There goes a failure in life

A friend of mine reported a Rodney Dangerfield moment to me yesterday, and it was something that I think I can relate to. This friend is a middle aged male reference librarian at an academic library, like me, and, like me, he stayed up late Tuesday night at an election party. Joe the librarian (not his real name) woke up late due to too much happiness as the election results came in the night before, and came to work without his usual shower, shave, and coffee. His first order of business was to do a BI for a small writing class. Though bedraggled and a little out of it, he was alert enough to do a good class and teach these bright students a few things about the library’s resources.

After the class, Joe the librarian headed back to the library, looking, as I said, a bit bedraggled and out of it. On the way he passed the Business School, where three frat boy types, who may or may not have recognized Joe as the guy who sits at the reference desk in the library, passed by him in the opposite direction. One dude said to his buds, “There goes a failure in life.”

Joe thinks that it was a combination of his unkempt appearance, tiredness, age, and familiar presence at the quiet reference desk that caused these future (potential) business leaders to form an impression of him as a loser. For many students who study at computers near the reference desk but never avail themselves of a librarian’s services, in many libraries we probably look like we aren’t doing much a lot of the time. I know that I have had numerous desk shifts with little action save fixing printer jams, lending out ball point pens, and directing students to the computer help desk. A student who forms his idea of what librarians do solely by being around the reference desk on days like that might understandably form the view that we have chosen to live as inactively and inconsequentially as possible.

For some librarians, that may actually be the case, but for Joe the librarian, it is not. Joe the librarian takes his work seriously and advances himself professionally, writing for publication and volunteering in his state association. He is doing fine financially and has a rich life outside of his job, including family, friends, and hobbies. He wasn’t wounded by the student’s comment, but he told me that it did end up making him wonder how he and his colleagues are generally seen by the students at his university, and whether students’ perceptions have some effect on their ability to provide optimal service. It seems to him that if librarians at a university have the respect of the students, then students will more highly value the library’s services, and that the reverse is also true. He said he is going to explore ways of better communicating the librarians’ academic expertise and general competence to students, without seeming to try too hard at it. Whether they understand that he has a life outside the library he says he is not going to worry about.

One comment on “There goes a failure in life

  1. Wow–that’s a really harsh and seriously misinformed comment. So it goes, like Vonnegut says? On the other hand, students probably saw me as being haggard as well on November 5th. I actually taught an Info. Lit. course that morning, but was fortunately able to use sleep deprivation as a tool: my appearance and gestures probably made me appear inspired (if not insane), and insane people are fun to observe. Actually, sleepless nights give me an edge when I’m teaching (I know this is not a permanent benefit)–the energy I somehow generate propels me forward and gives me an extra push as I zoom around the room hoping to strike up a little flame. I hope that my enthusiasm can also give uninterested students the impression that I care about what I do and therefore care about helping them. And hopefully, by having those realizations, students can also see that I am not a librarian loser who has failed in life. I certainly don’t have an answer to how we can prove to students that we lead interesting lives in and outside of libraryland. But part of showing students that we are human is exposing ourselves as such–even if that means telling your students you partied longer and harder than they did the night Obama became president–and here you are, just hours after going to sleep, giving them as much energy as you otherwise would, facilitating hands-on activities in a classroom where students aren’t silent while teachers jabber on endlessly into the early afternoon. Here you are–unkempt, bags under your eyes, tired, burning from both ends, curious and getting the job done. That presence is key.

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