A couple of weeks ago, the phone rang in my cubicle. It was an outside call and I didn’t recognize the number, but when I picked up the receiver to “Hey, Sally!”, the voice was quite familiar. I hear it most often on the radio, usually telling funny stories or making wise cracks at the weekly news stories on NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me.” It was the syndicated advice columnist, author, and humorist, Amy Dickinson on the other end of the line. She had sent me a note a day or so earlier, asking if she could call me and ask me some questions about librarians. Yes. That’s right. The advice columnist asked me if she could ask me for advice. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was a darned thrilling moment. I love Amy’s columns, her bits on the “Wait Wait” panel, and her social media presence on Twitter and Facebook. I loved her memoir about a small town and strong women. And when I had the chance to meet her in person last summer, I found that she was as lovely in person as in the media. Funny. Engaging. Downright nice. The kind of person that you like to say that you know. At least I do. And now, here was Amy asking me questions while I sat at my desk in the library. “Don’t blow it,” I thought to myself, “This is the closest you’re ever gonna get to being Kee Malesky.”
It turned out that Amy had been invited to speak at a conference of librarians in Detroit and upon hearing that many in the audience would be academic librarians, not the public librarians a popular author might be more comfortable with, she called me for some background info, some of my thoughts and opinions on how technology was changing libraries, changing reading habits, changing everything related to information. While we were chatting, Amy told me a story about how she was once sitting on an airplane next to a librarian and found it kind of odd that the librarian didn’t seem much interested in the fact that Amy was a writer. How could a librarian not be interested in someone who wrote a book? Don’t we all love books? Isn’t that why librarians become librarians?
The truth is that I have plenty of colleagues who cringe at the very suggestion of connecting our work with books. The stereotype is killing the profession, or so they believe. Maybe. And it’s also true that my work has very little to do with books. Most of my colleagues don’t do a lot of work involving books. But still, I don’t particularly mind the connection. I love books. I love writers. I love people who write for a living in any form. I wish I was one of them. If Amy Dickinson sat down next to me on a plane, she’d probably soon wish that she’d never opened her mouth. I’d talk her ear off, I’m sure.
But the librarian > book > author disconnect that Amy experienced wasn’t what bothered me so much about the story. What bothered me more was that it was a story of a librarian not finding another person interesting. Granted, lots of people (myself included) don’t like to talk to strangers on a plane. We like to travel in peace and quiet. We’re generally absorbed in work or a puzzle or… heavens! … a book. I understand this completely. Still, there was something about not being interested that stuck with me.
Last night, I went to an author reading at the Medical School. I wasn’t planning on it, but I walked right through the pre-talk cocktail party as I was leaving work and noticed it was a small crowd. I decided to stick around and support the event and my co-workers who’d worked hard to put it on. I don’t attend these events often and I wonder why, because every one that I’ve been to has been really interesting. They are hosted by the Humanities in Medicine Committee, so they always have a humanitarian theme, or put another way, they focus often on the human side of either being a doctor or being a patient. And they’re always, as I said, interesting. Last night was no different.
I looked around at the many empty chairs and I also took in the demographics of the audience – older and almost entirely male. There were no medical students. There were no younger docs. And it was a shame, because it was a story about the importance of doctors being interested in the people that they care for, in the importance of knowing their patients. Sadly, it didn’t seem a topic of much interest.
When I got home, I told my spouse about the evening and I told her the story that Amy had shared with me about her encounter with the librarian and I asked, “Do you think we’re just not interested in one another anymore? Do you think we’re too overwhelmed with our own lives to care much for what others do? Do you think we’re all too tired? Do you think we’re self-absorbed?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.” That was Lynn’s reply.
When I think about the skills that make an informationist successful, one of the most important is curiosity. I didn’t necessarily become a librarian because I love books, but I became a librarian because I LOVE looking stuff up. I find lots of things fascinating. I find what people do to be interesting. Watching the screen saver images of brain scans on a PIs computer, I can’t help but ask, “What’s that?” It’s my nature. And one thing that I’ve learned as I’ve worked with researchers over the years is that, by and large, they really do enjoy telling you about what they do. They like explaining the science. Maybe they don’t have time to give you a primary introduction, but most of them can tell you a pretty good story or two that explains the experiments they’re doing and the questions they’re asking and the problems that they’re trying to solve.
As I was leaving a meeting with the PI for the new study that I’m working on, I told him that I was really enjoying learning about all of the issues around data citation, DOIs, and things particular to neuroimaging. “It’s a lot of new stuff for me,” I told him. His reply was, “Good. I was afraid it would be boring; just the same old thing that you do all of the time.” He’s an interesting person and it seemed obvious that he knew how awful not doing something interesting can be.
I’m heading to Chicago in the morning for the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association. I’ll be blogging (probably sketchnotes) about the plenary speakers and link those posts to here, so that you can follow along, if you wish. In the meantime, I hope you meet someone interesting today. And that someone meets an interesting you.