The Librarian’s Image Problem

(CC image via flickr)

When I tell people I am a librarian, one of the first responses I get is, “You don’t seem like a librarian.” I sometimes get an innocuous response like, “But you don’t wear glasses” (no, I don’t). I have also had humorous quasi-insults like, “So do you live alone with 30 cats?” (well, only 4 so I guess I’m still working on it).

Every profession has their stereotypes but librarians seem to have inherited a real image problem. While firemen are handsome heroes and doctors are analytical clinicians, the librarian conjures up images of a rather strange creature. Although there are several stereotypes of librarians, the most prevalent is that of a withdrawn, socially awkward woman with ill-fitting clothing and horn-rimmed glasses. Her hair is in a frazzled bun with a knitting needle holding it together. She is a glorified secretary who schleps books and carts all day for an oppressive and equally awkward boss. She scolds and berates adults and children alike for speaking above a whisper or, even worse . . . laughing. She lives alone in a dilapidated house where she hoards books, newspaper clippings, and cats.

Although this stereotype is quite humorous, it does not bode well for librarians who strive to be taken seriously as professionals. Being associated with a staunch, pitiful spinster does not help librarians earn the respect or the salary that many in the profession deserve. But since this stereotype is not disappearing anytime soon, the question becomes: can librarians use it to their advantage?

I remember my father telling me that people assumed he had anger or power issues because he was a cop. People assuming he had power/anger helped him in many cases when dealing with some pretty vile people. But more surprisingly, it helped him when he displayed those qualities that flew in the face of this stereotype. Like many cops, he frequently acted more like a caring social worker than an angry policeman, whether it was helping a teenage runaway find safe shelter or comforting a frightened assault victim.

At times, I also contrast the stereotypes of my profession. Students expecting a staunch, unhelpful frump often find a librarian who is friendly, funny, and easy to talk to. Being personable is our primary tool in combating the old school librarian image. It challenges the notions of how a librarian behaves. But at times, I can use the stereotype as a tool to help me. This is particularly true when dealing with rude, condescending patrons. The stereotypical librarian is nothing if not assertive. She makes her thoughts known.

While every profession has to face its clichés, librarians have a long haul. Being personable, tech-savvy, and future-oriented can help improve our image (branching out from buns, glasses, and cardigans will help too). But embracing some of the favorable qualities of the stereotype – being knowledgeable and assertive – can also help our image evolve more positively.

Contributed by: Annette Carr, Business Librarian

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