Library Mythconceptions

It strikes me that most people don’t have a clue what I actually do all day at work.  Hopefully my fellow inmates at the Library of Doom have at least a vague idea, but in the wider world my actual activities are about as well known as Chandler Bing’s job title in Friends.  In other words, everyone thinks they know, but nobody really does.  I think this is largely due to a variety of myths, rumours and misconceptions that surround the world of librarianship.  I won’t bore you with the details of exactly what I do, but here are some things which aren’t entirely true.

It must be lovely, being able to read all those wonderful books.  Well, yes, the Library of Doom is indeed full of books, both wonderful and otherwise, and I have handled a large proportion of our stock (getting on for half a million items), and probably seen almost everything, even if only the spine of the book out of the corner of my eye.  However, I don’t get to sit around during working hours perusing this storehouse of knowledge, as, strangely enough, I’m being paid to do more useful things.  The only time when some of us might get to sit down and read is if we’re stuck on a late shift on the issue desk over the summer, when you see approximately one and a half students per hour.  If you’re lucky.

You must be like a walking encyclopaedia.  Well, it does seem like that sometimes, both at the Library of Doom and elsewhere, but that’s not really a result of my job.  That’s because I’m an information sponge, capable of retaining a whole lot of information, useful, pointless and in between.  As I’ve said many times before, librarians don’t know everything, but they are very good at finding things out.  Or in an academic library, we should be good at teaching others how to find things out.  It is true, however, that any piece of information you pick up could potentially be useful when a particularly bizarre query is presented to the help desk staff.

The peace and quiet must be very relaxing.  Are you kidding?  Libraries are not necessarily the havens of peace and quiet that people expect – why else would librarians ever need to perfect their trademark shush and that over-the-glasses glare?  If it was always peaceful, these deadly weapons would never be needed.  Traffic through the building of several thousand people per day tends to work against peace and quiet anywhere other than in the most tucked-away study areas, which happen to be the places where the library staff spend the least amount of time.  Phones ringing, people asking the strangest questions and students being generally studenty – all these and more mean that people wanting peace and quiet simply need not apply.

You must love those long holidays.  Sadly not.  Working in an academic library does lead people to assume that you get the same long breaks as the students, who swan off for months at a time, seemingly at random.  However, the university’s life goes on, even over the summer, as the academic staff expand their research portfolios and we deal with a stream of different summer schools.  Graduate teachers doing an accelerated training programme before being thrown in at the deep end in inner city schools.  ‘Gifted and Talented’ (and precocious) teens getting a taster of university life.  Students learning English as a foreign language, who ask the friendly library staff to answer endless questionnaires as part of their work (they can never cope when I tell them that I don’t support any football team).  Each of these groups have their own unique needs and demands, which we juggle as we also attempt to get the library shipshape for a new academic year and try to work out how many books have fallen into a wormhole during the previous twelve months.

It must be nice not to be stuck at a computer all day.  Hmm.  Various daily tasks include checking three e-mail accounts, printing off reports and request lists generated overnight, entering data, editing data and assigning barcodes to various items, all of which is carried out on the computer.  Circulation (issuing, renewing and returning books) is entirely automated, our card catalogue ceased being updated even before I arrived at the Library of Doom, and I spend much of my time verifying bibliographic information with the use of a whole variety of web-based catalogues, databases and lists.  The only regular activities which don’t involve the computer screen are photocopying and shelving.

It doesn’t sound very rewarding.  Sometimes it’s not, and this is certainly not a field anyone should enter with hopes of great financial rewards.  Sometimes the lack of courtesy from students and certain academics, the repetitive nature of various tasks and the inevitable frustrations of a large organisational structure can get you down.  From time to time you wonder whether there’s any point to it all, whether it’s worth soldiering on.  But there are those wonderful moments, when you know that your help has enabled a student to achieve more than they had expected, when you meet the brilliantly eccentric people who make academia their home, when you complete a mammoth project, or simply when you finally track down that blasted ‘green book my tutor recommended’ or that elusive reference to a journal article printed in Little Witheringham in 1846.  Suddenly, it feels as if the job is worth while, that you’re making a difference, however small.  And anyone who has ever worked in a library is never short of anecdotes…  Have I ever mentioned the student who thought we wanted her jumper as payment for her library fines?

  1. I want the jumper story. Now.

    Summer in particular sounds quite fraught.

    • Phil
    • June 19th, 2007

    You must love those long holidays.

    How I know about that. Working in a different university in a different job role, but still doing operational and student support we get it as well. Even the academics who do swan off for the summer come back and ask have we had a good summer. In summer it’s when we ready all the computer labs for the new academic year. New software to install and test. New hardware to install and test. And still the MSc students are here wanting to work in the labs doing their projects. Come september we’re usually a bit fraught and frazzled and that’s when the fun really begins – all those new and returning students!


    ps I would like to hear the jumper story too!

  2. Calls for jumper story duly noted. 🙂

    Many libraries attempt a stock take over the summer. We haven’t managed while I’ve been here (7 years), as there has always been a call on our services throughout the summer, and you can’t really do a stock take if you’re open. I’m quite glad we can’t, though – can you imagine the sheer tedium of checking several hundred thousand books. Yep, that one’s here. So’s that one. And that one. Ew, there’s a used handkerchief in this one, but at least it’s here. And this one’s here as well…

  3. Did I tell you about the lady who said that working in a library must be very stressless (if that is even a word)? I had to control myself not to explode (quietly) at her. Maybe I should just point her in the direction of your blog post!

  4. We’re doing a stock-take over the summer. And a collection-re-arrangement. So we are closing for two weeks. And if I hear one more grumpy post-grad get snitty because we’re ‘all going to be off swanning about in Torremolinos’ I will howl like a wolf. Because we will be spending two weeks doing heavy lifting in a cloud of dust and bad language, while people with drills take the shelving apart all around us. And where the heck is Torremolinos anyway?

  5. Spain, somewhere, I think. And I think not being allowed to close might be better than actually having to do a stock-take. Good luck with it!

  6. People think that because I’m a teacher I get all the school holidays too. And of course summer is our busiest time. It is really very irritating, isn’t it?

  1. August 28th, 2010

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