The Long Suffering Librarian

Beyond the intellectual freedom, information access, and other lovely sounding principles, I’m thinking that one of the common bonds between librarians is a masochism streak. I’ll take some liberties with this notion and accept one of the Merriam-Webster non-sexual definition entries that uses a great phrase, “a taste for suffering”. While we as a profession find common cause in working towards justice in its social, economic, and educational forms, it is our nature at enduring suffering that build the bonds between us faster than an open bar at a vendor social event.

Right now, you don’t have to travel very far to get antagonized. To the general public, the Internet is frontrunner for putting the library out of business as all that is needed to replicate the form and function of a library is an internet connection and Kindle. It’s a world that conflates information for knowledge, as if the prerequisite for performing open heart surgery is finding a video of it on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a strong contender as a reference desk killer for general and trivia kinds of inquiries like who won the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. But it has a long way still to climb in transitioning as an academic support model to full blown education program (MOOCs are a transitional state for this ideal, in my estimation). Even then, we know internet access is not universal whether we are looking at computer labs in urban areas or waiting for broadband in rural ones. Nevermind how the Kindle and eBooks in general are not panning out to be the paper killer, something an email account could have told them in the story of the paperless office. The information access haves seem to be perpetually surprised by the have-nots, even though the haves possess access to the resources that would tell them all about the have-nots.

Wrap your head around that enigma.

But the animosity doesn’t stop here. Public librarians get caught up in the loop of anti-government anti-tax sentiments that ignore the basic cost/benefit analysis that would reveal that their tax money is actually working. They are the soft targets of governmental budget crunches, a place where money can be borrowed or taken to pay off other outstanding expenses. School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration, the fancy term for overhead, and given their walking papers in lean times despite evidence about how they impact student achievement scores. Academic librarians face pressures for various angles, whether it is the deprofessionalization of their positions or static budgets with increasing journal subscription costs while publishers tangle with thoughts of print embargoes and open access. I thought I read an article relating how faculty have lowered the importance of the library as a higher education research, but I can’t find it. I don’t know what to say for special librarians, but I would guess it falls somewhere between funding issues and probably some prick out there who thinks that whatever they are curating and collecting isn’t worth it.

While we are at it, toss in the suffering at the hands of publishers and industry vendors. The strange and strained relationship with publishers is one in which they need us for promotion and purchasing but quietly lobby against our underlying principles: First Sale doctrine, copyright, and fair use. eBooks is just a quagmire of rights and licenses, wrapped up in schemes at both taking the most amount of money and control away from libraries. In terms of vendors, the vast amount of anguish comes through their concept of interfaces. If the ILS systems are the eyes into the window of the library’s catalog soul, they are the gaze of the damned, doomed to needlessly consume the user’s time. If I work there and I have problems finding things in the catalog, what chance does the regular person have? Why does this continue to play out this way?

The topper to this litany of disrespect are the well played out stereotypes and typical questions that come with being a librarian. The public image sways between a ribald sex kitten and bun headed shushing methuselah, readers who can’t tolerate any noise above a whisper. The men are gay or unusually effeminate, the women are secret whores, but hey, at least people think librarians are smart. Then the questions or jokes play out: Do you know the Dewey Decimal system? So, you like to read? And the king of these unmindful questions: Librarian is still a career? (Runner up: You need a degree to do that?) The astonishing, mind numbing part is that people think that it is a perfectly valid query and not the rude, obnoxious loaded question that it actually is. Are the rules of decorum suspended because one doesn’t think a career is real, despite strong evidence to the contrary?

But, personally, I think this kind of anguish pales in comparison to what the profession can do to its members and itself. This is well trod territory for this blog over the years and a recurring theme when I talk to librarians about the profession. These days, I don’t which is worse: the stuff that is said out loud or the stuff that people remain silent on. I was going to recount some of the behaviors that are poisonous, but I’d be cannibalizing my previous material. Needless to say, it is an extension of the suffering we endure.

I’ll concede that the whole job isn’t just suffering or that we take pleasure in suffering. But I think that there is a vast amount of suffering the profession will and currently does endure and I’m not sure how much of it is needless. Do we languish in our own agony? Is it easier to suffer than to stand up and make a change? And, if so, why is that?

15 thoughts on “The Long Suffering Librarian

  1. Good grief this is a negative post. Suffering? Really? Most librarians I know love the work. I loved every minute of my career. Now I love being a trustee and a school library volunteer. There is a great satisfaction with connecting readers with books. There is a joy in serving others. It is our highest calling. There are many, many, many jobs that don’t come close to librarianship for satisfying working conditions. Count your blessings, Andy.

    • Fair point, Will. I know it’s not all doom and gloom, but I do think there is a masochism streak to the profession. It’s not to say that Life is Hell everyday at the library, but there is a decent amount of BS that we contend with that we just suffer through.

  2. Librarianship certainly has challenges, but so do most worthwhile endeavors. I came into this work because I love the challenge of it and have never considered that I suffer in my work. I think there is a trend in this country at this time to look at what’s not working and to moan about how hard done by we are instead of simply accepting that the situation is just part of the job or part of life, or better yet, looking at all the wonder in our jobs and our lives instead of the bits that aren’t perfect. We get to help people have better lives – this is one of the best jobs in the world!

    Some things may need changing, and some of those things may even be changeable. Society may not value us enough to fight for our funding – we may need to find new ways to demonstrate our value or we may, in fact, need to find ways to be more valuable to them. Publishers are fighting for their livelihood in an industry that has been affected by ebooks way more than we have – we should continue working with them to find solutions that help both of us. As for stereotypes and jokes – every profession has them. Be glad you aren’t a lawyer!

    There is a common thread in recent posts here about people needing to speak up and the grief you get when you do. When things aren’t working, a bit of courage is necessary. But speaking up to point out what is wrong is not what changes things. New ideas that attract positive energy are what make changes.

    I hope your day gets better!

      • But the roofer in Phoenix analogy was good. I think I need to take Mary Jo’s advice every day. It is a blessing to work. And work is . . . work?! M. Scott Peck said that “Life is difficult!” and then proceeds to point out that that a lot of time spent being unhappy is because of an unacceptance that life is not easy. Maybe every once in a while all that is needed is the character like Cher within ourselves to slap the Nicholas Cage character in our psyche and yell “Snap out of it!”

    • Yeah, it’s a common thread about speaking out because it is still an issue and one that is near and dear to me. I just can’t help it.

      I don’t think the job is suffering per se, but I think there is a level of anguish that happens that is endured rather than resolved. For example, we talk about changing the image of librarians, but there isn’t anything underway to do that. (For every major campaign out there, I can gather up a bunch of people who have never heard of it.) It just lingers on like a bad cold.

      I do enjoy my job and I love what I do, but some of the hits I take at it are ones that I think could be avoided. I’ll admit I don’t have how to resolve them, but I’d like to imagine I’m working towards a solution.

      • Speaking up IS important, and it is interesting that many will go along with the status quo when they are unhappy. Each has his reasons and all are valid to that individual. Perhaps it is a blessing that not everyone speaks up, because too many voices would impede progress as quickly as too few.

        Here’s a different perspective –

        I am currently at the PLA Boot Camp (Sandra Nelson, June Garcia), and we are talking about innovation and the roles on an innovation team. At the top of the list is the visionary. The visionary is “the force behind creating the world as it could be – and should be.” The visionary speaks up, and the visionary often gets flack for it. It takes a while for people to come around to a new way of seeing. The visionary is not the one who innovates, but the one that inspires innovation as his vision gains traction. Perhaps this is your role. Your frustration may be that visionaries do take a lot of flack. Visionaries have to learn that taking flack is part of the process. It helps if you can couch your vision in positive language (instead of pointing out what is wrong, describe the world as it should be if this thing was fixed) so that naysayers might follow your example and keep the conversation cordial. Otherwise, consider the flack you get as evidence that perhaps you are getting under people’s skin – so good job!

      • Ah Andy,

        You are capturing the agony that grips me. Do I speak up? Do I not? As someone looking for a job, I dare not for fear of being labelled…and then becoming unemployable. So I have a blog that sits with one entry because I’m too afraid of what everyone will think. Those who are not afraid, to not be the “cheerleaders” of the profession (see also: Gavia Libraria), I raise a glass to you all!

  3. Pingback: The Long Suffering Librarian | The Travelin' Librarian

  4. “School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration…”

    This made me laugh from a sense of awkward recognition! Having recently taken part in the New Librarianship MOOC, which comprehensively charts all the competencies and skills that good librarians have, I am left wondering why we are paid so poorly? Funny thing is I can’t tell you how often teachers have said to me I wish I had your job!

    • I’ve heard that as well, but I’m wondering from what vantage point they are saying that from. Perhaps it is less daily class responsibility?

  5. What do you want, Andy?

    Thinking of a time when I was discouraged and speaking to an associate dean of the library and they asked me that question, along with the follow up, “Did I want them to do something or was I just expressing frustrations?”

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