McSweeney's: An open letter to the look that slowly forms on your face when I tell you I am a librarian

Or, rather, in my case, that I work at a library.

Via McSweeney's

Dear Look That Slowly Forms On Your Face When I Tell You I Am a Librarian:

The raised eyebrows and intake of breath fool no one. As a librarian, I am well aware that most people do not find my job an interesting topic of conversation at a neighborhood barbecue, music festival or, to use a more keenly relevant example, the cocktail party we both attended last Friday night.

I believe that those four minutes we spent together, both holding a glass of shiraz in one hand and crumpled up napkins in the other, created a camaraderie that allow me to offer a few delicate suggestions. While at no time did your lips actually curl downward into a grimace, the frozen, dare I say stricken, look you chose to accompany my declaration of career halted our conversation before it even began.

It’s true that reactions to my occupation tend to fall into two camps. The first group registers immediate delight with a laugh and smile and a squealed “I love librarians!” followed by a request for assistance finding a favorite childhood book that had pictures of cats or rabbits and probably had a blue cover, or maybe red. That I can’t help them (because my job involves database administration and website creation, not children’s books) doesn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm, because they had a great librarian in school once.

Members of the other camp (this means you) pause just a bit too long. Their faces blank out, and maybe their heads lurch back just a touch as the eyes search for something or someone else to latch onto. This is not so bad. I too have stood next to a woman at a party and had absolutely no idea what follow up question would be appropriate. What do you ask someone who did something unpronounceable for a municipal water system? Blanking out is a known risk at cocktail parties and schmoozing events of all types and is not in itself a reason for despair.

It’s what happens next that, to me, is unforgivable. It’s when your eyes light up ever so slightly, that bemused, faraway look coalesces, and you turn to me and say:

“How ‘bout that Dewey Decimal System?”

At that moment, you look so proud of yourself. You believe you have found a clever way out of cocktail party purgatory. You look almost hopeful, as if the conversation has been saved. But let me explain to your smug visage what has just happened: you have ruined it for everyone.

Because now I have two options: I can spend a few minutes boring both of us by explaining how that system has been superseded in academic libraries by the Library of Congress system and how I never learned Dewey because I am not a public or school librarian (thereby confirming that, indeed, librarians have no sense of humor) or I can laugh as if I have never heard that comment before and say “I know, right? It’s really confusing.” Then one of us can scramble around for a follow-up. In either case your face blanks out again, and it is only a matter of seconds before one of us makes a desperate excuse and runs off to get more canapés.

Next time, might I suggest a smile and a simple “How do you enjoy your work?”

All the best,


SEAN said…
Put me in camp one. I may ask a few basic/uniformed questions but I don't think they'd could ever be considered condescending.

I just pictured you in a transforming from library geek to sex stud.
Tamayn Irraniah said…
Really, I think I would be somewhere between, having worked in a university library made me realize how awesome being a librarian is. Some of the hardest partiers were my library friends. I remember when a group of us watched the fireworks on the roof of the library, which if you've seen the main stacks at OSU, it was a great view towards downtown. Seriously, if I could ever work in a library again, I'd do it in a heartbeat!
Chris said…
LOL, love this.

I get the same look when I (have to) tell people that I'm working on a PhD in sea narratives. There is usually a follow-up question, to which I have developed the response: "Would you like the sexy version or the boring version?" Most people opt for the sexy version, to which I simply say "Moby-Dick," everybody giggles and has a good time. If the party is exceptionally frisky and they ask why I am interested in sea stories, I say "Hey, it's all about seamen and sperm whales, who wouldn't be?" Sometimes I hate myself for belittling my own work, and sometimes it's funny.

And the question of " comp lit, you compare what to... what???" I've had to answer more times than I'm happy to count. La la la la.
Writer said…
SEAN, the transformation is somewhat akin to Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk. Though I'm trying to imagine something other than being big and green. :)
Writer said…
Sadly, though, Tamayn, I find that working at a library gives me just enough knowledge to be the king of awkward conversations. LOL :)

Also, are there no library jobs in France?
Writer said…
Well, Chris, at least you have some very witty rebuttals. And there's nothing I like more than self-deprecating humor. LOL
Tamayn Irraniah said…
There are literary jobs, but well, those require insanely advanced degrees, and usually very high level French knowledge. Of course, while I'm here I think I'd rather have a more hands on kind of job. I have really bad sciatic nerve problems, so I can't have a desk job anymore. So that's why I'm thinking a formation boulanger.

The thing that sucks is that library work isn't nearly as wild here in France as it was on US universities. I miss working at the Main Stacks.
Writer said…
What is "formation boulanger"?
Tamayn Irraniah said…
Baker's apprenticeship. Then I can make all the desserts I love!

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