A Profession No One Understands

So why aren’t people of color flocking to the profession? For the same reasons other folks aren’t: low pay and a general lack of knowledge about what we do. According to a white paper published by ACRL on this very topic, the biggest factor for minorities applying to library school is prior work experience in a library–in other words, direct exposure to the work. This shouldn’t be a surprise: for those of you in the bibliographic trenches, consider how many times some has expressed surprise when learning the person scanning their book at the circ desk isn’t a librarian, or there are even graduate programs for the field.

But what concerns me are two things: why is it our profession is a cipher to the public, including long-time patrons? And why does my previous question continue to go unanswered? So much has been written about the public’s perceptions of (or lack of interest in) what we do, but other than roll our eyes and chat endlessly about it during vendor lunches at ALA, we don’t do a whole lot of explaining to the masses. Sure, we’ve been pretty decent at seizing the moment when it comes to library use, or publicizing our beliefs (intellectual freedom, digital divide, etc.), but we’re not so hot at communicating about what exactly we do. Ask anyone outside a library to describe what a librarian does: the answer will inevitably be shelving and/or checking out books. Reference services? Maybe from a savvier user. Cataloging? Forget it.

So why do we toil and complain in obscurity? Posters of friendly, young and (at times) non-white librarians, library staff and patrons abound in our work spaces, but where are the posters that illustrate the job? We have plenty of scholarships in the hopes of enticing minority students into the profession, but how effective are they when the general public give us a blank stare if pressed to describe the work we do?

Maybe it’s time for us to do a little educating….