Saturday, August 3, 2013

Oh, is THAT what librarians do?

First full day with Hubby Jim in Montréal. Here for his Joint Statistical Meetings 2013 Conference and my temporary escape from the world of librarianship—I thought.

The most obvious part of this adventure, of course, is that we speak no French.

I had a year of conversational French in high school, back in another century, but it didn't really take.

I'm able to puzzle out written French, since there's enough French in English and enough Latin in both. It surprises my how much I do remember...and how many words and phrases are springing from dusty memory.

But comprend-ing spoken French, let along speaking it? I'll be fine if I ever have the occasion to use the one sentence I remember: "Alors, je vais chercher du bon vin à la cave." Otherwise....

Montreal Metro mapAs a linguistics undergraduate I suffered terminal stage fright when it came to speaking German, French, Telugu, Japanese...anything I tried. Sort of like a med student who can't stand the sight of blood. Not a strong résumé point.

On the other hand, as Jim and I were navigating the STM for the first time this morning, I discovered that I have two very powerful tools at hand.

First, I spent sixth through ninth grade in Boston, traveling the whole metropolitan area on buses, trolleys and subways of the MBTA. In other words, I know the underground.

Childhood apartment building in the Back Bay Area, Boston, MA
When I returned to Boston for the 2006 Public Library Association Conference, I felt lost in downtown Boston, where I had never hung out as a kid. However, as soon as I went underground, I knew exactly where I was. With no trouble at all I was able to find the apartment where we had lived in the Back Bay area.

Jim is a Google Maps fanatic who spends hours "driving through" different cities around the world. I tease him that we didn't actually need to come to Montréal, since he's already "been on" every street. Underground, though, he was missing the basic navigation cues which I knew despite never having been here before.

It was when we needed the Centre de service à la clientele to replace a faulty e-ticket that I discovered what librarians really do.

Even without signs in English, the layout, the icons and the recognizable words helped me puzzle out the necessary steps: punch this green button, take the waiting line ticket, watch for your number on the display, go to the designated window. It was much like being online.

(It helps that in truly global nations, unlike in the United States, children are raised to be at least bilingual. Almost every service person here speaks English and French with equal fluency.)

So my point is?

Being a librarian is not about books. Being a librarian is about deciphering how people organize and display unfamiliar information. It is about mastery of visual and conceptual cues as much as about verbal knowledge.

We do our best work at a meta-level, discerning how people think, search, find and display through gestures and symbols—even when we are unfamiliar with the language or field of information in which we are doing that work.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,


Brooke Stephens said...

Excellent discernment. And we knowledge magicians just get better with age until dementia sets in. Otherwise, I think all of us librarians are brilliant, underappreciated information junkies.

Mike Shell said...

Thanks, Brooke.

Of course, magicians can't tell when dementia sets in. It just seems like a more entertaining "normal."