Librarians: the Next Generation

Sunday’s New York Times Style section featured an article on hip librarians. A nice, little fluffy piece about the next generation of hip librarians who can handle a swanky mixed drink with their pink hair, various facial piercings and tattoos. As the article says, “Librarians? Aren’t they supposed to be bespectacled women with a love of classic books and a perpetual annoyance with talkative patrons — the ultimate humorless shushers?”

Yep, that’s us! Humorless book worms with outdated tastes telling people to be quiet. Seriously, thank you New York Times, for stating the blindingly obvious.

Now, I’ve been known to shush people on a regular basis (yesterday I had 50 hyper people under the age of twelve in my section. You can talk in my library, but there are noise limits. A nice “shhhhh” is a gentle reminder before I have to break out the “OIY! SHUT UP!”)

When I was in high school, I had blue hair. My nose has been pierced on two occasions, and I have multiple tattoos (none of which you can see in work appropriate clothing). I also make, and enjoy, a mean vodka gimlet.

And I don’t have a big problem with the old librarian stereotype. I enjoy the looks on faces when, after a night of painting the town red, people find out what I do. I also look damn hot in a pencil skirt and sweater.

Do you know who has the biggest problem with the image of librarians? It’s not the patrons. It’s us. The librarians.

As Margaret Edwards says in The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts:

We have been frightened for years of the little old lady in tennis shoes, realizing our public image was too close to hers to be comfortable. In an effort to disprove any association with her, we have embraced every new advance in technology–the computer, charging machines, teletype, AV. We have done every new thing possible but have neglected the book and the individual.

She wrote that in 1969. Replace “charging machines, teletype, AV” with “iPods, computers, Blackberrys” and it’s still true today. Me think the librarians doth protest too much.

On Sunday night, Melissa from Pop Goes the Library pointed out the following:

We’re exchanging one stereotype for another.

Why are we so eager to be pigeonholed into another niche? Just as many people don’t respond to librarians because they’re thinking of the glasses, bun, and shushing, there are just as many people who won’t respond to tattoos, pink hair, and loud voices. Yet we’re so desperate not to be seen as fuddy-duddies that we’re swinging too much to the other side of the spectrum, where you have to be cooler than cool to be a librarian.

Can’t we just be, you know, librarians? Can’t the fuddy-duddies and the hipster kids all hang out together and enjoy a nice World Book? (Internet or hard copy– your choice!) And, really? All these articles about librarians being cool? It’s like all the articles on knitting being trendy– so 2002. Do we need to keep writing and reading them?

Yes, they make good fluff pieces, but here’s the problem with fluff pieces–when there is a bit of actual content, they mess it up. One of the reasons librarians are cool is because, at the moment, nerds are cool. And we’re nerdy to the max, but in that cool way.  As masters of information, we are tech-savvy.

I’m not going to argue that librarianship isn’t changing. The internet, digitization, technology and globalization are radically changing the field in awesome ways. Plus, we still have our favorite books! So, when articles reduce the changes to:

Many young librarians and library professors said that the work is no longer just about books but also about organizing and connecting people with information, including music and movies.

I cringe. Librarianship has ALWAYS been about organizing and connecting people with information. Now, how we do this has changed, but this is what the field has always been about, it’s not a new trend in librarianship.

This whole article is just… old news. Librarians embrace new technology! According to Edwards, we’ve been doing that for the last 40 years. Not exactly news. Librarians connect people with information! That’s the job. That’s what we’ve done since… forever.

Librarians are awesome. We are old with buns and glasses. We are middle aged with school age kids. We are young with pink hair. We can leap tall shelves in a single bound and holy cow can we answer your questions. This isn’t news, it’s just what we’ve always been.

Also, because if you’re not going to ask, you should:

Vodka Gimlet, Awesome Style

3oz vodka

1oz lime juice

1oz lemon juice

2tsp powdered sugar

Shake contents with ice. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon or lime slice, if so desired.

-posted by kidsilkhaze


6 Responses to Librarians: the Next Generation

  1. Mary says:

    Thank you! I’m only about 9 credits into library school, but I’m astonished at the intense discussion about librarian stereotypes among instructors, in journal articles, and on blogs. On the discussion board in my last class, I suggested that if the library community would shut up about these stereotypes, maybe everyone else would. One needs only visit a library (at least in my town) to see the range of people who work there. As you suggest, they run the range from the tattooed and pierced to aging hippie, NPR-totebag sporting types to matronly to corporate. There are a decent number of men working at the larger libraries as well.

    Because I live in a state capital right next to a university town, I have access to a larger number of libraries than might be usual (so see a larger range of types of people), so maybe that provokes my surprise at the intensity of this discussion.

    Furthermore, in my library classes, there are a range of ages. Even among the younger people, there is a range of “types.” A young woman (in her 20s, I think) in my first class proclaimed, “I like to knit. I wear my hair in a bun. I have multiple cats, ” and proclaimed that she liked working in a female-intensive environment and having tea parties.

    I did read and link to the article on my blog. It was sent to me not only by my son, but by someone on every library listserv I’m on). The library community needs to worry less about this than about assuring people that libraries are as relevant as ever in the 21st century and educating them as to why this is true.

    I think I’ll try that vodka gimlet after my classes on Saturday. Now printing that recipe–that’s how I like having my information needs met.

  2. Jennie says:

    The other thing is that these things aren’t mutually exclusive .My hair is often in a bun. I’d have a cat if my husband weren’t allergic. I listen to NPR in the car. Or the rock station, depending on my mood.

  3. rachel says:

    You know, I often said in library school “You know what might improve the perceptions of librarians? If we shut up about it and did our f-in jobs.” Now that I’m out in the world, I don’t have to deal with it too much.

    All I need to say is said at the at the coolest library blog of all time.

    I like librarians as much as the next, um, librarian, I guess, but I kind of want to punch these kids in the face. They’re trying too hard.


  4. akdmyers says:

    I agree with Mary about librarians needing to quit obsessing over the stereotypes and get on with showing people that libraries are still relevant. It may be that a more positive public image could help draw more people to libraries, or help generate more respect (and thus more funding) for libraries, but for the most part who cares whether we wear our hair in buns or dye it pink?

    I saw another response to this article that pointed out that despite its flaws, it was ultimately trying to provide some positive press for the profession, and the writer (I’m sorry I can’t remember where I saw this) was worried that librarians were going to jump all over the article and criticize it to death, just like some of us got all up in arms about the librarian action figure. It does make me wonder why we are so intensely combative about our public image. There are many other professions that are widely stereotyped (doctors, dentists, and lawyers spring to mind) but if there are objections from those professions about those stereotypes, I haven’t heard about them.

    Jennie makes a good point about most of this article being old news in terms of what librarians do, but while it may be old news to us, it’s not necessarily old news to the wider public, many of whom still think we sit in back rooms poring over card catalogs and using typewriters. Yes, we’ve always embraced – and sometimes even pushed the development of – new technologies, but I find that people outside the profession don’t realize that, and may even see us as being behind the times because of our disdain for Google, etc. So, I guess I’m ok with a popular style article rehashing what’s old news to us if it helps people appreciate what we do now a little more, even if the article isn’t entirely accurate.

  5. kidsilkhaze says:

    See, I think articles like this hinder, rather than help us as a profession.

    Where there is the “all publicity is good publicity” route, the thing is that for every person an article like this brings into the library, it turns someone off.

    Not only that, but they fundamentally misrepresent what we do as a profession. Articles like this makes it sound like there are no more books in libraries and that we’re all internet all the time. They never address how we do both and that where we’re adding new services all the time, we’re not ending many services. Except the card catalogue. Unless you’re a small library.

    And hush, I use a typewriter on a regular basis! 🙂

  6. Jules says:

    How about this ( — male librarians as sexual objects (though those performers they write about are, technically, not librarians). Yeeesh. That’s straying from the usual stereotype.

    I loved what you wrote. Thank you. And amen.

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