You’re not really a librarian

The K-M The Librarian blog comments on a recent discussion between a school librarian and student. Here’s how it begins:

“The other day I got into an ‘argument’ with a student about whether or not I was really a librarian. His position was that I wasn’t a librarian–I was actually a teacher who happened to have an office in the library.”

K-M says she thinks the student was trying to wind her up a bit, but librarians sure feel the friction of people who don’t really understand what librarians do. I don’t think librarians themselves are having a crisis of identity by a long shot, but I think public perceptions of librarianship are more important than ever.

I have a crazy friend who likes to tell me that libraries are on their way to extinction. He says it partly to wind me up, too, but I don’t think he’s kidding. To him, libraries and books are almost synonymous. As the importance of physical books declines, he argues, so do libraries. Ask a librarian for help? What could librarians offer him, a PhD candidate? He says this with a straight face.

Libraries are about a lot more than books on shelves. But let’s be honest, there are a lot of books on shelves. A lot-lot. It does take a fair amount of effort to keep all those books in the right order. But what can creep in is a perception that a library is like a stable, with books instead of horses. Librarians keep books well groomed and in the right stall, and now and then they let the books out to get some air and exercise on the condition that they’ll come back soon. But there’s also a lot of wheeling carts around.

This is nonsense. It’s turning a library into a hotel that’s run exclusively by housekeepers. Or a Starcraft match of teams that are only made up of workers. But it seems clear that people don’t really know what librarians do. Or they know some of what librarians do–some of what goes on in libraries–but not all, and certainly not how librarians really spend their times.

As our information continues its shift to digital, I think public misperceptions of librarianship have increasingly dire implications. Images of the shushing librarian aren’t positive, but images of an irrelevant librarian are much more damaging.

We do tell people what libraries are about. We need to do it a lot more. We have to give lots of examples. We have to share those stories everywhere, and we need those stories to be current. That probably means sharing work that isn’t as highly polished as we might like it to be, or work that’s a little more personal than we might prefer.

We can’t wait for people to ask us what we do (Hint: If they aren’t asking, they think they already know the answer). We have to tell them. We have to show them. And we can’t wait for the ALA or another nation-wide group to start a campaign. A librarian is a teacher? Absolutely, and lots more. Let’s keep writing the new definition of librarianship, but let’s do that where everyone can see.

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