Perceive thyself!

What's your mask?Ask a librarian to describe the stereotype of librarians, and you’ll undoubtedly hear something like, “Wears thin wireframe glasses, hair-in-a-bun, drab sweater-vest or cardigan, long wool skirt, owns a cat, doesn’t like loud noise…” and the list goes on. I’ve even heard some librarians describe the stereotype as “Full Cat-bag.” In my experience, librarians – especially the ones who claim to hate the stereotype – have a crystal-clear picture of the exact librarian they don’t wish to be.

Non-librarians, though, might describe the stereotypical librarian if pressed, but if you simply ask them to picture a librarian chances are good it will look nothing like the stereotype. Librarians have been working long and hard to change the perception of librarians in popular culture–now, though, it’s our turn. If we keep working from the assumption that the stereotype is the place we have to start, suddenly we run the risk of perpetuating it.

This is an unusual post for me. I’ve been mulling this over since the wonderful Librarian Wardrobe conversation starter about librarian stereotypes at ALA Annual this past summer, and I still don’t know what I think. The topic needs to be discussed, but I don’t necessarily think I’m the one to lead the discussion.

Still, I wonder how we can turn the discussion into a proactive one. What do we, as library students, want the perception of our profession to be? Isn’t it more important that we start thinking about the profession and the cool stuff we’re doing than it is to worry about conforming to, or breaking away from, the stereotype?

We aren’t the only profession that has started to break away from traditional perceptions. Science, in all its many-headed forms, is dealing with much the same issue, and their solution, “This is what a Scientist Looks Like” has been copied by librarians as well.

At the recent R-Squared conference, one of the most interesting opening exercises was an 8-by-10 wall divided into three columns, asking participants to add cards listing things they were passionate about, things they were skilled at, and things they could teach. Instantly, it became clear that it was impossible to consider “librarians” as a one-dimensional group of people.

I contend that the stereotype is already broken–now, what perceptions of librarians should take its place? It’s in our hands–as we graduate and enter the field, we get to decide how we want it to look.

Categories: Big Picture

11 replies

  1. I think the stereotype has evolved from cat-eye glasses and hairbuns to ink and cool shoes.

    The real question, though, is “why are librarians so obsessed with their image?”


  2. I think I we’ll look more like the folks at the Apple store, or like coders. The bun came about because women don’t want hair in their eyes when leaning over a book, pencil skirts for climbing library ladders, and glasses because dusty books and contact lenses don’t play well together. I’m at a computer more than I’m in the stacks, and I’m more likely to be helping solve multiple questions in the computing area than I am climbing a ladder.
    Long hair (no bun), contacts, and flouncier skirts or comfortable pants for kneeling next to a chair means that most people don’t peg me as a librarian. Also, I find louder and friendlier go a long way.


  3. The question of how people perceive librarians is definitely important because it affects how people engage with librarians and libraries. And that engagement in turn affects how much people see librarians as people worth listening to when it comes to making policy and funding decisions.

    I think one response to the issue of stereotypes, then, is really to think about advocacy. Librarians need to be out and about, talking to people who might use library services and who make decisions about funding. Vocal advocates for supporting libraries can help shift the image of librarians.


  4. If “everyone” thinks of the bun-and-glasses librarian, then maybe we should go back to that. It would at least solve the problem of pouting over questions like “you need a Master’s for that?” and patrons not being able to differentiate between librarians and other types of library worker. 🙂


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