General Annoyance at Skewed Perceptions of Librarians

There’s been a bit of controversy in Libraryland the past few days about Librarian being named one of the ‘Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.’ (Google it if you want to read the article, because I’m not dignifying it with a link) Some are really irritated, others think we are just being whiners. Personally, I side with those that are irritated. I get really bothered by the perpetuation of the stereotype that being a librarian is a cushy, easy job, because it isn’t. I’ve thought a lot about it (like I do) and for me the whole issue comes down to problems of generalizations and perception.

First of all–perhaps I’m being preemptively defensive here, but I’m going to say it anyway– I don’t see anyone claiming, and I certainly won’t do so, that dealing with angry patrons is more stressful than running into a burning building. I’m not going to claim that being a librarian means dealing with life or death situations (I mean, usually, but I’ll get back to that), and certainly I picked this job because there are many things about it that I like. Do I think that jobs like police officer, firefighter and combat military are more stressful than being a librarian? Absolutely.

In general. And that’s our first problem– generalizations.

Is being a surgeon stressful? I’d imagine so. An ER doctor? You betcha. However, my brother in law is a general practitioner in a small town family practice in a rural community. So most days he is prescribing amoxicillin and setting sprains. Is that over the charts more stressful than escorting out a violent and mentally ill homeless person from a library, or mediating a battle between 20 high school students who want to be loud and 10 cranky old people who want to read the New York Times in quiet? I don’t actually think so. Does he have stressful days? Yes. Do I have stressful days? Yes. I find it very difficult to compare careers because there are so many differences depending on particular positions and location, and because different things are stressful for different people. I find dealing with difficult patrons significantly less stressful than the retail job I used to have where I had to get 3 customers to open store credit cards every shift. I was riddled with panic. Seriously– give me a drunken college freshman throwing up on the return cart any day. I have friends in the armed forces who find the very idea of doing my graduate coursework more stressful than boot camp. I find small town living incredibly stressful– everyone knowing what you’re up to and in your business. Likewise I have many relatives for whom the thought of city living induces extreme anxiety.

Generalizations are dumb because we’re all different, which is my first issue with the article. By making blanket statements of comparison it doesn’t take any of that into account. That said, I disagree with what the article is saying, but disagreeing is not the same as believing the exact opposite (as the internet tends to make us think). Saying, “oh hey now, our job is kind of stressful,” is NOT the same thing as saying, “our job is the most stressful thing on earth.”

Which brings us to the issue of perception.

Perception is key to everything. Wording is key to perception. It’s the ranking of “Least” that is most problematic here. It creates, or feeds into, the perception that if a job is “least” stressful it must be nothing but laid back games and relaxing fun times every hour of the day. I doubt I would be as annoyed if the ranking had been of “most stressful jobs” and librarian had placed in the middle or even toward the bottom. Saying that being a librarian is not the most stressful job in the world doesn’t bother me. Saying that being a librarian is among the least stressful jobs feeds into the very stereotype which prompts a whole lot of people I meet to ask, “So do you just get to read books all day?” and I think at the heart of my discomfort is the frustration with the fact that very few people seem to understand what I do.

Now, by saying this I am NOT saying that no other job has this problem. Many jobs have this problem. I’ve been trying to figure out what my father actually does for about 20 years and I still don’t really know. I’m not saying that librarians are the only ones with this problem. I am saying that librarians do have this problem. And it’s annoying. It’s annoying to constantly give my elevator speech. It’s annoying to hear jokes about knowing my alphabet and taking classes in ‘card catalog.’ *insert eye roll here* It’s also annoying to tell people that I’m also a professional singer and have them say, “Oh! Sing something for me! Right now!” (My general response: “I’m sorry, I’m not a jukebox/performing monkey, but I’ll be happy to invite you to the next paid performance I do.”) There are annoying things about every profession and this happens to be one of the things about being a librarian that is annoying. The fact that there are annoying things about every profession doesn’t invalidate its annoyingness.

But back to perception. People have this perception because they see a headline like “Librarian Among Least Stressful Jobs of 2013” and the media writes those stories because they sound good. I’m tired of this perception of us and what we do. As Screwy Decimal put it:

“ I just want the media to stop feeding the erroneous assumptions. I just want to do my damn job and stop having to defend it every five minutes. Because if we librarians don’t defend it, it’s just going to get worse.”

Me too, Rita, me too.

I guess the only solution at the moment is to join the conversation, to blog and tweet and discuss — hopefully like informed and intelligent adults rather than finger pointing children.

Thoughts? Comments? Scroll to the bottom of the page and engage in the conversation.

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