Someone left an article from the Guardian in my pigeon hole last night entitled “An Open Book”. It’s a profile of a librarian, and yes the cliché picture is there of this 30 something woman, holding a book, staring into the middle distance with a fey look upon her face. Back, naturally, by book shelves – after all what else is visual shorthand for “librarian and libraries” than this pose?
Leaving aside the Guardian’s stunning lack of originality in pose what struck me about this article is in the strap line “Kate was bound for a teaching career until a perceptive aunt noticed her true calling and pointed her in the right direction“. Leaving aside the risks of allowing family members to dictate your future career path, it’s this idea of a true calling that rather gets my goat. Or librarian goat.
You see, I’ve met more than a few librarians who don’t view the job as…well a job, a noble profession akin to many others, they view it as a calling closer to that expressed by the priesthood. They’ve always scared me slightly with their wistful looks every time you mention classification or special collections or the delights of helping people. Don’t get me wrong, I got into this profession because I’m very good with people and like solving problems; but all this guff about “the wonder of the book” leaves me cold; and frankly does the wider impression of the profession no end of harm.
Noticeably the Kate in the article studied English, and I think there’s another problem. Librarianship seems to draw heavily on the arts subjects, and whilst there are many wonderful librarians I know who come from that route, there are also far too many who come that way with an intense clinging to the traditional idea of the library. It leaves them at best adverse to change, or at worst a direct barrier. I should know, I’ve worked with more than a few.
The further I read into the article the more I find to dislike about the Guardian’s approach, it is written (dare I suggest) by writer who themselves is more in love with the idea of print and libraries than is perhaps good for them. but that’s by the by. I also disagree with Kate’s suggestion that “you feel like the library is incredibly valued [by the university]” – I think this is less true today than ever in most institutions as libraries become more invisible and embedded in the institutional informational-environment (but that’s a topic for another post).
Let us turn back to this idea of librarianship as a calling. For me it suited my skills base, but were someone to say tomorrow (and let it be!) that I could no longer be a librarian, I’d shrug my shoulders and move on. I value the skills I’ve garnered and the contacts I made, but at the end of the day it’s a job. A job that (at times) I relish and (at others) I despise. It’s a job in a dynamic environment, beset with office politics, hidden agendas and multiple stakeholders to please (an naturally impossibility some of the time). It’s a customer facing, technologically and pedagogically backed working environment, with elements of research and scholarship. There are literally thousands of other career paths I could and probably will step into (librarianship certainly isn’t for me for ever of that I’m sure).
But a calling? No. A profession? Most definitely.
Let’s close with what Kate suggests might be an ideally suited person to become a librarian “You probably need to be fairly organised and methodical. To need to understand how to arrange and present information clearly“. Damn, that does sound like me, but then it could be applied to many, many other careers.
Am I an open book? Somehow I seriously doubt it!