[Originally published September 14, 2012.]
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,