Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2012


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A Librarian's Tale

‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’  (Jorge Luis Borges)

Librarians suffer from a long held stereotype. They are female of an indistinguishable age, mousy haired, wear thick-rimmed glasses and a sour disposition. The job description includes stamping books and chastising anyone who talks in their vicinity. They are intimidating gatekeepers to a wonderful world of knowledge hidden on dusty shelves.

As a child, my local library was a safe place where I could hide away and secretly let my imagination run free to explore the world hidden in these dusty volumes. When I decided to study library and information studies at university, I thought I’d still be able to closet myself away in a corner, never talking to a soul, and read all the interesting books. After twenty years in the profession, I have rarely read an entire book in a collection I have managed and usually find it hard to have a moment to myself.

I am what is known as a ‘specialist librarian’. I work in organisations that have a small library to assist their staff with research.  Librarians are excellent researchers, as we understand how information is organised and published. We know how to find and assess information for its relevancy to our clients. As a result, many librarians have terrific general knowledge and are a great asset at quiz nights.

Librarians also tend to be good listeners and skilled presenters. We must be competent in interviewing our clients to extract details on what exactly they require. Strange as this seems, many people have difficulty describing what they are actually looking for and often need assistance in articulating their requirements. Training our clients is important to us as empowering them can help reduce our own workloads. This kind of ‘information literacy’ as we call it, is a major service provided by school and university libraries. I also like to think we are calm in the face of conflict. I don’t know of any librarian who hasn’t been shouted at by a bad tempered or aggressive client.

Librarians are obsessed with new technologies; unfortunately it is a love - hate relationship. The advent of the Web, email, scanning and a plethora of database products have all transformed how librarians perform their duties. Some of the libraries I have worked in during the last few years have been completely digitised. There is not a book in sight, not even a telephone book. Other libraries I know have closed as their ‘short-sighted’ clients think Google is the answer to their information needs. This ‘Google mentality’ is a serious threat to many librarians, but the library profession is fighting back with the knowledge that quantity of information is not the same as quality. Librarians know how to filter vast volumes of information.

Deadlines always loom. I must provide information services to my clients by a set time. Sometimes I can negotiate reasonable deadlines but, more often than not, they are beyond my control. Librarians have to think laterally under pressure so it helps to have a curious and open mind. Many librarians brainstorm research strategies before they start methodically searching all the possible information resources available. The information must be presented to the client in a usable format.

On a good day when my clients are happy with me, I feel like a professional superhuman – able to think quickly on my feet, juggle deadlines and scale the heights of the latest technology - all with a smile. Sometimes I get called a magician, but most of the time I make do with a mumbled ‘thanks’. To survive as a librarian you must have a strong desire to contribute and not rely on the gratitude of your clients.

Another friendly magician at work

The librarian as a heroic figure is certainly not the image presented in the ABC's hit comedy, The Librarian. This ensemble of library workers seems to have a tendency towards hysteria, xenophobia and a preoccupation with sex. You can imagine the debate this TV show has caused within the librarian profession. Some librarians are outraged whilst others believe that any publicity is good for the profession. Personally I tend towards the latter as I think the show has highlighted the public library as the hub of the community. Everyone is welcome regardless of employment status, ethnicity, age or gender. Visit your local library and you may see librarians conducting story-telling or loading a van with books for a visit to a local nursing home.

The character of Nada al Farouk in The Librarian is my favourite and not just because she is a Muslim. It is her poise and clear-headedness when surrounded by chaos; it is her absolute dedication to her clients when the hysterical senior librarian is ready to have them escorted off the premises. Nada may be the token Muslim but she is also the best example of a professional librarian.

When I reflect back on my career I am very pleased that the reality of working in a library environment was so much more than I had initially envisaged. If knowledge is power, perhaps the searcher of knowledge is a magician - a magician like me - a female magician of indistinguishable age, with mousy hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a sour disposition.

Miriam Mortimore