Librarian as Learner (and Caped Crusader)

Image cc license from Flickr user Litandmore: http://www.flickr.com/photos/litandmore/2284209815/

Sometimes I am asked why I became a librarian.  When asked by aspiring librarians, I feel obliged to have a good answer, something lofty and noble;  I could say I chose to become a librarian to serve the public, but like many of my classmates at library school, early on I was apprehensive about interacting with the sometimes frustrating and vexing members of the general public and thought I might prefer to be a cataloguer, working alone in an office.

When asked by curious friends, I feel obliged to be humorous instead, maybe claiming that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Some days it is difficult to remember why I made this choice;  these are usually the occasions when the everyday frustrations have piled up to the point where they are towering and overwhelming and hinder my ability to see the best parts of the job. The reason I wanted to become a librarian is easy to overlook when I am weighed down by the mundane, chasing down missing copies of periodicals or erasing pencil markings from a recently-returned book.

The most honest explanation for why I became a librarian happens to be the reason I am contributing to this blog: I love learning, research, aggregating information and sharing what I have learned.  I love encountering new ideas and facts, but it is an incomplete joy if I cannot share these with others. I want to share that clever line from the latest book I’m reading or the interesting fact I have learned while assisting a user with research. The basic attraction for me is that, in order to help people, in order to do my job, I need to learn at least a little bit; I must learn in order to assist. How can I tell someone where to find the restroom if I don’t first take a tour of the facility? How can I help someone learn to use a particular search engine or database if I don’t experiment with it myself? How can I assemble a bibliography of journal articles on tar sands if I don’t first learn what tar sands are? I might not have the opportunity or the impetus to become an expert in all fields of use to library patrons, but I have the chance to dabble and expand my own knowledge base while helping others do the same.

On blogs and in journal articles, on web forums and during conference discussions, one hears many different descriptions of what librarians are today: librarians are gatekeepers; librarians are information nodes; librarians are bridges of the digital divide; and librarians are unnecessary burdens on institutional budgets because, after all, we have Google now and everything can be found on the internet. When I am successful in helping patrons, I idly think of changing my job title from “Librarian” to something more accurate like “Super Librarian”.  When I am struggling to maintain services with drastically reduced budgets and decreased organizational interest, I wonder whether I should hang up my cape and find another gig.

What I bear in mind is this: while I may not be a superhero or a peacekeeper, as knowledge is power and key to making informed decisions that can shape the world, there is a need for those who can help others find necessary information and gain mastery of search skills.    I might spend more and more time in the teaching role, but my enjoyment of that activity is still drawn from my appreciation of the opportunity to first learn something and then learn how to share it. As a librarian, I am a resource, but I am also a learner.

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