This Is What A Blog Post about What Librarians Look Like… Looks Like

This week, two things happened on one day: librarians participated in The Day We Fight Back, a nationwide call to action to protest NSA practices of privacy intrusion and metadata collection. People were encouraged to reach out to their elected officials to express their discontent with current practices and to push for the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would curb or eliminate certain governmental data collection practices. It had the grassroots groundswell that I hope will lead to real change, even as my cynical side starts to snicker while settling in with a bucket of popcorn to watch my optimism writhe. 

The other thing that happened is the article “This Is What A Librarian Looks Like“, a photo essay featuring librarians whose portraits were taken at the most recent ALA Midwinter Meeting. The genesis of this opportunity comes from this post on the Librarian Wardrobe tumblr which calls for twenty librarian volunteers. The photographer Kyle Cassidy had done a similar portrait project with Occupy Wall Street participants (see those pictures here) which was subsequently covered by the Huffington Post. The resulting article features ten librarians along with personal testimonies on the profession. Personally, I thought it was a good article outside of the usual librarian media that paired excellent portraits with personal statements.

So, which do you think got the larger emotional social media reaction? If you guessed the fight for privacy and data protection against the NSA (both of which are highly valued librarian professional ideals), then you would be wrong.

As the article moved through social media, it didn’t take long before the nitpicking began. Not a diverse enough group, nobody from technical services or other specializations, claims of idea theft, and sighs about articles taking on stereotypes made its way across my Twitter feed. I could offer a rebuttal to each of these points, but I think it’s missing the greater problem here: the issue of the librarian public image is a quagmire within the profession. 

When it comes to the librarian’s image, I believe there is an internal struggle between giving an accurate portrayal of the profession versus showcasing the diversity. On the one hand, statistically, the profession is mostly white (87%), female (80%), and most likely heterosexual (I have no data to back this up other than inferences based on overall population demographics which places it at about 4%; if someone has a study on this, please share it in the comments). Like it or not, if the question was what does a typical librarian look like, that would be the most accurate answer; and giving the most accurate answer is an occupational pride point.

On the other hand, librarians are champions of minority causes, whether it is opinion, sexuality, race, creed, or otherwise. Our ideals are caught up in bringing these voices to the forefront, to give them a home within our institutional walls, and to curate and nurture them into the public eye. Shouldn’t portrayals of librarians reflect this aspect by presenting professionals from these minority populations? It follows the notion that those individuals from these demographics aren’t simply part of our collections, but they are part of our rank and file as well. 

To my way of thinking, that’s where the tension resides. It is what turns articles like the Slate one into argument flashpoints in which good and decent public image pieces are dismissed in favor of an unobtainable “perfect” article. It’s the drive to present a richly diverse profession when the reality simply doesn’t support that. 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.) It’s not a situation that will resolve itself in the near term, but will require multiple generations of librarians with focused recruitment to achieve demographics that fall in line with society at large. 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.  

Furthermore, I believe that the people who are least properly equipped to rehabilitate the image of librarians are librarians. I really don’t have faith when one of the most oft quoted lines in rejuvenate the image of the library is “we are more than just books”. Seriously? If we consistently bungle the public image of the library within popular culture, we are certainly not qualified to helm our own professional image campaigns. We need people who are creative, smart, media savvy, and not librarians to do the talking for us. What this really means is giving up control and putting ourselves into the hands of others. Just as people ask us for help, we shouldn’t be shy about asking it for ourselves. We can’t research ourselves out of this mess; we need professional help.

I’ll leave you with this thought that Peter Hepburn tweeted to me: “[L]ibrarians, to our users, look like anyone who helps them at a service desk, simple as that.” Now that’s a self portrait of the profession that everyone can fit into. 

26 thoughts on “This Is What A Blog Post about What Librarians Look Like… Looks Like

  1. We are information…not the superficial “facts” that our society expects, but the information that can only be found by our deep knowledge of research, databases, publishing and the various specialized fields that we work in, whether it’s medicine, law, archeology or education.

  2. Peter’s thought is spot on, and why I have this sense of fatigue whenever I see another “librarian image” article. Why worry about how we look, when the focus should be on what we do and how well we do it instead?

    (Side note: I am also wondering if this is a purely American thing – the obsession with librarian image. In my limited view, I don’t see librarians in Europe or Asia obsessing over what they wear or how many tattoos they have.)

    • The article was about what we do; and typically, articles with pictures are greater attention-getters. Librarians complaining about how we look/how we don’t look and focusing too heavily on the visuals are missing the point (and are in effect making it all about how we look).

      • It’s a little hard to find that in an article titled “This is What a Librarian LOOKS LIKE” (emphasis mine). Which is why this needs to live in something other than a one and done blog post. (I’m thinking coffee table book.)

        • It’s OK to not like the article. I kind of wonder if it’s worth anyone’s time to get really and truly bothered by it. Don’t like it? That’s fine. Let’s go and create new things. Let’s go make the things we do like.

    • An aside: the image of librarians is an international concern. I’ve read articles written by scholars in Singapore and Eastern Europe on the topic. In the case of the former, the concern doesn’t center so heavily around race.

  3. Diversity is not a matter or skin color, heritage, gender or sexual preference. Diversity is a matter of thoughts and feelings. Assuming a group is homogenous in their thoughts and behavior because the majority of the group share an arbitrary trait such as skin color or gender is a falsehood. If we assumed that a trait shared by a group is indicative of similar thoughts and behavior, then we could say that they would behave predictably. For instance we know it is erroneous to say all white people, because they are white, like ice cream. It is unfair and erroneous to suggest that a group of people who are of the same skin color or gender are not diverse in their thoughts, behaviors and experiences, because they share a common trait.

    • When a group is largely homogeneous in whiteness/straightness/cisgenderness(?)/ability/orientation–basically, in privilege–it cannot serve a diverse population (like, you know, the public or a university) as well as it could. Sure, I don’t think just like you do, but you know what? Neither of us has had the set of experiences we would have had if we were Black or Latina; we take things for granted that many other people can’t. As a partially-disabled woman, I definitely see the world differently than you do; there are barriers that prevent me from participating the same way you can. The barriers faced by people of different races, orientations, etc., might be a little harder to define, much more societal/structural than the literal physical barriers I face, but they’re there, and they affect their (our) viewpoints.

      Nobody’s saying all white people are the same, or that being white is somehow bad. We’re saying that if our profession had more diversity in race, ethnicity, orientation, gender presentation, and ability, we would serve our patrons better, because we would have more viewpoints available to us and more opportunities to understand our patrons’ experiences and provide services they will value.

      (If nothing else, here’s one anecdote: I can tell with absolute certainty that you are white and straight from your response.)

      • You demonstrate your own false assumptions in your reply. You assume I am a certain color because of my reply. Your perspective on diversity is based upon vague assumptions and generalizations about how people who share certain traits behave and think. I believe that this is incorrect. Think of a microscope. At certain settings somethings in a microscope appear to be very similar. When you sharpen the focus you realize that what appeared to be similar is in fact quite diverse.

        • You’re right that my perspective on diversity is limited: I am white, I pass for straight, my disability is mostly invisible, and I act/dress/look mostly like my birth gender suggests I should.

          So, too, is your perspective limited by your outward presentation and experiences–it is so limited, in fact, that it showed through in your comment. (I’m sorry if that seems mean; that isn’t my intent. Privilege, to those who have it, is like water to fish: you don’t see it unless you really step back and try. Your privilege is visible in your comment, to those who have less/different privilege than you do. Mine is no doubt visible in my comments, too, despite my efforts to educate myself and listen to others’ voices and perspectives. It’s a hard thing to get past and to see in yourself.)

  4. I’ve got no issue with the make-up of the profession. What does bother me is the smug sense of self-congratulation emanating from the accompanying statements. here’s the one that really irked me: “Libraries are important because students these days are not actually competent at navigating the digital world, but we as librarians help them not only navigate the digital sphere, but become better global citizens,” My experience with young students is they are very capable of navigating the digital sphere. Naturally they don’t know every arcane secret but for daily life, they do pretty darn good. And the true significance of this capability is the confidence they carry with them. Librarians are going to have to come up with a different reason to justify the profession other than “We know something you don’t.”

    • I disagree. I’m a Youth Services librarian in Brooklyn and I’m astonished that children and teens here have strikingly bad information literacy skills. Whether they’re public schools or fancy private ones, they still desperately need help. More information can be found here: http://coding2learn.org/blog/2013/07/29/kids-cant-use-computers/ And here: http://magpielibrarian.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/tree-octopuses-hate-sites-agatha-ann-cunningham-the-oh-cmon-menagerie-of-information-literacy/
      Also, I didn’t find Fobazi to be smug, but rather true to her experiences.

    • Allison, I see your point, but you obviously have dealt with student groups that have had the advantage of gaining this experience from a young age. I work in a demographic where there are still high school students who need a reminder on how to print a word document; needless to say they need someone in the world to tell them how to do more than ask Google a question. If their parents don’t know any better, it’s up to us to help them.

      • You are right; I deal with relatively privileged kids. But just as the joke used to be, “I have to ask my kid how to program the vcr”, I think we are heading toward a world when digital searching will be as natural as breathing for youngsters. That is the world librarians must prepare for.

        • I feel like we *think* children have an innate ability to navigate digital information. And I’ve found from poor to rich, they do way too much research on their phones. I thought Fobazi was right on the money, though, all of our experiences are different. I wouldn’t use the word smug to describe her.

    • Gosh, I hope my statement did not come off as smug and self-congratulatory–if it did, I sincerely apologize. At the photo shoot, we were asked to share what libraries can offer our users. I thought long and hard about what I would want out my library and its staff–at the core it, I’d want a place where I can ask ANY question, procure reading material, or just be, without feeling personally judged.

    • Not to be too pedantic about it, but the very definition of a profession is that those who are members have specialized knowledge about some domain. So, yeah — librarians do know something others don’t. Or at least we should.

  5. Pingback: Reflections on What a Librarian Looks Like | The Librarian Kate

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