Popular Misconceptions

Welcome Geoff Johnson to the HackLibSchool blog. Geoff (on Twitter, or find him on LinkedIn) is a proto-librarian interested in academic librarianship and special libraries – especially news libraries* – attending the Simmons College GSLIS and living in Boston. He’ll finish up his coursework in May.

*But really, more than anything, he’s interested in being flexible, versatile, and employed.

When I was headed home this last December, waiting for a flight at a Logan airport bar, the awkward waiting-at-an-airport-bar conversation with a fellow traveller turned to careers. He said he was chipping away at an MBA at a small Boston-area school. When I told him I was going to library school, he said, “So I guess you really love books.” When it came to bear that my partner came to Boston to be a painter, he added that our apartment must be really quiet all the time: “You’re always readin’ and she’s always paintin’!” he said.

I thought about lecturing (“You know, in the 21st century, librarianship is about a lot more than books…” or “While I do love books, they only represent a small portion of what my job will be. In fact…”). But I didn’t. I smiled and nodded. “Yep, it is pretty quiet,” I said. I paid for my amber ale and went to the gate. It got me thinking, though. My brain filed this encounter in with a few other situations, including one in which my friend’s father asked, “So, what, do you learn to check out books to people [in library school]?” and an ongoing joke with my dad that I’m spending two years and $40,000 learning the Dewey Decimal System.

The fact that the guy at the bar and my friend’s dad assume, through their jokes, that I love books because I’m becoming a librarian is not a problem in and of itself. I do love books. That was one way I rationalized library school myself (“Well, I do love books…”). Here’s the thing, though: I can’t speak to the experiences other people have at other libraries, but I spend much less than half my time working at the reference desk at the Simmons library and at my internship at the Monitor dealing with actual books. So if a love of books was my only reason for remaining in the field, then I wouldn’t be all that satisfied — but I am.

So the problem, actually, is that people don’t know that librarianship extends beyond books.

What I’ve heard, from my first semester on, is that it’s up to librarians to demonstrate their value within their organization. People forget or they just don’t know. Whether it’s my boss reminding her boss each hear all the things the news library does for the website and magazine, or a public library reminding its community about return on investment during times of high unemployment. Discussion of misconceptions usually occurs in class or at a conference (the common element between these two being that it’s a room full of librarians or future librarians discussing it), and it starts with a joke about stereotypes (it’s usually about shooshing people, and it’s usually pretty funny), and it ends with agreement that “Hey, we all know we’re much more dynamic than the stereotypes…” and everyone leaves feeling energized, but I’m not sure how often it involves discussion of action outside the company of other librarians.

I know I need to find a way that I’m comfortable with to have that conversation with people, and recently, I’ve been asking librarians and proto-librarians alike how they have that kind of conversation with people, and I’d be very interested to hear about how hacklibschool people and readers do this.

Categories: Big Picture

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17 replies

  1. Great post Geoff! The very same scenario happened to me last night. “So you are going to be a librarian? Are you looking forward to reading books all the time? You do have the glasses for it…” And as frustrating as those comments are I’ve realized that it can be a great teachable moment. Especially as I work with virtually zero books in the research library where I am employed! So I use it as a chance to tell people about the types of skills and theories I am learning in my program and how those skills can be transferred into all types of “non-traditional” library roles; like the one I currently have.
    This is what I *try* to do. I admit that I’m also guilty of just rolling my eyes at times…


  2. This is something I think all of us deal with allll time. I find that when I’m engaged in those quick conversations with strangers and someone says “oh you must like books” I respond nicely “yea I do like books, but most of my job is actually working with people”. Sometimes this will lead to a longer conversation about information literacy, reference, and instruction and sometimes it doesn’t. I hope that these conversations little by little point out that it’s not all about books, but of course there is always more to be done.


  3. Good post! I’m also looking to hear how others handle this situation. I sometimes have people ask me what I learn in library school (along the lines of being confused as why a master’s degree is even needed). I struggle with how to condense everything and give the “big picture” of librarianship.

    You’re right Nicole, about the teachable moments. I definitely need to approach it that way.


  4. I still haven’t figured out a good way to handle this one. I’ve started to just go for the short “embrace the stereotype and move along” response, but I’ve played around with the thought to create a little boilerplate, elevator speech type response about my degree being “all the things under the hood that make information work” but haven’t come up with anything satisfactory.

    Then, combine that with trying to explain “special libraries” and people really think you’re blowing hot air.


  5. I’ve gone to SXSW (a web/interactive conference) for the last couple of years and I’m seeing that slowly smart people understand the need for librarians everywhere. I always introduce myself as a librarian and when they ask why I’m at a tech conference I say “You all made a mess of the web and you need librarians to organize and clean it up.” Seems to do the trick. It doesn’t hurt that more and more librarians are going to SXSW every year helping me spread the word (the Atlantic declared 2011 to be the Year of the Librarian).
    I encourage you all to go to odd conferences or talks and show our relevance.


  6. Since I’m in academic libraries, I’ve been telling people, “actually, we use the Library of Congress system, not Dewey Decimal,” but I don’t feel very satisfied with it. I really like what one of my best professors, Kim Schroeder, said to tell people when they ask about your job/future job: “I’m responsible for organizing, storing, and providing access to the total knowledge of humanity. I’m a librarian. What do you do?”
    I actually tried that once and although I felt super conceited and a little weird saying it, I got a great response.
    Thanks for a great post!


  7. I sometimes get questions about what librarianship (or library school) entails. I give them the short of it (finding and organizing information) and the long of it if they ask for more details. Like others, I also have a hard time explaining it because librarianship involves so much.


  8. Thanks for all the responses. Good to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

    Nicole, Carolyn and Lis, I commend you for embracing the teachable moments; I’m going to shoot for that from now on.

    One thing I might not have made all that clear is that my reticence to full-out explain my chosen profession to strangers isn’t so much that I’m annoyed that they don’t know, but because I assume I’m going to lose their interest really quickly when I start talking about what my job and the profession is really like. I’m sure those of you who work in reference or research have had the experience of giving someone way, way more information than they ever wanted and the blank stare that goes along with that.


  9. I don’t get the “so you love books!” comment much; I tend to get the “why? Everything’s available online now, we don’t need libraries anymore” comment.

    My reply is always, “Yes, but how do you think everything got there?”

    Which always makes for a satisfying pause in the conversation while they actually think about that for a change.


    • I love that response! I’ve gotten the “you must love books” statement before, but I think it’s because I’m known for that. I’m a Literature graduate, and I worked in a bookstore. Of course I’d get that question. So usually, I just say “yes” because it’s easier.


  10. Most of the time I can address misconceptions about librarianship by giving a variey of examples of jobs MLS graduates can do. Working on databases, working to manage business records, supporting government agencies… it’s nice if there’s enough time to flesh this out a little. I mention web design as something I’ve picked up in library school. The hardest question for me is “what do you learn in library school?”. Sometimes when I look back the body of knowledge I’ve gained seems so eclectic that I can’t summarize it.


  11. Oh, I love this blog post, because whom of us do NOT get all the stereotypes – and I agree, Geoff, I do love books and I do know the Dewey Decimal a little too well. But library school is not really at all about books, it’s about wikis and access and user services and policy making. If I wanted a career in books, I would have gone for that MA in children’s lit.

    Last weekend, when I told someone that I was training to be an archivist, I got the “so that’s a dying field, good luck.” But when I told him that being an archivist was really about information organization in order to provide access and aid in knowledge management, his eyes lit up. We had an awesomely nerdy conversation about it in the middle of a dinner party.

    I encourage everyone to defend their information professions, because what we do and what we know is useful to everyone – and the poor chumps, MBAs or not, are clueless. We need to rescue them!


  12. This is fantastic. I’ve had wayyy too many people make the same jokes about the Dewey Decimal System when I tell them I’m pursuing a Masters in Library and Information Science. The echoes of, “not to be offensive, but what do you really learn in library school?,” still ring in my ears. Thank you all for giving me suggestions for witty retorts, and thank you Geoff and Hack Library School for getting this conversation started!


  13. To me it is simple. I am instilling in children a love of learning. By teaching library-media, they are exposed to stories from every culture, technology that unites thoughts and the world, and they learn about citizenship and tolerance.Library deals with Big Ideas !!

    To develop the skills, yes the Dewey, yes research skills, yes 21st Century technical skills, our students become self learners. In turn they have the confidence and competency to achieve academically and socially, I set goals that they all should get into a college preparatory high school, then a college, and then become the person they dream of being !!

    My 520 students are between K and 8th grades.



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