On not working with books (or, on having *that* conversation)

We’ve all had it. Every member of library staff ever, anywhere, has undergone some variant of this conversation. Y’know, this one …

Me: “I’m a librarian.”

Other [big smile]: “Oh, you must read a lot of books!”

There are varying responses you can offer depending on whether you want to perpetuate the stereotype or burst the bubble. For the record, here’s mine – you can decide for yourself which, if either, it does …

Me: “I don’t have anything to do with books. I work with information.”

Other: “Oh.”

Me: “In fact, I don’t even work with information in the generally accepted sense of the word – meaning knowledge that’s been recorded, published or otherwise externalised. What I work with is the information that’s still inside people’s heads, that’s not yet structured or fully articulated, that’s the result of the creative encounter between an individual and a learning context. It’s a chaotic, innovative, ongoing engagement, and it has to hold in play many sophisticated arguments and conflicting viewpoints. And on top of that, in the academic world we demand that this creative simultaneity be converted into a linear and sequential argumentative form and presented according to stringent, highly formalised yet generally very badly explained academic conventions.”

Other: [opens mouth. Thinks better of it.]

Me: “So you see, most of what librarians have done traditionally has been about organising and curating information that’s already been expressed – stuff that’s been published in containers like books and journals. And most of my colleagues still work with that stuff. But what I get to do is work with the people who are working with the stuff and making new information and knowledge.

“Isn’t that the most amazing job ever?”

By this point, of course, quite a few of my interlocutors have been desperately finding an excuse to edge away from the mad librarian. But every now and again – and more often than I would ever have expected – I get this response:

“Yeah, that really is the greatest job ever.”


2 comments so far

  1. plashing Vole on

    I would most definitely be in the latter category. Do you take off your spectacles and undo your hair bun at the same time?

  2. […] What I mean by ‘research diary’ is not the neatly-written lab report designed to be shared and perhaps assessed, but the scruffy, tatty notebook we carry around and scribble in privately. In my kind of research diary we don’t write for anyone else’s eyes. It’s a force of nature, a place where our thoughts rampage unfiltered by academic proprieties. And it’s really not very tidy – because as I may have said a few times before, the process of knowledge creation is by its nature a messy affair. […]

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