dumbstruck in front of a “Dewey Decimal assembler” without a clue as to what I’m looking at. The course is challenging – it’s a three-year master’s degree that bites eye-watering chunks out of my wages. Why am I doing it to myself?

The fact is, I can’t not. It’s a sort of calling – like becoming a priest, only with warmer business premises. I can’t stand by and let public libraries sink. I won’t.

Forget all about reading as a pleasure, forget that children should have unlimited access to books, throw away arguments about libraries being lifelines for those less fortunate – they’re falling on deaf ears.

For me, it boils down to one important point: the internet is a shallow (but extremely wide) surface-level summary of secondary, often opinionated information that sits on a bedrock of substantive knowledge that either isn’t on the internet, or lives behind a paywall, or is too expensive to purchase. Public libraries broker equal access to all that stuff. Get rid of them, and your information becomes drip-fed through Google filters (if you have a computer to access it).

About the only drawback I’m finding is the (sometimes) well-meaning dismissiveness, particularly from my friends and family. A working-class male taking a degree to be a what? Sometimes, they just laugh. For them, working in a library is like working in a charity shop: a good cause, but not quite a real job. My hairdresser was surprised it was even paid work. I’m not sure how libraries got bound up in these stereotypes: Casanova was a librarian after all (a common cry of the defensive information professional).

I like this librarian's take on complaints - the fact that patrons complain means that libraries are fulfilling an essential service that people feel entitled to, and they will complain when something goes awry in that essential service (say when WiFi acts up). And people are entitled to access information in a free and reliable way. That's a great way to look at it.

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