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My Job, and Not My Job

Your Humble Blogger works in a library, but is not a librarian. I am a clerk. I like being a clerk. It’s fairly likely that I will become an actual librarian, just because of the money and the job security, but for the moment, the job I have is the one I want.

As an example of the difference between what I do and what a librarian does, imagine a college student who comes to the desk and says Where are books about the Civil War? My job is not to tell the student where books about the Civil War can be found; my job is to tell that student where the reference desk is. The librarian’s job is to explain to that student why that is the wrong question, and help that student figure out what the right questions are.

I mean, I could find books about the Civil War. I could find probably find them in fifteen different parts of the library. There’s American History, of course, and World History (not irrelevant), and then there’s Military Science downstairs (divided, actually, into Army and Navy, both helpful), there’s Art, there’s Photography, there’s Literature, there’s Economics, Law or Medicine (and Nursing, nearby), probably Education, likely Agriculture, probably Science and Technology as well. And it turns out that shipwrecks (and salvage) are a subset of Geography. There’s probably books all over that at least touch on the Civil War, and I would guess most of those sections would have at least one book that focuses on it.

(The American Civil War of the 1860s, of course; not Civil War more generally, but it turns out that the student in question was, in fact, referring to that conflict, as I figured.)

Or I could, easily enough, say something like go to E500 or so and look around, which would have been cruel, or picked out something like James Ford Rhodes’s History of the Civil War and sent her away. Easy, peasy. If that were a librarian’s job, I could do that and be happy. But the actual librarian’s job is work, and who wants that?

I did, by the way, discuss the poor sap with the librarian who was at the desk, as we were closing up the library. It turns out that the student had in mind a paper comparing the American Civil War to our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Even our librarian was not going to be able to help much with that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Heh, yes. The Money. (Though it is certainly true that someone with an MLS earns more than someone without, even if only at libraries.)

Often knowing what the answer will be used for will help a librarian know how to answer a question. Other times, not so much.

As I learned to my chagrin, a proper reference interview will help you distinguish between Cartooning and Car Tuning *before* you send the patron off to the "how to draw" section. Or discover that the person who asked for books about Africa is really looking for pictures of lions. (That time I did my reference interview right away.)

On the other hand, when you discover that the question as asked is almost impossible to answer because the person in question is almost certainly insane, well. It doesn't help. (I was going to give an example, but while the particular question is sort of funny, I don't want to give the impression that I'm mocking the person who asked it.)

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