Reflections on What a Librarian Looks Like

I spent the bulk of this week following the sturm und drang around the highly popular Slate article “This Is What a Librarian Looks Like.”  It shocked many (including the photographer, Kyle Cassidy!) to see such divisive thoughts over such a feel-good piece, a fine form of advocacy to the general public for libraries and librarians.  Initially, I was in the camp that wasn’t keen on the whole idea, but I’ve been swayed (somewhat, you’ll see why that is the case below) on the force of good this is for the profession.

Initially, I wanted to write a rebuttal to the whole thing, but the more I thought, the more I wanted to take in what I saw and heard, and attempt to make some sense of it, with the goal of bringing understanding to everyone why such a wonderful gesture of time and talent on the photographer’s part made some people so cross, as opposed to outlining why I think photographic pieces like this are wrong.

Let me reiterate so it is clear:  This is not any sort of rebuttal to the whole project.  After quite a bit of reflection and good conversation, I am convinced – perhaps not 100 percent – of the positive it can do, so I’m not going to bash people that put a lot of time, money, and work into making this happen.  The goal here is to bring understanding on the reasons why people may have been mad, and start a (hopefully productive and constructive) conversation on image in librarianship that goes past “this is what a librarian looks like.”

Who Cares What I Look Like?  Why Not Care What I Do? 

This was one of my first reactions – isn’t the best tool for library advocacy focusing on what the library does, not what the person behind the desk looks like? Furthering this thought for me was Buzzfeed posting “8 Book Historians, Curators, Specialists, and Librarians Who Are Killing It Online” this weekend – with nary a picture of actual librarians in sight, but pictures of their collections.  I found that more fascinating than Slate because I’m seeing actual library work on my screen, not how someone dresses or what body art they have.

Now, what Slate did was not just a photo spread – there were quotes from the pictured professionals on their philosophy of libraries, making it more than a model shoot.  And that’s good – it makes the focus a little less on appearance and image, and a little more on action.  This is one aspect where I wish I could have seen more (and I have an idea for this a little later on), but I recognize it’s a good start, and better than other media pieces on library image.

A final thought on this comes from several friends who remark that they love going to libraries when the people they see behind the desks, leading the children’s programs, cataloging books – “look like me.”  It’s small steps such as these that can help broaden diversity in our field (which is sorely needed, I think we can all agree on that), and I can’t knock down someone’s efforts in that regard.

Really? Again? More on This Whole Librarian Image Thing?

I’m still struggling to reconcile this.  I have a serious case of fatigue with all these “look at us, we’re not the stereotypical librarian!” articles.   In addition to Slate, we had another project on librarian image (with a very similar name) curated by librarian Bobbi Newman and Erin Downey Howerton, articles from Huffington Post, NBC, NPR, Bitch Magazine (more of asking the question of the damage of the librarian stereotype than presenting an alternative image) – and even a whole book!

I can see the need for advocacy about image – there is a whole Wikipedia page on librarians in popular culture, and most of it is not a pretty picture.  It helps that the conversation about librarian image is being taken our of our ivory towers and put at the feet of larger media outlets like Slate, NPR, etc.  (My Google search on “librarian image,” “librarian stereotypes,” and related terms revealed many more written works in our journals, but I wanted to focus on what was being said outside our profession.) But, I haven’t seen too many large-scale portrayals of librarians in a negative light (if I am wrong, please let me know in the comments) of late, so I ask the question: Is all this angst about how we look and trying to change it really necessary in 2014, when it looks like we’re doing pretty darn good for ourselves?

Two other related thoughts:

Why are we the only profession that has this hangup on image?  I worked in law firms for nine years, and outside of a few isolated incidents (here’s a recent one), there isn’t this big image campaign around what a lawyer looks like – or what a scientist looks like, or a janitor looks like, etc.   Why are librarians the ones so hung up on image – again, when there doesn’t seem to be too much in popular culture to work against us these days?

Is this purely an American thing, or a worldwide thing? I work with libraries in Europe, and as a result, keep my ear to the ground on the Continent’s library culture.  I hadn’t seen this kind of angst outside the United States which led me to wonder if this was just an American thing, but was recently alerted of some great scholarly articles on the topic in Eastern Europe and Singapore. If anyone knows of similar works outside the US, please provide citations; I am happy to read them.

The Diversity Question

And now for the touchy subject, that D word: Diversity. These complaints came from so many angles:

This is only what some librarians look like.   True, yes – it was which librarians were available at a certain time and place, and who Slate picked to feature. So most of this is actually out of our hands.  I know people that were left out that I felt deserved to be there, and I am sad that they were indeed left out.  What this begs for is a Part Two (and Three and Four, and Etc.) – and the Part Two is coming, as Kyle has kindly agreed to come back to us and photograph us in Vegas at the Annual Conference (yay! we haven’t scared him off!). Hopefully the logistics that led to this kind of concern are overcome for the next iteration (tip: the last day of conference is not really the best idea for this project, when most people are gone), and with proper advance planning, marketing, and association support, I feel confident this can happen and be better than the first.

We’re showing too diverse of a profession, which the reality does not reflect.  This was another one of my initial thoughts.  From recent participation in gender issues and diversity conversations, our racial/ethnic/gender makeup was not ideal. [Edit: as someone pointed out to me, it is still not ideal,  and my original word choice can make you think otherwise.  So let me be clear that diversity is an ongoing problem.]  Slate did a great job in showcasing all kinds of people that are librarians – but are they showcasing our profession through rose-colored glasses?  I think we can all agree that librarians are mostly white, and mostly female (except in management, where we are mostly male).  We have statistics from both ALA and Library Journal to back this up.  And as Andy Woodworth points out, it’s going to take a lot of work over a lot of time to bring this up to parity:

You would need the next two years worth of library science graduates to be exclusively African American in order to reach percentage parity (12.6%) with the United States population; you’d need the next two and a half years graduates to be exclusively Latino to achieve the same (16.4%). Offhand, it would take nine years of graduates to be exclusively male to meet US gender ratios (48.8%). (For my math, I’m using the ALA Diversity Counts statistics and the Library Journal Placements & Salaries for the number of graduates.) 

[Edit, regarding this next thought:  I apologize if this comes off as tone deaf and in support of institutional discrimination – that was not my intention.  This was an attempt to follow through an idea based on logic, completely hypothetical, and I admit it wasn’t the most ideal.] So showing a richly diverse set of librarians is an inaccurate picture of the profession – perception does not meet reality, and it will take a long time to get there.  So why lie? Let’s present the hard truth as it is, and hope that we’ll get people that are stubborn enough to work hard to change it, in spite of feeling left out.

But, as Andy points out, perfection is an evil mistress that leaves us not seeing past the end of our noses (and here is where I realized how wrong my first thoughts were):

We are kidding ourselves if we reject positive articles out of hand when it’s going to take decades to reach the population diversity that we aspire to achieve. Everything is a step and there is no jumping to the end.  

I think of that cliche, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” We can’t undo the statistical evils that lie before us all at once, but we can start a conversation – which is better than nothing.  I (and probably others, too) was looking for an ideal that wasn’t the original intention, and being overly critical over a photo essay very well done – that has more potential (than the reach already) to improve an existing and urgent problem – really is just a waste of all of our times.  And if we can attract more men, more African-Americans, more transgender, etc. to the profession with something like this, than that’s more than fine by me.

That librarian stereotype of the bun and the cardigan? That’s pretty valid too.  I worry in our attempts to break the shushing, bun-and-cardigan wearing image that chases us for time eternal, we become the new stereotype.  Let’s be very careful of this.

My particular subset of librarianship was not featured.  I noticed this particular concern from those in technical services positions, who seem to fight a battle as long as time eternal for recognition – where are the catalogers? where are the systems librarians?  This struck a deep chord with me as a librarian in a nontraditional role – where were the librarians who work for vendors, or who do library-type work in non-librarian settings? (That being said, I do commend the inclusion of people from our parent association here – they’re not just all around wonderful folk; they provide a face to the management our professional association.)

At the same time, it can be hard to tell based on job titles what exactly these librarians do each day, and not everyone identified their exact title.  Some are very clear – “youth services librarian,”  others just identified themselves as “librarian.”  And job titles these days are a polyglot of duties (one of my favorites:  “Systems, Reference, Instruction, and Web Librarian”) – it’s so hard to tell everything.  And left out of all this are those of us who work in jobs that use library skills, but not in a standard library – those who work for vendors (me), archivists, trainers, etc.   If I had to pick something about Slate’s article that still irks me (and why I’m not 100 percent in love with it), it would be this – diversity extends to the types of jobs librarians have as well.  It’s important to show as many aspects to the profession as possible, especially when the tried and true library positions are becoming inversely proportional to the number of library school graduates. Again, this concern cries for more iterations of projects like this that go past one blog post or article (see the next section for some ideas that came to mind).

What Could Be Next

Projects like these really don’t serve us best in a one-and-done format that gets read, consumed, discussed, and eventually forgotten.  There needs to be a life to them, which is why I was happy to hear that Kyle wants to come to Annual Conference in Las Vegas to photograph us all again (and take even more photos). What I would hope to see is more photos, and more on librarian title and philosophy – juxtapose what we do and how we look.  I also purport that this entire project would make a great coffee table book, so let’s hope it gets published in print form soon. I’ll buy it.

Now, permit me to dream a bit big for this next idea.  When I was at the U.S. Open this past summer, the grounds featured a social wall – where you could see what everyone was tweeting, posting, and Instagramming about the tournament. (Make sure you click to see the full-size image.)

20130831130644-b87b73e7-me (1)

Wouldn’t such a video wall , showing librarian photos and quotes on their philosophy of work and service, work well in our convention center spaces? We often share convention centers with other conferences (at ACRL 2013, it was the cheerleaders; at this past Midwinter, it was the Philadelphia Home Show).   As people may walk through our spaces to get to somewhere else (or if they’re lost), they receive a small taste of the librarian’s life – and hopefully leave with a deeper understanding of the work we do and how it goes past the books. That’s advocacy that effective, but not in-your-face that it makes people uncomfortable.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s use it to our advantage!

(An aside:  one idea that came from this is the realization that many of us had crap head shots, after seeing Kyle’s beautiful portraits. Conveniently, Conference Services had a similar idea, and we’re working to possibly make this happen for ALA Annual. More to come.)

A Final Thought: Learning to Listen

I think what disturbed me most (and indeed, left me depressed for several days) was this perception of drama around the whole matter – mainly because I didn’t see it.   At least in my online social circles, I didn’t see colleagues spewing vitriol to other colleagues, name calling, or anything else that others have purported to taken place. (I also make it a rule not to read the comments on the internet, so I missed whatever was said directly on Slate’s site.)  Maybe I just follow the right people, I don’t know.

What I saw in my worldview, instead, was friends having a conversation – perhaps heated, but a conversation.   When I said “hey, I’m kind of over this librarian image stuff” (here, here, and here), I didn’t have friends and colleagues calling me a “hater” or similar names. We had a dialogue, where I listened to their POV, they (hopefully) listened to mine, and we left with some understanding, or at the very least, respect for the other’s views.  (In my case, it led to a change of mind and heart for me!) This leaves me wondering if what some bloggers called drama was invented for some other, self-serving means (translation: clickbait.) I truly hope and pray this was not the case.

For a profession that values intellectual freedom above all else, there seems to be this “toe the party line or GTFO” belief permeating itself throughout my colleagues.   Even those of us who express constructive criticism are accused of Drinking the Haterade (I was). This isn’t good, for there is as much value in listening (if not more) than talking – and I think if people stopped to listen, we could have put out the fire of agita.  That’s why I sat on this entire blog post for the better part of the week – I wanted to spend time listening, reflecting, taking in, understanding.  If I had sat down on Wednesday and written this, it would have been quite different – weak in argument, not well thought out, and open for tearing apart.

My friend Lisa Rabey puts it perfectly:

One of the biggest growth things I’ve been working on is swallowing my own pride and listening to people when they are critical of something I did and or said that has upset them and not taking it as an outright attack against my person. It’s hard to shut up and listen, but if I truly want to be a good ally, hell a good human, I (we) have to let the ego go. [Source]

I don’t think librarians do this all that well.   We take every project personally (when passion is good), but we have a hard time understanding that criticism of project is not criticism of person (when passion is bad). It’s not about us if someone doesn’t like what we do – and there’s opportunity for growth and understanding in those moments.  (Unless the criticism is purely personal in nature, and in that case, let’s all be ladies and gentlemen and take it offline.)

I challenge all of us to listen just as much as we talk – if not more.   It’s not easy – I struggle with it, too – who doesn’t like the spotlight? (And my partner can confirm that I am not the greatest of listeners. :) )  But I do think as we listen more, especially in topics of image, diversity, and stereotypes, we can learn so much more.   Everyone has a story to tell, and those stories are worthwhile.  We can only make progress if we have a balance between the two, not mandatory “listen to what I say for it is right” all the time.

I leave you with two quotes from Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings (the latter of which lives on my refrigerator) that I hope we can all live by as we move forward in not just this issue of librarian image, but all divisive and controversial issues:

The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.

A true scholar must not close her mind on any topic, no matter how certain she may feel.

Let’s leave our minds open and questioning, for that’s how our great thinkers, inventors, philosophers, achievers, etc. made things happen.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on What a Librarian Looks Like

  1. Kate,

    I feel that we’re regarded as an anomaly in the digital age and this is why interest in librarians is so popular. Folks are curious about what we do ‘now that everything is online’. This is coupled with professionals who are insecure about their own roles (I’ve had my own doubts about my usefulness and the public perception of librarians), so any publicity must be good publicity. Few people know librarians personally and we have relatively scarce media presence (in comparison to shows about cops and lawyers). I’m personally glad to see librarians showcased (though I too would like to see more info about what these librarians do), especially when many colleges advertise their libraries facilities with little emphasis on the people who staff them! Colleges spend millions on renovating libraries, outfitting them with new technologies and coffee shops, and yet academic librarians are fighting for FT jobs. Let’s hope that future articles about librarians showcase not only hipster clothing tastes, but an emphasis on the vital roles we serve.

    -Seth A., @seth_o_saurus

    • Seth, very well said. An old lesson from my college newspaper days: any publicity is good publicity! In this case, it took me some time to realize, because I was letting some other feelings get in the way.

      I’m very glad to hear that Kyle wants to come to Las Vegas and photograph us, and perhaps with all this in mind, he can do more to show both clothing tastes AND what we do.

  2. It seems to me that exaggerating the diversity can be positive in that it creates virtual role models for children of underrepresented groups, increasing the likelihood of their entry into the profession.

    • Indeed, David. That was a thought that came to me a few days into this – that in order to be a more diverse profession, we must show diversity, even if it may not reflect the reality. You can’t expect people to show up to a party if you don’t send the invitations! :)

    • Well said David. This is definitely NOT a diverse profession BUT put the few in the spotlight. It may hopefully attract more POC to the profession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>