Same same. But different.

I have never been to Asia. Unless you count Singapore Airport where I spent a few hours on a stopover. As all I did was have a massage, a shower, buy an overpriced day-old sandwich and a packet of chicken Twisties (NOT the same as the Aussie flavour which I had craved for 18 months), I don’t think it does count. However I had a boss when I was 18 who went to Vietnam for a holiday. When he came back his favourite saying was “same same but different”. Leaving aside that he said it in a fake Asian accent which I found to be slightly on the wrong side of racist, the meaning has always stuck with me. It is a way of saying “we are the same, although we look different”. As in, we are all human. As a sensitive kind of lass, I find this interpretation moving, and it has stayed with me for fourteen years.

Ever since I joined the librarian fold I have been struck by the emphasis that appears to be put by so many of our ilk on our “differences”. These can be between sectors, job titles, remuneration, even our “professionalism” (but I think the whole qualification thing is another blog post. At least!)

Disclaimer: The attitudes I talk about in this post are not a reflection of the whole library and information science (LIS) profession – in fact, I have the great honour of having a wonderful Personal Learning Network (PLN), primarily through Twitter, that has all manner of members who share, collaborate and support each other no matter what their LIS sector or title. This post charts some of the attitudes I have encountered over the seven years I have worked in the sector, and serves as a call for more of the kind of networking that occurs via the Australian/New Zealand Twitter PLN.

When I was studying towards my qualification and working in an academic library I recall a quite senior librarian defending our profession – that is, the academic librarian profession – by belittling public librarians. The argument seemed to be “our job is much harder/requires more intelligence: we are real librarians – they are not”. I’m taking liberties and not quoting directly, but that was certainly the message. Academic librarians need brains to interact meaningfully with academics and students, and work extremely hard: public librarians need to be able to shelve. They don’t even buy their own books anymore! Whereas we’re so busy with important library work that we don’t even go into the shelves! Clearly we are superior.

Imagine my surprise then when I moved into the corporate information sector. We weren’t even called librarians, and we didn’t work in a library. We were so much better than librarians. Even though most of us had a library qualification, no-one except me identified themself as a librarian in the external world. We were Business Researchers. Information managers. Business analysts. It was clearly understood, and regularly remarked on: to work in the corporate sector you need the brains to do serious research, and you work extremely hard: academic librarians need to be able to buy books, public librarians shelve books. We don’t even have books! Clearly we are superior.

When I was a public librarian I learnt that nobody understands user groups like public librarians. We are the true librarians – we have to deal with all aspects of the community, and meet their needs every single day. Academic librarians have it so easy, and the libraries are so hierarchical they completely lose touch with the reality of the job. Did you know that academic librarians think themselves above shelving and circulation? I’ve even heard that in academic libraries they’re moving their librarians out of customer facing roles! Can you imagine that, how will the library patrons get help? To work in a public library you need the brains to meet user expectations, and you work extremely hard: academic librarians are up in their ivory towers doing God-knows-what. Clearly we are superior.

When I was a special librarian I learnt that special librarians are the only real librarians left these days. We have to do everything you know – we are Jills’ of all trades and mistresses of them all too, because the buck stops with us. Whether we are working as a law, health, engineering or another specialised area , we are undoubtedly the most skilled of all. We have to do everything public and academic librarians do on a fraction of the budget with few staff. To be a special librarian you need the brains deal with everything, and you work extremely hard: all other library roles pale in comparison. Clearly we are superior.

I’ve never worked as a teacher librarian but I don’t doubt there those with similar attitudes there. And in records management, knowledge management, archives… And so it goes on. I’m better than you, you’re better than them, but at the end of the day what does all of this achieve? What, I ask, is the point of all of this one-upmanship?

My answer? There is no point. Well, no reasonable point. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know what it is that drives people to compete and compare and make ourselves feel better by putting others down. But I’ll tell you what I see in all of this. I see a waste of time, energy, and potential. Potential to share our differences and learn from them. Potential to revel in our commonalities – after all, we have more in common than we have in difference. We may be different on the surface. But underneath, we are same same.


About Naomi Doessel

I'm a librarian by profession and a reader at heart. I occasionally blog about the profession, my relationship with food, and I annually fundraise for ovarian cancer research and prevention during Frocktober.
This entry was posted in attitudes, librarians, PLN, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Same same. But different.

  1. Hoi says:

    Haha yes we all have brains and work extremely hard, period. PS. I always always always enjoy reading your posts =)

  2. Hana says:

    Awesome post Naomi!

    Just an aside, one of my brother’s has a t’shirt that says “same same” on the front, and “but different” on the back. I like it. It is a strong and easy message to remember.

  3. Ashley Moore says:

    Nice post Naomi. Good to see you are back blogging.

    I remember watching a talk from a psychologist on the powerful need people have to feel part of a group that is better than other groups.
    There was an experiment where they arbitrarily split people into two groups and gave them a task. Almost instantly the members of both groups formed rationalisations as to why the group they were in was better than the other one.

  4. alison says:

    It is one of the things I don’t like about our profession. I agree, it is a boring waste of energy and potential. There is so much that is same same if only people would open their eyes and connect with each other. As a public librarian I often refer students (as necessary) to the university library or the TAFE library, the hospital library on occasion to nursing students/staff, etc. I recognise their expertise (and they’re very nice people too).

  5. Peta says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever encountered strong one-upmanship as you described across sectors. But I concur that the fabulous support from library folks via the online community has been tremendous and one of its wonders is the diversity of people in all manner of libraries and roles and their willingness to share.

    I went to Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years back and heard the “same, same but different” phrase all over both countries. In Siem Reap we stayed at the Red Piano Guest House and my husband bought a t-shirt that has “Red, Red, but Piano” on it. A totally irrelevant aside, but quirky huh?

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