A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

What A Librarian Does

by on February 12, 2014

My son often says, “You’re not a librarian, dad, you just sit in your office and work on your computer.” What is interesting and troubling is that I have been a librarian for his entire existence. If I can’t make him understand what I do—when I live with him!—how can I make the average citizen understand what a librarian does, how librarianship is changing, and why they should support their local library?

The first problem is books. This is what he sees when he enters the library’s doors: new books, hardcover and paperbacks, Star Wars, and nonfiction books on his favorite topic of the day (this can change almost daily). He sees these materials and he sees people. He sees people lining up to check in and check out books. Rows of books sit on carts to be reshelved. Because he doesn’t see dad circulating materials, he doesn’t think I am a librarian. It is true he is only seven but he already equates librarians only with books. While this is not a novel thought it tells me I have a fundamental problem explaining what librarians do.

The second problem is because librarianship is so connected to print materials, it’s difficult to see not only what makes the library possible but also what it could become. My son is very creative and loves to imagine and learn. The other night, I showed him our new library discovery platform that is in development. He liked that he could type in “spy” and find books. He didn’t care if the book was an adult or children’s book. He also didn’t care that there were materials (books) of interest that weren’t even at his home library. A book he liked needed to travel miles to get into his hands, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to read the book. He didn’t care that the search interacted and communicated with databases to provide more resources on spies. He liked that he could find what he wanted and what he expected to find, which was a book.

I could go on at length about what it takes to select, order, and process materials to make them ready and accurately findable in a catalog. There is much to say about placing holds and shipping routes that fill those requests and this doesn’t even mention information and digital literacy skills.  Perhaps, however, he simply doesn’t care about that. Perhaps, he’s not ready to use ALL the resources available to him yet. Perhaps I expect too much. However, a good friend once said that if you can’t change your friend’s mind, how can you change that of a stranger? I guess it has to start at home.  How do you explain what librarians do? What’s your ‘elevator’ speech?