A Bookworm By Any Other Name

Librarians come with almost as many titles as books, and they don't all work in libraries.

August 9, 2010

“So what do you do for a living?” she asked, pushing her comb through my dampened hair. It was an innocent question from a hair stylist, who by all outward appearances, seemed to be innocent herself.

I know it’s one of the first questions we all ask when we meet people, but I absolutely hate getting this question; I’m never sure how I want to answer it. Granted, they might think that all librarians do is sit at a desk and check out books, but at least they know where we work and they generally have a healthy fear of our amazing “shh-ing” abilities. However when I say I’m a librarian, I find myself having to go out of my way to answer the inevitable follow-up question, “What library do you work at?”

Here’s the thing. I don’t work at a library. Or maybe put in another way . . . I work at thousands of libraries. I work for a vendor that sells materials and services to school libraries across the country. My exact title is collection development specialist, and my primary task is to assist schools in finding the newest and best resources for their classrooms and media centers. In essence, I shop for books all day with other people’s money. Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet gig.

It’s a n immensely satisfying job for a bibliophile like me to spend much of my working day pouring through review journals, catalogs, websites, and, perhaps most brag-worthy, the thousands of advanced reader’s copies and publisher samples I see every year before anyone else. But it’s also a job that a lot of people have trouble understanding. When you tell the average people you work as a collection developer, they are more likely to think you call people up to collect overdue money.

I proudly framed my MLIS degree on my bedroom wall. I want to be considered a librarian. That was a title I fantasized about having on my business card for years. But in my heart of hearts I know I’m not really a librarian. I don’t park my car at a library every day, my work bears only a slight resemblance to the acquisitions and collection management tasks that go on in libraries, and there aren’t thousands of me doing the same job that I do. In fact, there might not even be a hundred. After all, there aren’t a whole of lot of companies like mine out there, and of the ones there are, some don’t provide the personalized collection development service that we do.

I truly enjoy what I do. I derive great pleasure in knowing that my recommendations potentially lead to a child discovering a love of reading, or a confused teen finding her calling in life. I feel very blessed to have my job in this climate of shrinking budgets and deprofessionalization. But my identity crisis is far from uncommon. I graduated from library school less than five years ago, and I've seen many of my former classmates settle for work outside of libraries. Many of them are using the skills and knowledge they picked up in library school, but because of a lack of employment opportunities in libraries, they are finding work in businesses, museums, and nonprofits. They might be working with the organization and dissemination of information, but they’ll tell you just as I’m telling you that it’s not the same as being a librarian. I can only imagine that they, like me, feel a cognitive dissonance between their education and their work setting.

If this is going to be a new reality for many of our MLIS grads for years to come, perhaps our MLIS programs need to be altered to reflect this new reality, and perhaps the ways in which MLIS grads can come together as a community will need to show a greater awareness of the varying environments that we increasingly find ourselves in. If not, perhaps the American Library Association could use its clout to get us discounts on psychological services as we seek to find out who we really are. I don’t want to feel terrified by the questions of Great Clips employees anymore.

JASON SMALLEY is a collection development specialist at Mackin Educational Resources in Burnsville, Minnesota, but for purposes of easing confusion, he’ll probably just tell you he’s a librarian.



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