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But… What do you Do, Exactly?

I attended a cook-out this past weekend and had a wonderful time sitting around in lawn chairs talking, listening to others talk, or listening to the breeze whenever we all fell silent. The gathered group was actually comprised of two sub-groups: people who work at Carleton with one of the hosts and people who don’t work at Carleton but are cool and interesting anyway. By chance, I ended up spending most of my time sitting with the latter subgroup, and twice the Dreaded Question came up.

The DQ, as I like to call it (since I am a librarian and am thus compelled to make acronyms out of any phrase of two or more words), is only slightly less difficult for me to answer than that ubiquitous question: “So… where are you from?” Every time that omni-present conversation opener rears it’s ugly head I have to quickly assess whether the person wants to know where I was born, where I spent my early years, where I spent mostly of my time, where I’m mostly recently from before moving here, or if they just want to know where around here I live. The only thing I know they don’t want to know is everywhere I’m from. It’s very complicated.

But I digress. The DQ, as I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title of this post, comes just slightly after “Where are you from?” and it’s inevitable follow-up, “What do you do?” It’s the thing that comes after you say, “I’m a librarian.”

First there’s the instant smile and the comfortable “oh, that’s nice.”

Then there’s a pause.

And then comes the kicker: “So… what do you do, exactly?”

Long days at the office, dashes across campus to help professors conquer research emergencies, days spent agonizing over classes and preparing for student appointments, weekends spent “catching up,” and hours at the reference desk all flash through my head. But there’s not much that’s coherent, not much that I can latch onto and say “This. This is what I do.” So I rambled both times about working through research processes, sources, and analysis with students and faculty, teaching classes of students before they start out on research assignments, working with intellectual property policy on campus, and sitting at the reference desk several hours a week. We got into how the internet has changed this job in recent years and explanations about why people need a degree to do this job. And then people moved on to talk about a bar somebody liked, the neighbor’s dog, and how much money farmers can make from growing mint.

And maybe that’s ok. I have very little concept of what the woman next to me does all day even though she explained it, and her fiance told me the job is eating her live. Maybe there really are only a handful of jobs in the world that we all know and understand well enough that we don’t have to walk away from newly met people and wonder how they fill their time. Besides, maybe it’s more interesting to work in a job that has so many disparate parts to it, each one with it’s own challenges and rewards.

It’s also gratifying that people actually ask what I do rather than jump to the conclusion that I must shelve books all day. I never ask a lawyer what he or she does all day because I think I know. But I don’t, actually. And it’s only since my cousin became a lawyer that I bothered to find out that there are many branches and specialties in that field. Maybe having people assume our jobs have been usurped by Google is the best thing that’s happened for this profession in a while. Maybe now they’re curious about what happens when we aren’t sitting at the reference desk.

So as much as the DQ is frustrating and unsettling, maybe it doesn’t need to bother me any more. Maybe I can learn to love it as much as I love having people ask me what kind of dog my family’s mutt is, or what ingredients go into my soups.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Jenica Jenica

    I’ve come to realize that we rarely know the nuts and bolts of *anyone’s* job. One of my closest friends has been a corporate attorney for seven years, and just a few months ago I asked her the same question — “What, exactly, do you do?” And I had no idea that was what she did all day…

    And in a profession as complex and changeable as ours, really, I’d rather try to explain than let the “librarian” speak for itself.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    That’s when I chuckle to myself, and if I know the person at least a little bit, I kid them and tell them I answer all the questions that you can’t…followed by a quick wink.

    I’m on the training side of things, so I can get a little bit technical, but the point of libraries is to make the stuff easily accessible (to be taken in easy, where applicable), so “showing” off doesn’t do much good.

  3. Peter Bromberg Peter Bromberg

    Which reminds me of the old “lightening round” scene in
    . After demonstrating that they know the most bizarre minutae about each other, Monica and Rachel are asked, “What is Chandler Bing’s job?”

    (The girls are stumped)

    Rachel: Oh gosh, it has something to do with numbers.

    Monica: And processing.

    Rachel: He carries a briefcase.

    Ross: 10 seconds, you need this or you lose the game.

    Monica: It’s umm, it has something to do with transponding.

    Rachel: Oh-oh-oh, he’s a transponce—transpondster!

    Monica: That’s not even a word! I can get this! I can get this!

    (Ross stops the clock, signifying the end of the lightning round.)

    Monica: NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

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