Kind of a Big Deal

What it’s like to be a famous librarian

Jessamyn West
· 6 min read

I didn’t choose the librarian life, the librarian life chose me.

“Who is the most famous person in your profession?”

We had this conversation over dinner last week. Everyone named a name that the others had never heard of. The most famous electrical engineer. The most famous physical therapist. The most famous prisoner’s rights lawyer. And I realized that, for some values of famous, the most famous librarian is me.

My name usually shows up on lists of famous librarians. You Google “famous librarian” and you see a picture of me. No I am not joking.

Their definition of librarian may be a little loose.

Sometimes you Google “famous librarian” and there I am.

The list of famous librarians is not that long and it’s often made up of people who have done things with books generally and may or may not have spent the bulk of their lives working in or around libraries. The people that Google thinks of as librarians mostly had other jobs. When the short list of famous people in your profession includes Eratosthenes, you learn that librarianship is not a platform that supports what most people would think of as celebrity. I don’t get recognized when I go into random libraries (usually) and my name is not a library household word. However I have gotten to go on some great “behind the scenes” library tours and seen some awesome library basements. You can spend your fame in different ways and that’s where mine goes.

Being on the internet since forever, owning the domain, and replying to email when lazy-googling reporters contact me all work together as a pyramid scheme of increasing findability in a world where findability = fame. I did a few high profile things on the early web (USA PATRIOT Act warrant canary signs, blogging at the 2004 Democratic National Convention). That helped. When you Google “librarian” I’m the first result that has a single human at the other end. And I answer the phone.

King of the Dipshits

I grew up in the era of movies like Sixteen Candles. Nerds on the screen were characters like Anthony Michael Hall’s Farmer Ted who wanted nothing more than to show his geek friends a pair of girl’s underwear in order to maintain his status as somewhat higher-functioning than they were. His self-proclaimed title, king of the dipshits, is one he wears with honor. The only memorable female nerd in this movie was Joan Cusack, awkwardly trapped in a neckbrace.

The jockeying for status among the nerds was what stuck with me. They’re on the bottom of the social pecking order at school, but among themselves everyone’s got their role to play. The world of nerds hasn’t changed that much, but their job opportunities have expanded dramatically. Librarianship is a classic nerd profession and I mean that in the best way possible. As a middle-aged female nerd, when I say king of the dipshits, I say it with love and pride.

Staying vs. Roaming

Part of being well-known is just meeting people. Librarianship is a distributed profession that maps the population. There’s not really a concentrated core of librarians in any one location besides “online.” If you want to know librarians personally, and want them to know you, you travel. Which gets tricky because most people who actually work full-time in libraries get few opportunities to travel for their jobs outside of the occasional state or national conference. And yet, they are the ones doing the good works that people like me only talk about.

If you can travel, people get to know you and you get to know them. And if you’ve got the time, there are lots of places to go.

There’s a national conference annually and then each state has their own association which also has an annual conference. Then there are different subgroups such as law librarians, music librarians, public librarians, Christian librarians, progressive librarians and these groups all have their own conferences that need attendees and speakers…

I’ve held part-time jobs doing technology instruction, answering email, writing for library publications, running websites, and doing public speaking at library conferences which means I get to high five librarians all over the country. They meet me but most importantly: I meet them. Knowing the things that matter to librarians all over the country also makes me feel like I’m doing our work when I use my mini-fame to help forward the concerns of our profession to the people outside of it.

What does a famous librarian do?

  • Graduate (mentor)

Having people entering the profession thinking it’s fun and creative and interesting is so much better than people thinking it’s a clean indoor job where you can read all day. The bumper crop of new librarians is so much snazzier and savvier than when I was in library school. Let’s keep it up. Get good people into the profession and keep them there.

  • Collaborate

Fight the perpetual image problem from the inside. Work on morale at the same time as you work on messaging. Promote good works by your colleagues and say “Nice going” as often as possible. People make fun of how you dress? Ignore them and rock that cardigan. Rock it.

  • Translate

I am good with technology and speaking to tech people. I am good with understanding what a library needs in its technological environment. I often translate one group’s needs and concerns to the other, and back again and suggest ways these communications can go more clearly in the future.

  • Innovate

We’ve got a license to share and it’s a marvelously fertile time for using technology to do just that. Figuring out what technology adapts well to library purposes (for use within the library or connecting librarians outside the library) and being an early adopter and telling stories of how other libraries are using technology well.

  • Agitate

I frequently remind people that serving the entire public is actually challenging and complex and that libraries do a pretty good job at it even in the face of an increasingly privatized world. Copyright reform, fair use, intellectual freedom and the Library Bill of Rights remain important foundations of our profession. Tell people.

  • Advocate

For diversity and inclusion. Our profession should reflect the diversity of our patrons. Access to content and services should be as equitable as we can make it, for all the people, especially the most difficult to serve. The empowerment divide is real. Libraries and their supporters often speak for the people who can’t or don’t speak for themselves.

These are not really what you would think of as famous-person activities. There’s very little autograph signing. I rarely appear in fancy outfits or have my photo taken in public. Ultimately I’m just one part of a really large interconnected system of people and technology that runs the libraries in this country. And our people are only as famous as they need to be to get that job done.

♫ “We found them and they found us and now they are ours. And we’re so happy” ♫

Book icon designed by Dmitry Baranovskiy from The Noun Project. CC-by-3.0.

today in librarian tabs

Today in Librarian Tabs by Jessamyn West

Thanks to James D. Poolner, Quinn Norton, and Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Jessamyn West

Written by

Rural tech geek. Proud member of the librarian resistance. Collector of mosses. Enjoyer of postcards. ✉️ box 345 05060 ✉️

today in librarian tabs

Today in Librarian Tabs by Jessamyn West