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Librarians have an image problem?

Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library via American Memories Collection

Once again a great storm of discussion has blown into the LM_Net list over the image of the librarian in popular culture. Despite the made-for-TV movie, The Librarian, that featured an Indiana Jones-type hero, the drunken heroine Carnahan’s proud assertion, “I AM a librarian!” in The Mummy, and a very hot Shirley Jones as that "sadder but wiser" librarian in The Music Man, it seems the great unwashed public still see us as bun-lovin’, shushing, frumps.

Well, I say get over it. This was my contribution to the conversation (slightly edited):


I can't think of any profession that doesn't suffer from some negative stereotypes. Lawyers, dentists, cab drivers, teachers, Enron executives, county road workers, prison guards, priests - name an occupation that doesn't have some popular negative stereotype. (Well, tech directors don't, I suppose.)

I think we can all get Mary Kay makeovers (but I'd have some 'splaining to do to the wife), dress better, write letters about the unfairness of the world to the paper, and debate this ad nauseum among ourselves, but the plain fact is that only our positive interactions with individuals are what really matter.

If image is that important, well, become a car mechanic or actor or politician or accountant... Well, bad examples.

And I added:

PS. Male librarians don't have an image problem.

(To which someone responded: I always thought that male librarians either had long hair and were of the “very clean, knowledgeable hippie” variety or they were of the “uptight, anal, and gay always wearing a sweater vest” variety.)


Lynn Butler, Lamar Elementary Library, San Angelo, Texas, said it more eloquently (reprinted her with her kind permission):

I found the remark about Mary Kay makeovers somewhat out of line. Who doesn't love a makeover?  <SMILE> Seriously, if the librarian image that prevails in our society is one of a frumpy woman wearing sensible shoes, and hair in a bun who goes around saying, "Shh!"  then we might ask ourselves how that image came to be?  Only we can change our image and reinvent ourselves personally as well as professionally. The question was asked, "So how DO we go about changing our image?"  Personally, that is up to each individual person.  Manner of dress and hairstyle is a personal as well as a professional choice.  Ask yourself, "Am I comfortable with how I dress?  Do I look like a professional who knows her stuff or do I look like some ancient creature who wouldn't know a good book from a dark hole?"  "Do I have a pleasant expression on my face and seem approachable to students or do I have an, 'I'm busy. Don't bother me.' look?"
Unwarranted interruption: If I remember, Lillian Gerhardt once explained in School Library Journal column that the buns, drab dresses, and sensible shoes are a direct reflection on the economic realities of being a low-paid professional.
To change our collective image from the stereotype involves not only knowing how to teach but how to reach.  To reach our students we must stay on top of the latest research skills as well as the latest fads. We need to know who's who in American history as well as who's who in pop culture.   Librarians need to know who the hot characters are in children's literature as well as the hot stars in movies.  I just returned from a professional librarians' delegation to Russia and one of the places we visited was the University of Art and Culture in St. Petersburg.  Librarians who train there go through an intensive six-year program of not only library, technology, and information skills classes but literature, drama, art, music, and dance.  In Russia, librarians are the repository of all art and cultural knowledge.  They are respected and admired and particularly in smaller towns, are viewed as the fountain of all wisdom.

As librarians of the new century we must reshape our images as we rework our job descriptions.  In my humble opinion, the old stereotype has no place in our world and until we work diligently to change that, it is going to remain with us.  As we redefine the job, we will redefine ourselves and bury those stereotypes for good.

Should we change our image? Can we change our image? Wouldn't most people rather work with a knowledgable, effective, pleasant frump than a glamourous airhead? Do male librarians (or tech directors) really have an image problem?

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]


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Reader Comments (1)

Barbara Combes, Lecturer, School of Computer and Information Science
At Edith Cowan University, Perth Western Australia, adds (reprinted with permission):

Agreed Lynn,
However, change to the stereotype needs to go deeper than the physical trappings. TLs and Librarians need to get back to school, upskill themselves and start producing credible research in the area of information science. We need to be on the IT committee, the PD committee and the teaching and learning committee in our schools. If you don't have the technology skills then you need to acquire them - this is now so much a part of our profession. As a profession we need to be more pro-active and we can't be credible unless we do start getting our PhDs, doing research and publishing. We need to show how much of a difference we can make. We need to belong to our professional associations, atten conferences and be active not just to the converted (ourselves), but to educators and administrators, politicans and tertiary institutions. Otherwise we will be forever relegated to the bun, glasses, pearls and twinset stereotype. Even Madonna dressed down to this stereotype when releasing her first book (heaven help us!)

November 4, 2005 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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