Lately, I’ve noticed in myself a strange habit: more and more, I’ve started referring to myself as a professor or scholar rather than a librarian.
Here are some contexts where I’ve noticed myself doing this:
- To writers who attend the online writing group I host every Thursday morning, with whom I sometimes talk about my scholarly work
- To the authors I approach as possible interview subjects for my research on the role of research in creative writing
- To my friends in the online MCU Rewatch group I host every other week on Meetup
- To non-library faculty when I’m talking about my teaching and research (rather than, say, the time I spend on the reference desk
Thinking about it now, it’s clear to me that there are two reasons I do this.
The more benign reason is that it’s convenient shorthand. It’s like if someone tells you “I’m in finance” or “I’m in IT.” Probably their job title is a lot more specific and the work they do a lot more complicated than these generalities, but by using them, they’re conveying what they do without having to get into the types of details that a non-expert wouldn’t understand anyway. Calling myself a professor is just easier than trying to explain that, as an academic librarian, I’m a faculty member at a university who does many of the same things as a professor (plus reference hours and other responsibilities) but who just happens to do them in the library.
No harm there, as far as I’m concerned.
Other times, it’s obviously a status thing.
To illustrate this, I’m going to tell a story. I tell this story a lot and have probably told it here before but it’s a helpful way to show how people perceive librarians and the value of what we do.
About ten years ago, I was at a family picnic. My aunt invited some new neighbors of hers that she’d made friends with. She introduced me and my sister to her neighbors, telling them, “Jessica [my sister] is a teacher and Allie [what my family calls me] is a librarian.” To which one of the neighbors replied by exclaiming, “Oh, so one uses books and the other one puts them away!”
Guess which one I am in that equation?
To be clear, my aunt’s neighbor did not mean anything by this. I truly believe it was one of those comments that just comes out of your mouth without thinking and it’s not until later that you realize what it must have sounded like. But I was still very early in my career back then and, intentional or not, her response did show me a lot about how my job title affected the way other people see me.
The thing is, I want to be taken seriously and, unfortunately, I’ve learned that, with most audiences, I can’t get that if I call myself a librarian. It’s like as soon as I tell people my real job title, something clicks off in their brain. When this happens with my dental hygienist or the support person for my phone carrier, it bothers me but I can let it slide.(1) When it happens with non-library faculty on my campus, it’s a real problem. As far as many of them are concerned, I’m a second class citizen and calling myself a faculty member is just putting on airs.
It’s also, I’ve noticed, a bit of a problem when I’m approaching prospective interview subjects for my research. Many of these are folks who work outside of academia altogether. In these cases, it’s easy enough to explain that I’m doing a research study as part of my university job—no one has trouble grasping that. But when I tell them I’m a librarian studying the way they do research, it causes misunderstandings. They think I want to find out more about how they use the library. If they don’t use the library, they assume they have nothing of value to share with me. If they do, they share only the library-related aspects of their research activities. I’ve actually had to make adjustments to my interview questions to make sure my subjects know it’s not just their library use I’m interested in, but all of their research activities. And that I don’t think research that doesn’t involve the library is somehow wrong.
I’ve also had to adjust how I introduce myself to them in the first place. Rather than introducing myself as a librarian, I tell them I’m an information literacy scholar conducting a research study. Obviously “information literacy scholar” is more jargon than anything else, but it’s the truth. Or at least an aspect of it.
So I guess I see myself as almost having three separate identities rolled up into my overall professional identity: professor, scholar, and librarian. It’s not that I’m not proud of the librarian part. Hell, my car keys are attached to a lanyard that says “Library Goddess,” which I take everywhere and will happily show to anyone who makes the mistake of showing even a glimmer of interest. I love what I do. It’s just that I’ve learned that sometimes, depending on who I’m talking to, I have to switch between my three identities based on whichever one will be most effective in the moment. Unfortunately, unless I’m talking to another librarian, my librarian identity will tend to be the least effective of the three. That makes me sad, but I guess by choosing when to call myself a professor, when to call myself a scholar, and when to call myself a librarian, I’ve given in to the reality.
- Why was I talking to my phone carrier about what I do for a living? Good question. A few years ago, my phone mysteriously stopped working as a phone. I could still do everything on it (like browse the internet) except make or receive a phone call. The customer service guy at Ting (my carrier) spent literally two hours on the phone with me trying to figure out what the problem was and how to fix it. We had time to make conversation, including not only about what I did for a living but about the show Letterkenny for some reason (he told me he lived in Canada and Letterkenny is basically the only thing I know about Canada). Anyway, it ended up being a hardware problem and I had to replace my phone. Ting has since been taken over by another carrier. I haven’t had to use their support line since (knock on wood) so I can’t vouch for their current customer service practices, but I was pretty damn impressed with my experience at the time.