Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I’m here. I’m a librarian. Get used to it.

I've been meaning to post this for a while, as I wrote it before Thanksgiving, but then I, well, forgot. As I've mentioned before, I have a friend in library school. She asked me for some "quick responses" to questions about librarian stereotypes; I of course, am incapable of writing quick responses, particularly to such questions.

As a preface, I would like to note that when I first started telling people I was going to become a librarian one of the most common responses I got was, "But you're kinda loud." 'Cause, you know, the ability to speak in soft tones is pretty much the only requirement of the job.

1. Do you think there are librarian stereotypes?
Of course there are librarian stereotypes. There are stereotypes for almost any profession. And you would think that librarians—who, more than almost any other group of people, embody the inclination to group and categorize information—would understand the impulse people have to stereotype groups of people. Stereotypes are a shorthand that we use to try to make sense of the world. So librarians are stereotyped as tight-lipped, mousy, control freaks. And lawyers are assholes. And investment bankers are heartless bastards. And so on. If you think about it, we come out looking pretty good, professional stereotype-wise.

What I do think sets us apart (and I’m going to talk about it even though it’s only tangentially related to your question, ‘cause it’s a pet peeve of mine) is the amount of worrying and hand-wringing we do about how we’re stereotyped. I can’t 100% guarantee it, but I’m pretty certain that there aren’t any classes in law school where they talk about lawyer stereotypes and how to overcome them. And I understand that--given that we work with the public directly--how we’re perceived may matter more. But I’m tired of the “how do we change our image?” melodrama. You can’t force people to have a different perception of you. These stereotypes came from somewhere—a lot of people grew up going to libraries that were staffed by tight-lipped, mousy control freak librarians who shushed them. Many members of newer generations of librarians are not like that, so when this younger generation grows up they will likely have a different impression of librarians. But you can’t just tell people you’re different; you have to show them. Stop spending so much time talking about how libraries are new, different, dynamic places, and just work on being new, different, dynamic places. People will figure it out. But it won’t happen overnight, so we may just need to chill the fuck out.

2. Do you think they are valid?
I think I kind of addressed this above, but I’ll elaborate. They are valid in that they came from somewhere. No one started a smear campaign about librarians. I think the profession does attract people who are generally more introverted, and I think it’s fair to say that people who devote their professional lives to organizing and accessing information may have some control issues. I wish we would stop being ashamed of these characteristics. Yes, we value space for introspection, and intellectual pursuits, and an organized world. These are not bad things.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that while many people probably have a stereotypical image of librarians as a group, they feel differently about their librarian. I get variations of “you’re not like other librarians” all the time. And I think this speaks to what I was talking about above—we change our collective image by our individual actions.

I’m going to use a potentially bizarre analogy here. Leaders in the gay rights movement urge closeted gays to come out because it’s been shown time and again that knowing an out gay person changes a person’s view of gays more effectively than any public service announcement ever could. “I don’t like gay people—but you’re okay” is generally how the sentiment goes. And the more gay people that person knows, the more their overall image of gay people changes. So the more librarians who don’t fit the old stereotype a person meets, the more their stereotype of librarians in general changes. I’m here. I’m a librarian. Get used to it.

3. Do you think they are harmful?
I think what’s harmful is getting caught up in trying to change, en masse, everyone’s opinion of every librarian. It makes us lose focus. But I do see the point of people who worry about librarian stereotypes—people who have negative stereotypes of librarians are less likely to come into libraries. However--as the recent economic unpleasantness has shown--when people need libraries, they will come. And that’s when we have a chance to change their perceptions going forward.


  1. Reading this makes me miss working with you SOOOO much! And, it should be required reading for anyone that wants to be a librarian! or use a library... :)

  2. I think you should send a version of this to Library Journal. Its great.

    For the record, I totally agree. I'll admit that I love hearing people talk about how a-typical I am for a librarian, but its because I enjoy knowing that I don't NEED to do anything to combat a stereotype - just being me is enough to do that, so why worry about fighting a battle that doesnt need fought?

    Kudos Sara.