Rude. Unhelpful. Downright mean. Why are librarians usually depicted as being vile representations of customer care?
First, let’s get a few things straight: I’ve been working with library patrons for the past ten years: roughly four years as a student assistant in Circulation/Administration, six years as a Senior Library Services Associate in Special Collections, and now as a Library Services Specialist in Public Services – all before the age of thirty. I’m a spring chicken when it comes to librarians, which rather goes against the ultimate old lady librarian stereotype that is oftentimes displayed in film, TV and literature. I would also like to think that I’m not rude, unhelpful or mean – I deal mostly with college students and faculty/staff, and I enjoy what I do. So when I see a depiction such as this scene from Sophie’s Choice, I begin to wonder: why are librarians so mean?
Dismissive, condescending and somewhat terrifying: this man literally looks down on Meryl Streep‘s character as if she’s a bug he would love to squash. “Do you want me to paint you a picture?” he nearly shouts. Look at this woman, his upturned nose implies; she has no clue what she’s talking about. Watching this scene, I want to push him aside and patiently say to Sophie, “Do you mean Emily Dickinson? She’s an American poet. Here, let me show you where her books are located.”
In any job description where you have to deal with the public at large, there will be misunderstandings. When it comes to academia – books, research, scholarly articles, timelines, grade point averages! – there is quite a bit aggravation involved. I’ve personally been screamed at (by a professor, no less) and been told I wasn’t much help. Sometimes it’s hard not to become annoyed, simply because patrons sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about. Since I began working Reference, I’ve learned to never trust a patron; if they say they found a source somewhere, chances are it’s somewhere else. Don’t trust they know what “peer reviewed” means, or whether or not they logged in properly. It is my job to explain these things, over and over, to every single patron that shows up with a confused look on their face.
Librarianship, like many other jobs, can at times become monotonous. Very rarely is a unique question ever presented, and I suppose if you’ve been dealing with knuckle-headed students for 30+ years, it can wear on you. The librarian in Sophie’s Choice may deal with silly questions every day, especially because – unlike me – he’s catering to the general public. People ask stupid questions. (True story: once I was asked what rocks are made of.) And yes, sometimes people think they know better than you about something you’ve studied every day for the past heaven knows how many years. Then again, sometimes you simply misunderstand what the person is asking for; you make assumptions, you point them in the wrong direction, and maybe they call you out on it. Maybe they become irritated and roll their eyes or speak sarcastically. It bruises the ego. It makes you testy.
These situations – the monotony, silly questions, simple misunderstandings – exist in nearly every facet of customer service. I become annoyed when someone in Home Depot dismissively tells me the garbage bags are on aisle 14 when they’re really on aisle 16 – but why does that scene not show up when you Google “Why are Home Depot guys so unhelpful/mean/rude”? My theory is that when it comes to knowledge, the stakes are higher. Garbage bags < Emily Dickinson.
So what happens when a Real Life Librarian can’t answer a patron’s question and, for whatever reason, becomes annoyed? In the real world, you perhaps call for backup from one of your colleagues, and let them help you puzzle out the question. Dickens? Poetry? Oh wait, maybe she means Dickinson?
When the same situation happens to a Librarian in Film, he coldly watches as the woman crumples to the floor in front of him. Then he goes back to sorting the card catalog.