So you just stamp books?

Library stamp

This is a statement I’ve come across for the last…oh, lets say over 20 years (crikey that makes me sound old!).

When I was a Librarianship & Information Studies student, way back when, working my way towards a four-year honours degree, I regularly got the “Oh? Why do you need a degree to stamp books?” thing thrown at me once people found out what I was studying. This then morphed into post-degree conversations involving not only “Don’t you just stamp books” but the chestnuts “Do you say Shhhh a lot” and “You don’t LOOK like a librarian.”

Erm, well…no actually, I didn’t just stamp books. There was business management, information management, bibliographic information studies, media studies, psychology, sociology, thesaurus construction, indexing, statistics and… learning to make sure that everyone coming to you asking for information got what they actually needed, not what they asked for:

“Have you got a book on murders in the C19th”

can often mean

“Have you got the fabulous book I read by Dr. Professorface on forensic pathology in 1880s London around the time of the Ripper cases.”

After four years I pretty much knew a LOT about information, what it is, how to treat it and how to find it.

And anyway, what exactly DO librarians look like? Tattoos, brightly dyed hair and a liking for Doc Marten shoes or the clichéd twin-set and pearls with horn-rimmed glasses? It’s actually the first one… and believe me, librarians like to have fun! (yes, this subject still gets my back up all these years on, and …erm, don’t forget Casanova was a librarian).


But I digress, “what’s all this coming to” I hear you cry (or are you crying because you’re a librarian and know where I’m coming from?).

Well, this little snippet from my past points to one thing.

Don’t judge a book by its cover (subtitled: don’t presume that what you think looks easy is actually easy).

There’s a propensity for people to under-value and under-estimate what they see as easy, but once you rip off the cover of a “wordy” occupation, it is actually a lot more involved than you probably think.

When I had to move away from Librarianship I retrained as a genealogist and an indexer. I won’t go into my history career here, but indexing was more of a sideways slide from my chosen profession.

“So doesn’t a computer do that?”

Here we go again…


I’d moved from “just stamping books” to “is that a real thing?”. Cue another ten years of explaining to people that, no, a computer doesn’t adequately produce a useable index for that book you have in your hands. And it really doesn’t, behind each index you see in a book there is someone like me reading the book, dissecting the information in the book, creating access points for the information in the book, creating parallel access points, collating them all and putting them into an order that works for the readership. Usually within a very tight space that’s been provided.

But these days I don’t explain how I work, I just smile and say “no, a computer doesn’t do that, a person does.”

Over the last few years I have added “Editor” to my skill-set. And I love it.

For the first time in my adult life I don’t have to explain that I don’t “just” stamp books or pretend to be a computer….but hang on… there’s one question I do get asked…

“But I have a spell check, why do I need an editor?”

*bangs head on table*

bangs head on table

So come on, tell me… in your profession what daft prejudices and questions do you come across?

20 Comments on “So you just stamp books?

  1. Same as yours! “Oh, but we use Acrolinx. Why do we need an editor?”

    Just out of curiosity, do you don more than one hat at a time? When you write, do you also (mentally) index and edit?

    • Hiya 🙂

      No I tend to have one hat on at a time, it can just muddle things if you try to do more than one thing at a time. However if you are indexing a book you’ve edited it can make it slightly easier as you already know the text.
      When writing it’s slightly different, for instance if you are writing a piece for a book that’s been partly written by someone else you know their style so you can fit in with that… but you can guarantee it’ll still need editing 🙂

  2. Well, as an ex-librarian and an editor, YES. Same stuff, basically. The only useful thing was I did the post-grad course so I could say easily enough, “It’s like being a teacher, you do a 4 year degree or another degree and a year after”. I’m also a transcriber – “Oh, do you put it through voice recognition software”, um, no, because that doesn’t tend to tweak the level of correction to what the client needs or check album and song titles if it can’t make them out …

  3. Thanks Sara, this is a great post – and isn’t it strange how many of us ex-librarians have ended up as editors, indexers, information architects and web editors/writers/managers? What a skill set librarians must have!

    • There are loads of us aren’t there?

      I think one of the reasons is that, especially those of us who trained a while back, librarians were trained in a variety of skills… after a three or four year degree we basically have the knowledge needed for any type of information based work. 🙂

    • How on earth did they find jobs? Librarians are becoming an endangered species (hopefully just biding time for a revival when people realise how important they are) 🙂

  4. As one of the rare beasts a Librarian, I am further and further from the front line these days. I love having my glasses on, wearing a bun and tame clothes! then they spot the bright green in my hair and the kids who know me bounce in and chat about latest music or famous folks and I know what they are talking about, or a phone rings and I need to be talking policy or budgets, or more recently meetings that involve a day to get there and another to get back! Stamping books and saying shhhh Ha ha ha ha… I wish. though I am not a big DM fan 😉

    • Tut Tut Ruan….mind you, my DMs are being neglected at the moment.

      Being a librarian means being a manager, a budget keeper, a detective, a confidant, a reader, a psychologist, a mind-reader and a fount of all knowledge.

      Must admit though… I sometimes miss being in a big old University library among the hustle and bustle of student life 😉

  5. As a 21 year old school Librarian… stop! As a school Librarian of 21 years now I still sometimes get the ‘do you just stamp books?’ but it is rare now. I can gladly say that I am still a traditional librarian at heart, along side being many other things – life coach, a listening ear, book advisor, reading promoter, shoulder to cry on (not literally, of course)’ ‘teacher” educator’ IT [not quite] expert’ website creator & blogger, and general information curator and disseminator, let alone being a Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering player, Warhammer painter and to the utter shock of new pupils to the school, an XBox gamer!

    • That’s because you were taught well (did that list sound familiar? 😉 )….are a super librarian (both the regular type and the superhero type) and are an essential part of your school, just like Ruan.

      And you are SO lucky to still play D&D 😀

      I also admire you a hell of a lot xx

  6. I started off as a Chartered Accountant (you can imagine the “boring” comments), then became a university lecturer, then a librarian and now a library assistant! Not the usual upward career path, but I love my current job and am old enough now to laugh at the stereotypes!

    • You’re lucky to get an assistant’s job… the “over-qualified for the job” thing usually kicks in then (I’ve had that chestnut before).

      If you can find a job that you love it’s the best… and I’ll bet you’ve had lots of stereotype conversations 😉

  7. Great responses all around! And a brilliant piece, Sara. 🙂

    I began as an intelligence officer in the American Air Force. Funny how generalizations and prejudices expand across many disciplines. With me the questions were always “Are you a spy?” “Do you interrogate people?” and other James Bondian things. Not so glamorous, of course. I basically did research and public speaking. Had to brief commanders and crews from information other intelligence folks had gathered, not me.

    And then I went straight from there (well, almost) to book indexing, with all those questions you mentioned, Sara, and then to editing and proofreading. We all have our own worlds of inside knowledge and “magic” that create the value of the services we offer. Often taken for granted, but without us, books would be damn near unreadable, and often unfindable.

      • Well, I did like the sleek blue flight cap, but the rest of the uniform was very retro 70s polyester (ewe!). Best part was being able to live in Norfolk during that time frame; worst part was the threat of the Cold War turning into something really nasty; that’s what I was there to prepare for. I would have loved the real-time information transfer they have nowadays. We knew a little more than the nightly news, but were usually not on top of fast-moving events. 1980s technology was way too slow. 🙂

      • oooh tell me about it.

        Can you imagine how young adults these days would cope with being transported to the 80s!

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