Better than being flayed to death with abalone shells, but still

Because I’m married to a librarian, and acquainted with a lot of her colleagues, I’m somewhat familiar with their challenges and concerns — whether it’s a gravely important issue like standing up for their patrons’ privacy against the intrusions of the Patriot Act or less liberty-threatening peeves.

So I can’t help but get indignant on their behalf when I see in a New York Times article — about the director of the National Archives, no less — this wearisome little bit:

Mr. Ferriero is not your stereotypical library scold shushing people in a reading room. He is witty, engaging, immersed in technology and views the jobs of librarian and archivist as very similar.

Really? How wonderful of reporter Sam Roberts to point that out. Such a generous impulse, to go out of his way to say that someone who has held leadership positions at M.I.T. and Duke and the New York Public Library is actually witty and engaging, and does not fit the shushing-librarian stereotype. Perhaps Roberts should be celebrated as a noble stereotype-debunker alongside Vice President Biden, who once praised Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Perhaps he should go on to write about Secretary of State Clinton, making sure to marvel at the fact that she doesn’t fulfill traditional expectations about meek, submissive wives. And perhaps he should report on the policies of Felipe Calderon, taking pains to explain that the Mexican president doesn’t actually take siestas in the shade of a cactus with his sombrero draped over his face.

Alright, perhaps I’m overreacting. Maybe the shushing-librarian stereotype is still prevalent enough in the general public that reporters feel the need to mention it, if only to contradict it. But I fear that, ironically, pointing out the stereotype solidifies its hold even further — and, what’s more, may reveal something unflattering about the one who mentions it. Biden’s gaffe betrays the fact that he clearly doesn’t hang out with enough black people; ditto Bill O’Reilly’s surprised “compliment” about the predominantly black patrons at a black-run Harlem restaurant not fitting the notion (his own) about African Americans being rude and obnoxious. Similarly, Roberts’s statement smacks of condescension — perhaps unintended. It suggests to me that he doesn’t know many librarians, and that he thinks his readers don’t either; they apparently need to be made aware of the happy revelation that there exist librarians who aren’t shushing scolds.

I’m hardly the first one to get on a soapbox about this. Among many other websites, Ruth Kneale’s You Don’t Look Like A Librarian collects articles and resources about the perception of librarians in the digital age; see, for instance, her own presentation at a 2002 Special Library Association conference about the topic (with links to several rebelliously non-shushing librarians’ sites at the end). The excellent documentary Hollywood Librarian explores not just librarians’ images in the media but shines the spotlight on the diverse work that librarians do in the real world; the film hopes to “increase the public’s awareness of the complex and democratic nature of librarianship in the age of technology, and be a step toward librarians redefining themselves as not only more than a stereotype, but also as a cultural imperative.” And Marilyn Johnson’s book This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All extols the awesomeness and importance of librarians in general; the Leonard Lopate Show has an interview with her here — in which she responds to Lopate’s infuriatingly stupid question “Do you still get shushed [in libraries]?” with a brief and telling pause. “I wish people would just let go of that,” she goes on; “They’re noisy places now!”

Interestingly, even a well-meaning article like the older Times piece “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers” doesn’t really solve the problem or salve librarians’ righteous indignation; as Pop Goes the Library says, “We’re exchanging one stereotype for another.”

I love being a librarian. I love talking about books. I love answering questions. I love reading blog posts and using del.icio.us and sending text messages. But I’d never consider myself a ‘hipster librarian’. For one thing, since I joke that I’m mentally twelve years old, I know I’ll never be cool enough to be a hipster librarian. But also, there’s a part of me that delights in doing the unexpected, in going against the crowd. I was a teen in the early nineties, so when everyone else was listening to grunge, I was listening to show tunes. Instead of hanging out at the mall, I was reading.

When I see a group all eager to promote one way of being a librarian, I’m not going to follow that crowd. I may do all the things they do, but I don’t look like they do. And that’s okay, you know? For both them and me, our outward appearances don’t affect the tasks we do, the service we give. I just hate the thought that in some minds, appearances and performance are linked, and the only way you can be a cool librarian is to have an eyebrow piercing or go out for drinks that are identified by Dewey call numbers.

In a nutshell: Why can’t librarians just be seen as people?

Well — at least, thank goodness, they’ve come a long way from being flayed to death with abalone shells:

(Images h/t LifeRants, Broward Palm Beach News [even if they did unironically refer to “mousy librarians” in their caption] and The Bookworm Librarian)

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Better than being flayed to death with abalone shells, but still

  1. Pingback: Librarian in Residence – Goethe-Institut New York

  2. Wait! Librarians have all these concerns you mention, not to mention the ever present concerns about budget cuts you mentioned on another post–and you’re concerned about image problems?

    Yes, I imagine continually being compared to Marian the Librarian would get old pretty quickly and that this type of stereotyping is just another way to put down women in one of the few areas of society where they have a history of real authority.

    But it seems like people have always pretended that this image thing is the most important thing about librarians. Thus, back in the 1990s, when a writer for one of the local alternative papers in Dallas wrote an article on how underbudgeted the local downtown library was and why it was a bad thing that its resources were being spread so thin, the only response the writer got to said article from the local hipster set was complaints about how unfashionably the librarian on the newspaper’s front page was being depicted.

    The funny thing is that this happened in the same paper that carried what seemed like endless number of letters from local hipsters denouncing Jesse Helm’s attempt to curtail funding for the NEA. So when federal bigwigs threatens to cut funding for artists who may or may not be far away, local hipsters can be expected to shout about it from the rooftops but when it comes to making sure the local poor have an adequate supply of books for their children, the local hipsters tend to suddenly acquire an acute case of lockjaw?

    Geez, no wonder people tend to get skeptical.

    Apart from that, good article. And I’d much rather see my tax dollars go to pay for more libraries than for yet another pork barrel construction project.

    • Good points, Tonio. In my defense, I did say right up front that this isn’t a liberty-threatening crisis on the same level as the privacy violations, sanctioned by the Patriot Act, that librarians have valiantly struggled against. A lot has been written about that particular issue as well.

      Having said that, I do think that the image problem is important, because how librarians and libraries are perceived in the general public affects how funding decisions are made. If librarians are seen as nothing more than scolding, shushing book-shelvers, and libraries themselves as nothing more than infrequently-visited collections of dusty and outdated old texts, it’s easier to dismiss them and slash their budgets. Educating the public about who librarians actually are, what they actually do, what services libraries actually provide, and how essential they actually are to a democratic society helps ensure that libraries get the funding they need to continue their work. Perhaps when advocates for libraries (including me) complain about stereotypes, we should make more of an effort to connect the image problem to this larger issue.

      I think it’s interesting that this is, by far, the most-viewed post on my blog; a lot of recent visitors are apparently librarians who’ve been pointed to this post by a couple of email or blog recommendations. So the image thing seems to be an important issue in the librarian community itself. I’d be interested to hear what librarians have to say about this if any would care to comment.

      Adding: You write that librarianship is “one of the few areas of society where [women] have a history of real authority.” I agree, of course, but even in this area it’s infuriating to observe that — as in other fields — it’s the men who tend to get the leadership positions and the higher salaries. The director of the National Archives is male. The president of NYPL is male, as are many of those in upper management positions, as far as I can tell. Meanwhile, it’s mostly the women who are doing the essential work of managing the collections and interacting with the public, for far less pay. Nothing against the male leaders themselves, but I have to wonder why impressively qualified and highly competent female librarians aren’t rising as quickly through the ranks, and getting the salaries and titles they deserve. (Yes, I’m biased, since I’m married to one of those highly competent librarians, but I think it’s a valid general observation nonetheless.)

  3. Pingback: Good News: Librarian Job Growth Exploding! | The Signal: Digital Preservation

  4. Pingback: Good News on Library Job Growth? It All Depends on How you Look At It. | DC/SLA

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