Littera Scripta

On Being A Librarian
by Marylaine Block

John Ciardi once wrote about the perfect way to insure peace and quiet on a plane trip. When his seatmate asks, "What do you do?", Ciardi replied, "I'm a poet." End of conversation.

But the second-best conversation-killer surely has to be "I'm a librarian." Now, notice, we do not say, "I'm a librarian--SHHHHH!" But that's what they're thinking. They're thinking librarians are little old ladies in sensible shoes with their hair in a bun, dedicating their lives to hiding the books on reproduction away from the children, leaving only the cryptic notation in the catalog, "For sex, see librarian."

Hey, guys, that's not us. Honest.

One of my favorite cartoons is Charles Addams' rat maze, where a little lady rat sits at a desk in the middle with a sign saying "Information."

Now, THAT's us, your guide through an increasingly overwhelming maze of information, your finder of needles in haystacks.

As a consequence, I can't think of a single librarian whose brain is not filled with a totally random collection of odd bits of information. Many of us can passionately recite, with or without sock puppets, the entire works of Dr. Seuss ("I meant what I said and I said what I meant--an elephant's faithful, one hundred percent!).

I know the cost of burning a heretic in 13th century England (ten shillings sixpence). I know three separate formats for footnotes and bibliographies. I know about the New York theater riots of the 1800's. I know who the lead singer of Metallica is, how to read a box score, what the defenestration of Prague was, where to find financial ratios, and who to read when you've finished reading everything Dick Francis ever wrote.

An odd thing about librarians is that most of us got here by accident. Not a one of us was a starry-eyed ten-year-old thirsting to become a librarian. Most of us spent our college careers reading Euripedes, painting still lifes, and pondering on how we know we exist (to which our parents naturally responded, "I pay your tuition, therefore you exist"). Then we graduated and discovered that employers had very little need for people who understood the finer points of dialectical materialism. So we went back to college and became librarians, because librarianship is the last remaining profession for the generalist, the last place where one can be a dilettante for fun and profit (though not a whole lot), the only possible career where all the odd things we know might actually be of use someday.

So, yes, I am a librarian, but I think, in spite of that -- nay, BECAUSE of that -- I have some interesting ideas I'd like to share with you.

Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.

My Word's Worth: an occasional column by Marylaine Block

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Recommended Books

National Archives. United States Government Manual 2000/2001

Statistical Abstract of the United States 2000


Web Links

Science Fiction Reference Materials

Americana: A Bibliography

Early Children's and Illustrated Books

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