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.