Monday, January 16, 2006

What's in a Name?

The image of librarians gets a lot of attention, with librarians frequently upset by the librarian as represented in popular culture. Here's a description of the profession from The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey - a book about a map thief and about maps themselves that I read over the weekend.
What a vapid job title our culture gives to those honorable laborers the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians veriously called Learned Men of the Magic Library, Scribes of the Double House of Life, Mistresses of the House of Books, or Ordainers of the Universe. Librarian -- that mouth-contorting, graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious -- it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in a permanent squint from reading too much microfiche. If it were up to me, I would abolish the word entirely and turn back to the lexicological wisdom of the ancients, who saw librarians not as feeble sorters and shelvers but as heroic guardians. In Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly title: Keeper of the Books. (113, Broadway paperback ed.)
This is one of those pats on the back that can make you cringe. Yes, special collections librarians do take preservation seriously, for good reason. But there's a lot more variety in the profession than keepers and preservers of books. The image of "heroic guardian" who saves books from people doesn't make me that much happier than "stoop-shouldered loser" - unless the heroics are tongue-in-cheek.


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