Being a librarian is no laughing matter

Lately, my husband and I have been out car shopping on the weekends.  Just a couple of weekends ago, we went to a local used car lot and had a discussion with one of the salesmen.  My story starts as we’re sitting in the salesman’s office:

Out of curiosity (and likely in an effort to judge how much we could spend on a car), the salesman asked my husband and me what we do for a living.

When my husband indicated he was a lawyer, the salesman nodded and smiled.  When I told him I was a librarian, he laughed.  Yes, laughed.  As he leaned back in his chair, he went on to say derisively “ahh, I know Dewey is going the way of the dodo.” 

At this point, I felt like saying “I heard the same about used car salesmen”.  Or at least asking, “how do you think your sales pitch is going?  Do you think you’re doing a good job?”  However, I simply stated reasonably that yes, while some libraries are moving away from Dewey, at this time our library has no intention of doing so.  He seemed mystified and said something along the lines of “hanging on to a dying tradition” or some such comment.  I encouraged him to visit our library.

How is it that when stating our profession, individuals find it laughable?  In this instance, I am hoping to chalk it up to ignorance and the salesman’s idea of coming off as clever.  But I am assuming, however dangerous this might be, that there are plenty of other members of the public who also have little respect for our profession.  Why this is and what can we do about is something we need to think about. Or do we?

In the end, my husband and I laughed it off (as a lawyer, he’s learned you need to have a sense of humour).  And we decided NOT to buy a car at that lot. I think the lesson learned is that all professions are made fun of or laughed at by some people. We can’t take it too seriously as long as we continue to change, grow and learn, just as we have always done – trying our best and reaching out to as many people as possible.


Filed under Dewey, Our Profession

24 responses to “Being a librarian is no laughing matter

  1. tom

    why didn’t you say you were considering one of the new flux-capacitor flying cars and that gas-power is the dodo. or a gas-electric hybrid (if this is still 2009 when you read this).

    it’s the word ‘librarian.’ people assume libraries are dying because of ‘google this’ and ‘google that’, but mostly because they don’t use them and assume no one else should.

  2. You encountered an incompetent: Used car salespeople are supposed to disguise their contempt for customers (or at least the stereotypical ones–the good ones don’t have such contempt). I wouldn’t have laughed it off; I’d have offered a quick comment and left immediately, or asked to talk to the person’s manager.

  3. Thanks for sharing this – I run into this a fair amount, but it’s usually followed by legitimate questions about the future of books – and I am still in library school!

  4. Some people do find it laughable, but then again they usually probably don’t know how to use a library and believe that Google has every piece of information that exists. They don’t know what a journal is.

    I have received some interesting questions with people asking about the user end agreements of e-books and how it will effect libraries. At least some people can think of something intelligent to say and realize that the scope of librarianship, in itself, is a world of possibilities.

    Bringing up the “death of Dewey” seems to be a catch all for people who don’t know that there are actually many, many ways to organize materials. He didn’t bring up the death of LC? Salesmen often feel the need to fill in any empty space with their own voices, that is why they are salesmen.

    I wouldn’t chalk it up to disrespect as much as ignorance of those who think they have it all figured out.

  5. stevenb

    Be glad the salesman didn’t tell you this joke:

    A lawyer is laying in bed. He’s having trouble falling asleep. He turns to his wife, the librarian, and asks “Honey, can tell me again what is you do all day?”

    You can substitute “librarian” with “accountant” or “actuary” or any other job no one else really gets. You just might as well have a sense of humor about it.

  6. Arlene

    A patron recently observed that librarians’ get bad press here. Here’s the link:

  7. Dert McGert

    Librarians will be around a LOT longer than used car salesman will……

  8. Being married to an ex-gambling addictions program manager, I’ve learned an interesting fact: a significant percentage of cars sales folk have gambling issues, so much so that my husband refuses to purchase cars from dealers.

    Keep that in mind when you revisit that little incident in your memory….

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  12. Laurel Tarulli

    Thank you to all who have replied! I admit, when sitting in the salesman’s office, I was tempted to say something biting – instead, I remained reasonable and my tone was, I sheepishly admit, a bit frosty with a hint of “I wouldn’t expect you to understand” to it.

    I certainly didn’t laugh it off at the time – it was only after the event, on the way home. I think it’s important to decide when to pick our fights and the best revenge, my husband and I figure, is when we visit the lot again, in our NEW (and not inexpensive) car, NOT purchased there. We plan on letting them know that, had we received the professional treatment expected, the commission would have been theirs.

  13. Laurel Tarulli

    Oh! Arlene – thank you for the link!

  14. I wonder what the salesperson’s reaction might have been had you said you worked in systems, IT, knowledge management, or community policy and planning?

    I don’t mean to sound glib by making that statement. But I do think that we, as a profession, don’t necessarily “explain ourselves” enough to the world at large. I wonder if we need to remind ourselves and others or the importance of librarianship. “librarian” should be a dirty word, but we kind of allowed it to be..

  15. I wonder what the salesperson’s reaction might have been had you said you worked in systems, IT, knowledge management, or community policy and planning?

    I don’t mean to sound glib by making that statement. But I do think that we, as a profession, don’t necessarily “explain ourselves” enough to the world at large. I wonder if we need to remind ourselves and others or the importance of librarianship. “librarian” shouldn’t be a dirty word, but we kind have allowed it to be..

  16. Bill (a cataloger)

    I’ll admit to never having found a way explain well what we do that does not lead to eyes glazing over, or that convincingly (to them) overturns the usual easy chestnuts that are trotted out when the profession comes up. And I’ll admit that, like any scorned set of individuals (the Nerds among you may know what I mean), the nagging suspicion that “they might just be right” does haunt one despite rational(?) arguments to the contrary.

    There must be some talented PR people somewhere among us, who can spin us into the 21st century.

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  19. Laurel Tarulli

    I don’t know if the used car salesman would have responded differently had I said I worked in Systems or IT. I think that, as long we’re associated with the term “library” whether we are librarians or work in a library, there are people who will associate us with an outdated institution. We’re struggling with this mindset in Halifax as we deal will the media and public opinion about building a new central library. “Why build a flagship library when we can renovate an old building?” Yes, why indeed.

    I, too, have had people’s eyes glaze over if I go into social catalogues or cataloguing. But I think many professions based on specializations or specific terminology can bore anyone. I know that when my husband talks about case law or goes into details about his profession, I struggle with the glazed-eye look. But I find myself interested when he talks about the changes coming, or the “surface” legal news that touch on areas in my own life.

    And maybe that’s what we struggle with. Perhaps we need to find that balance between what we do and what we do that impacts them. And then, talk about it.

    Bill – don’t give in to the “they just might be right” thought! We’re doing our jobs well if, on the outside, everything is running smoothly. As long as our profession knows what we’re doing, the “others” just need to access our collections with ease. We’re the cooks in the kitchen – as long as they like our food and it comes out on time, all is good. While everyone wants to look at our menu and see the key ingredients, few want to talk to us about every detail of the food preparation and our inspiration!

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  21. Nico

    hey I’ve been visiting libraries lately, and I thought how cool it was. I felt smarter just because I was reading a book there haha. I was looking for this qualifying exam book. It is published by some official institution here in Singapore and so it’s not available in the bookstores. Where else could I get it? 🙂 The librarians were all very helpful and friendly 🙂

  22. Laurel Tarulli

    Nico – thank you! Access to information is so important and I always like to hear about such positive experiences. Thank you for sharing yours.

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  24. Actually, now that I think about it, whenever I mention that yes I decided to go into librarianship, no it wasn’t because I like Buffy, no I don’t think Kindle’s killed the book just yet, it feels like I’ve told the most hilarious joke without knowing it.

    Interestingly enough, I once had to go and talk to a lawyer and he, as the salesman did with you, asked me what I did for a living. I told him and he said ‘yes, that’s a very interesting field at the moment, exciting times’ and I was left staring at him like a stunned goldfish because I had been expecting that laugh and look that says ‘oh, how twee’.

    I guess some people just don’t see the relevance and importance of the profession despite the fact that we live in a very dynamic and productive information age where people who know something about knowledge organisation might of some use.

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