Friday, January 22, 2010

What Do You Do?

I rarely use my blog to talk about my work. And I don't intend to start. However, I was reflecting on something today that did involve work so I am going to let my work seep into this post. I promise I will not start a trend.

So how often have you been socializing in a group and people ask you, "What do you do?" Probably too many times to count! It's a frequent questions. It helps break the ice, it allows people to discuss the similarities in their jobs and/or to ask questions about the differences in their jobs. It's a safe question to ask when you're at a party, on an airplane, or at some sort of social event.

Monday evening my husband and I attended a Theology on Tap session on vocations. One thing discussed was the difference between your vocation and your job. Your vocation comes first; God calls you to your vocation. For example, my vocation is as a wife and mother, my job is as a librarian. My job will always (and should always) be secondary to my vocation. There are many vocations: husband, wife, priest, nun, religious sister, religious brother. Even deacon is a vocation, but a slightly more complicated one that we won't get into here since some deacons are also married, thus living two vocations.

All of this wasn't news to me, but it was nice to hear it proclaimed. And kind of leads into my reflections later in the week.

Thursday at work, I submitted a proposal to my supervisor for a project I want to work on. No big deal, just one of those things that I do on occasion.

Thursday evening I went to Bible Study and during the social time between the small group session and the lecture someone asked me what I did. So her and I and my husband started talking about our various jobs. Mostly the two of them talked because they were both engineers at Lexmark.

But I did think some about how I sometimes answer that question. In that setting I just said I was a librarian. Short and simple, no details. I might have mentioned that I work mostly with music materials and that I wasn't at the main library. Most people assume that if you say you're a librarian at UK you work at the main library, not realizing that we have about 10-12 campus libraries.

Anyway, depending on who I am talking to depends on how much information I tend to give out. My job can be difficult to explain sometimes.

Okay, remember that proposal I submitted on Thursday? I'm getting to it! So, I get to work on Friday morning and, while I was waiting for a meeting to start, I checked my email (gotta love technology!) and my supervisor had forwarded my proposal to our Associate Dean for her approval. She was in full support of it (yay!) but did add that if the AD agreed, I should probably add some language into the proposal about providing access to hidden collections.

Okay, so this is where I started thinking about the real question: What is it that I really do?? You know, there is the question people ask in social situations and there are appropriate answers for those situations. And then there is a similar question that is asked amongst colleagues, because even people with the same job titles do different things. And there are answers (usually of a more technical nature) for that.

My reflection on this situation has more to do with the state I see of libraries right now. And I'm not talking about whether or not we are viable institutions in the age of Google, or whether e-books and the Internet are going to be the primary sources of information seeking one day and make libraries obsolete. Those conversations are for other people to bat back and forth. For me, I'm interested in perspectives of librarians from other librarians.

Slowly over the 10 years I've been in the profession I see more and more catalogers having to justify their work. I keep telling people that if all the catalogers left, the library would run perfectly fine for a while. But it won't take long to realize that new things are no longer in the catalog. I think catalogers are viewed with less and less of a professional eye, like we are just data entry people and that any sort of specialization on our part is of our own making. If you believe that, try running a library with no catalogers, or untrained catalogers, and we'll see how long you last.

In addition to my daily job, I also used to teach cataloging. I always emphasized to my students that the role of the cataloger is to provide access to collections and that as a cataloger you have to know who your patrons (or customers) are. Who are they? They are the students, faculty, community members that are using the catalog to find materials. They are also the public service librarians who are using the catalog to find materials for the patrons. They are the collection managers who need to know if we have an item already before they buy it again. In other words, our whole job revolves around knowing what our patrons want so that we can provide access to the collections.

That sounds like a public service kind of job! Guess what: cataloging is a public service!

So having my supervisor say that maybe my proposal (which is a cataloging proposal) needs some language in it about providing access seems, to me anyway, redundant. Isn't that the whole point? And don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing her, I'm criticizing the fact that it has become so ingrained in us as catalogers that we have to tell other librarians that the reason we're doing any particular project (or even just our jobs) is to provide access.

Um ... raise your hand if you think I like to catalog books, scores, and sound recordings for my own edification.

No hands better be up!!

I do it for our patrons and for the other librarians. And that should be the mantra of all cataloging librarians. That's why we do what we do! Who cares how perfect the record is and that you followed all the rules, can your patrons find it?

(Okay, some people may read this and say, "but K, you are such a stickler for the rules?" To which I say: yes, I am, but I know where to draw the line as well.)

All this being said, I will probably add in the appropriate language to my proposal if asked, because I know that the politics of the library require that this be done. The reality is that yes, we do have to explain our jobs to the people we work with every day. It's kind of sad, really, because if I asked a reference librarian what they did and why they bothered doing it, they'd probably look at me funny. We all know what they do, or we should.

In the end, it is just a job. And a job I like and get a lot of pleasure out of doing. It is good to complete a difficult original record, to finally find that perfect subject heading for that obscure dissertation, to untangle a mess of different editions of an item that all ended up on the same record, and to do research into a name heading that provides enough information to finally split two people from the same undifferentiated name authority record. And as much satisfaction as I may get out of some of these tasks, I do it all in service of the customers of my library: the professors, students, and other librarians that have to use the library and its materials for their research and education needs.

That is what I do; this is my job. But more importantly, my vocation is as a wife and mother. Above all of this, I serve my husband every day as his partner, just as he serves me. And one day we will be given the responsibility to raise children who will also go into the world to serve others in the vocation God calls them to as husbands or wives or priests (God-willing) or nuns or religious brothers or sisters.

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