I've brushed on this topic before in some earlier posts, but I wanted to devote a little more space to it, as it's something that seems to be relatively prevalent. While working at the desk, I've heard variations of the following:
1). "You need a Master's in order to be a librarian?"
2). "Working in a library must be so much fun! I'd love to read all day!"
3). "Are you a volunteer?"
4). "Librarians just organize books and shelve."
5). "Why are you going to school for library science? What can you actually do with that?"
6). "Are all of these books donations?"
I admit this can be maddening. Who wants to have their profession and passion reduced to an amusing hobby, at best? It's not a nice feeling. But the thing is that for the most part, people don't ask this question to be condescending or rude: they ask because they honestly don't know. It is, in its essence, a reference question. The difference is that we are perhaps more emotionally and personally involved with this question than, say, a query about stock prices from August 1943. So it makes it harder to be detached. However, the hallmark of our profession is providing access to information without imposing personal judgment, preferences, or taking personal offense. Why should inquiries about the profession itself be the exception to the rule?
This issue comes up frequently in the context of youth services. If librarians are lazy, children's librarians are the laziest because all they do is read picture books and sing songs. They work with kids all day, and kids are funny and always well-behaved, right?
I will be the first to admit that working with kids is a lot of fun and very rewarding. It is also a heck of a lot of work. Part of doing good work in children's services seems to necessitate hiding the hard work. Our main patron service group is children; our priority is providing them with library services and access to library information and materials. While I've had some children ask me about what I do all day at the library or what I'm working on, the majority are not interested in what I'm doing--their priority is finding whatever it is they're looking for. They're not interested why these stories were selected for storytime or why we ordered this book instead of another one.
So, are we still obligated to explain our roles if they are not immediately apparent or relevant to the patron's needs? I don't have a very good answer for that. I think we can justify the necessity of libraries and librarians through excellent service. I also think there are some areas where we can be more upfront about what we do behind the scenes. And we need to learn to bristle less and explain more when patrons ask about what we do, which I know is much easier said than done.