On Being a Librarian and “Loving Books”

Recently, another librarian’s blog post made the rounds.  She had a friend who was considering going to library school, and one of her reasons for doing so was that she loved books.  She also reported that many people had told her that’s a bad reason to go to library school, thus she was looking for additional feedback.  (And I’ve committed a cardinal sin of blogging here by not bookmarking the original post; now I can’t find it and can’t link to it.  If anyone remembers who wrote it and/or where to find it, shoot me a message in the comments and I’ll happily link it).

So, what is it about prospective library students who say they want to go to library school because they love books that makes us cringe so much?   After all, most of us love books too, right?  I haven’t actually ever met a librarian that hates books…

I think our reaction comes from a worry that these prospective students are approaching the profession with a framework that is incomplete or naive (and just to be clear, in no way do I mean that these prospective students are stupid – just that they haven’t fully thought through the situation yet).  It’s been a long time since being a librarian was just about books, if, indeed, it ever was just about books.  We know our profession is often misunderstood (how many times have you been asked, “Wow, you have to go to school for that?” or “Did you take a class in shushing people?”), and thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even some prospective librarians aren’t entirely sure what their future job entails.

The problem, as those of us on the inside know all too well, is that it’s hard to find a job in this field.  The number of qualified candidates far outstrips demand and the current economic situation has only made things worse.  We fear that the person who comes into librarianship just because they love books is never going to be able to clearly articulate other reasons why they became a librarian, and they’re going to rot on the job market because of it.

So, current and future LIS students, here are my thoughts on the subject.  There is no inherent shame in loving books.  We all do.  But that can’t, and shouldn’t, be your only reason for becoming a librarian, and it especially won’t fly when you find yourself at a job interview.  There needs to be more substance to your thought process than that.  So, if you’re still in the stage where you’re considering LIS programs, I would spend some time researching the profession before deciding if it’s really for you (and spending a ton of money on earning your degree).  Volunteer at a local library if you can.  Ask a local librarian or two if you can shadow them for a few days to get a better sense of the work they do.  If you’re already in library school and preparing to go on the job market soon, start thinking about how you’re going to answer the question “Why did you become a librarian?”  Because you almost certainly will be asked (I heard this question in all of my interviews at least once).

And before anyone asks me again, I became a librarian in a round-about sort of way.  I was pursuing doctoral-level education in another field, where I was also working as a teaching assistant.  I eventually came to the realization that I liked teaching more than I liked the daily grind of doing dissertation research.  And I liked helping other people (like my students) with their research more than I liked doing my own.  I loved helping them find that “a -ha” moment, where they learn something new, particularly when it was a skill, like a database search, that would help them through the rest of their school years, maybe even their lives.  I also love tinkering with technology – figuring out how things work and how people can use them in their lives and research.   And when I sat down to discuss all of this with my advisor, he said it sounded like I would be happier as a librarian.  He was right.  I still get to teach (without having to grade papers, which is just an added bonus), I get to feed my insatiable curiosity every day by assisting students and faculty with their research papers, which run the gamut from accounting to zoology, and, since I’m at a small school where I also serve as the educational technologist for the faculty, I get to tinker endlessly with new software and hardware everyday.  And yes, I love books, too.