Where’s your librarian bun?

Image taken from Kyle Cassidy's LJ post. I hope he doesn't mind!
Image taken from Kyle Cassidy’s LJ post. I hope he doesn’t mind!

So I’ve been wanting to write about the image of librarians for some time and as today is International Hug a Librarian Day, I thought…heck…why not write that post today? Also, the recent Slate photo essay “controversy” made me want to talk about this topic even more. In case you don’t know what I’m referring to, there has been a recent furore in the US (and elsewhere) about a lovely photo set by Kyle Cassidy, but I will come to that in a minute.

librarian shush

So, the librarian stereotype. We all know it well. Older woman, severe demeanour, hair in a bun, spectacles on a chain, always shh-ing and getting hostile with innocent readers looking for a book. I hate it as I’m sure you do too. However, some would argue that this inner-turmoil that our profession seems to constantly get in about its image is unnecessary and cyclical. I would agree…for us as librarians.

However, for the public it is an entirely different matter. We know who we are and what we do but the public doesn’t as it evidenced by the constant argument that libraries are dead/unneeded/other and heaven forbid you actually say you work in that dying environment because more often than not you’ll get pity and/or withering looks from those who just don’t “get it”.


When I see the recent Lego librarian minifig, it makes me cross. Even the description really grates. It is a whole lot better than the older woman trope which is great but it still isn’t the best. Of course, if this is your aesthetic then own it and don’t apologise for it. Ever. Even so, it is yet another example of librarians being seen as a bit dowdy and frumpy (and obsessed with books, rather than technical brilliance in the Internet Age) in popular culture. However, it is a world apart from the other librarian stereotype that I hate even more than the older woman one: the sexy librarian. No. This is not ok. Sexualising a profession in a way that is downright wrong and damaging is horrendous and should be stopped.

But I’m getting off point a bit. I mentioned the recent Slate article which I loved when I first saw and then didn’t think much else about it. That was until I started picking up on the fact that apparently that photo set was sparking mass controversy and actual insults. Cassidy addressed this in a LJ post, as did many, many, many, many others. I won’t pick apart each post individually because quite frankly I don’t have the time or the inclination to do so. However, all this overreaction feeds in quite well with what I was originally going to post about.

“Enough with this image thing…no-one else gets this wound up about how they are seen”

Sure, we can get all echo-chamber about this topic and we often do. However, you only need to see how our profession is represented in film, TV and other forms of popular culture to see how negatively stereotyped we are which is why we need to keep having this conversation, but in a more public way. In the UK at least, I would argue that a huge reason as to why people (or government) see libraries as being able to be run by volunteers rather than qualified professionals is because of a complete misunderstanding of what it is that we do and that this is wrapped up with how we are perceived on a visual level.

When you think of a lawyer for example, you think of a smartly dressed ball-breaker who is to be respected a professional who does what they do well. A friend who works in the law business regularly explains to me why she spends so much money on good suits, handbags, makeup and shoes: you don’t get respected if your image isn’t super polished and correct. You can be the best legal professional there is but if you don’t visually match that standard, people won’t take you seriously.

The same applies to people from various ethnic and economic backgrounds. The moment someone sees a young black man or someone who comes across as a chav, they get written off as a thug/criminal/someone not to be trusted. I could be accused of over-simplying more serious social issues here but I use these last two examples to demonstrate the power of images. We make up our minds about a person and what they represent within a few seconds of meeting them and while this isn’t always a fair or even accurate conclusion, it is something we need to bear in mind all the same.

One blogger who discussed the Slate article mentioned that other professions don’t have this image hang-up. Well I’ve already mentioned the legal profession, but the blogger also mentioned scientists. Are you kidding me? Really? What do you think of when you think of a scientist? Man in a white coat in a lab?

Okko Pyykko via Flickr
Okko Pyykko via Flickr

This is a gross misrepresentation of the vast range of scientists and disciplines that are out there, including the HUGE issues of gender and ethnicity. Don’t even get me started on how scientists and their work is misrepresented in horror films about gene splicing gone wrong etc.

The excellent Athene Donald talks about her life as a female scientist in her brilliant blog and this is just one example out of many of how the scientist stereotype is incredibly damaging in similar ways to the librarian stereotype because it too involves funding cuts, professional respect and scientists being taken seriously as people worth consulting for specialist information.

So yes, other professions do get affected by how they are seen, and you know what they do about it? Campaign! There are great STEM campaigns and other fabulous ways in which scientists and other professions are breaking that stereotype in a positive way, and I would argue that librarians (who are also technically scientists) need to be doing more of this sort of thing rather than griping and throwing insults at each other. Come on people. If we turn on each other, what frickin’ hope do we have to keep our profession strong and united?

“Oh but they have tattoos/quirky classes/hipster garb etc. etc.”

Apparently people have been hugely offensive about how the Slate librarians look. Ingrid (the fabulous one with the pink hair) talks about this at length on her blog and when I read some of the things that had been said about her, my blood boiled. Wow. Really? Criticising someone because of how they look, what they’re wearing or how much they weigh is ridiculously awful and completely inappropriate on so many levels, especially if it is a fellow librarian doing that sort of thing.

A lot of people apparently didn’t like how varied the images of librarians were. Gosh darnit, people have tattoos and wear glasses. How dare they? As someone who is bespectacled and tattooed, I take offence at the fact that this somehow makes me a bad librarian. However, I do see people’s concerns when they talk about how the “hipster tattooed librarian” could become a new trope.

Yes it could and yes it could alienate people who don’t like tattoos, alternative fashion or who have 20/20 vision. Yet, is this the worst thing that has ever happened to the profession? Probably not. Is it a fair representation of the new wave of professionals coming in to librarianship? Perhaps. Is it a fair representation of a profession that allows people to express themselves fully in their fashion and image? Heck yes! We are not a profession of uniformity and bland suits. We are amazing and creative and different, from those of us who fit the stereotype perfectly and work it amazingly, to those of us who completely smash the stereotype and do something entirely different with their role.

My bigger issue is with the fact that while non-white librarians are featured, some people have found this to be an issue too. Apparently the images are not representative of the profession as a whole. No they’re not but by putting images out there that are different to the white-female-librarian stereotype, this encourages dialogue and demonstrates that there are role models in the profession for those who may have previously felt underrepresented or alienated by the majority.

On top of this, there are men in these pictures! Yes! Male librarians being represented makes me happy because even though I am a woman, I really dislike working in a profession that is so female dominated. I enjoy the variety that comes with working with a wide range of people and by encouraging men into the profession, we can increase our already diverse profession even further. Men get a really hard time when it comes to the librarian stereotype, which is unfair and often forgotten so I really wanted to mention it here at least once.

Finally, not all of Cassidy’s images made it into the Slate article which arguably says a lot about the editorial process. There are some wonderful pictures that should have been shown off more and they add to an already diverse range of representations so do check them out if you haven’t already. The image at the top of this post was taken from Cassidy’s blog to show off those underused folk.

“It should be more about what we do rather than what we look like”

Couldn’t agree more with this sentiment but reality is quite different. A lot of what we do as professionals isn’t visible because we often do our work in back offices and behind desks. How is someone to understand the vast range of complexities that make up our incredibly diverse roles if we’re not out there shouting about it and making ourselves visible? We don’t need to be quirky or wear glasses to do this of course but we do need to be good ambassadors for what we do.

Infighting is not going to achieve this. We should see photo essays like the Slate article as a fantastic talking point and one that is constructive. We can address concerns about how the profession is viewed, but in a productive way. Heaven forbid any non-librarians see what we’ve been writing about each other. The shame of it! Is that really how we want to be viewed, as a profession set against itself and ready to throw verbal punches?

We do amazing things and those amazing things need to be communicated effectively and wonderfully through good role models, who may not always represent the profession itself but instead who represent the profession well in what they say and do.

There is a lot more I could say on this topic but I won’t ramble on. Fundamentally, we should love what we do because ours in a vocation. A profession of passionate love of information and sharing that love with our users, whether we are in a public environment, academic research library or the many other types of information places.

How can we show off that profession in a way that earns us the respect we deserve and ensure that we are part of the fabric of society, in the hearts and minds of everyone and part of every individual’s life narrative?

Stand out. Be proud. Own what we do and kick ass while doing it.

Quibbling about how we are viewed is not a way to do this. We can change those horrible stereotypes by creating new and positive ones. To do that, we need to just be us, and do that to the best of our abilities.

2 thoughts on “Where’s your librarian bun?

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