Librarianship-Your Life’s Work

Having majored in History (as well as Studio Art), I’m fascinated by mid-century ephemera, as well as those wonderfully absurd educational videos that Canada and America were so fond of producing in the mid-20th Century. This 1947 gem about librarianship did not disappoint. Entitled “The Librarian 1947 Vocational Guidance Films,” it may as well have been called “Perfectly Coiffed Women Assist Male Professionals;” or, alternatively, “Librarianship — How Women Can Help Build America Without Being Teachers or Nurses.”

Once I got over the fact that the entire film reminded me of one of those Dharma Initiative videos from LOST, I couldn’t do anything except sit back, wide-eyed, thanking my lucky stars that I was born in the 80s, and not 60 years prior.

Keep pushing that button!

The video opens by declaring that the two most important skills required to become a librarian are (Drum Roll Please!!….) You must like BOOKS and You must like PEOPLE. And…that’s it. Post-WWII America was a simpler time, apparently. In the 21st Century, librarianship requires more than just a love of books and people (although it doesn’t hurt). Nowadays, librarians need to participate in research and scholarship, provide service to the profession, which includes acting on committees and within professional organizations, and be technologically competent as well as passionate about advancing said technologies. Furthermore, the video makes no mention of the soft skills that employers now value, such as creativity, leadership, and vision. Instead, these characteristics are expressly used to describe the special competencies of the library administrator, AKA “highly paid executive,” AKA “man in charge.”

The video simply reflects the values of its era, and those state that professional men make America what it is; and the duty of the lady librarian is to ease the burden of American machismo. My favourite part of the video can be found at the one minute mark. “Do you like people?” it asks. You do? Well, good thing, because librarians have to deal with the public, and the public may consist of children, or “professional men searching for special scientific information.”

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On second thought…

Not to mention the dopey Wally Cleaver doppelganger who will probably become a television executive one day (3:07); the toupee-wearing visionary genius who runs the place (6.30); or the doctor whose subject librarian can only shrug at the difficulty of pronouncing scientific terminology, while he stares down at her through patronizing eyebrows (8.08).

Nearly 70 years later, this line of thought is insulting to both men and women. Women have made great strides in attaining leadership roles within libraries. The ALA reports that women represent 68% of Academic and 79% of Public directorships. However, on average, women directors make $7000 less annually than their male counterparts.

Finally, the video outlines the 5 main types of librarians (cataloguer, reference, circulation, children’s, school); as well as the 3 sub-types (subject, extension, adult educator). A few aspects really struck me here. Firstly, the narrator mentions that to be a circulation librarian, one does not require a specialized degree. (A degree, you say? I thought I only needed to love books and people). I think this is interesting, especially considering the current status of circulation desks at times being staffed by paraprofessionals, students, or simply just computers. In hindsight, this video is offering a rather provocative glimpse into the future.

I was also intrigued by the fact that the video lumped high school, college, and university librarians into one “school librarian” category. In the 21st Century, that’s downright laughable. To be a high school librarian, one needs not only an undergraduate and MLIS degrees, but also a teaching degree. Academic librarianship is no cake walk either.

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omg cake…

There’s also no mention of all the wondrous other professions that are possible through earning an MLIS. Priscilla Shontz and Richard Murray edited a great book called “A Day in the Life: Career Options in Library and Information Science” that highlights dozens of positions beyond those mentioned in the video, including careers in ICT, publishing, vending, and my personal favourite, personal librarianship. All in all, if being fortunate enough to live in Canada in the 21st Century means that men and women are considered equals in the workplace, and I have a chance at becoming some lucky person’s personal book curator, I’m more than appreciative that I was born in the 80s and not the 20s.

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…even if the hairdos left something to be desired

After all, librarianship is my life’s work, right?


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