On the second day I started work at this school, I told one of the first students I met that I was in school to become a school librarian. “You’d make a fun librarian,” she told me. “Not like those boring ones.” I was pleased, but also a little puzzled–we’d only just met, and she knew little more about me than the way I dressed and that I at least knew how to log into the BPL databases.
Earlier today, a teacher at that same school told me in a stage whisper that the way I was sitting at the circulation desk was “not so professional-looking.”
So how do I balance being the Fun Librarian with being A Professional Librarian?
To be fair, the teacher was probably right–if I want my students to respect the library furniture, I probably should treat it the same way I expect them to treat it. (In my defense, it’s not like my feet were up on the top of the desk or anything. We have one of those tall circulation desks with shelves built in, and I find it more comfortable to put my feet up on one of the shelves than to sit all prim and proper in the high office chair all afternoon.) But a comment like that would’ve been much better received from someone I knew and trusted, like any number of the teachers I see in the library every day. I doubt this one even knows my name.
And it’s not really fair to frame this question as “cool” versus “professional,” since the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. But I have to be honest here: as a young librarian, I find myself constantly fighting against the notion (sometimes from my older colleagues in the field, sometimes not) that my age and preferred style of dress or mannerisms make me automatically less professional.
Full disclosure: I walk the walk of Traditionally Professional Attire when it comes to interviews and certain professional functions–I remove my lip piercing (though anyone who knew what to look for would be able to tell I wear one), I wear Nice Clothes instead of the jeans I usually wear at my job, and if I follow through on my plan to join the ranks of inked librarians, I’ll make sure I can easily hide the evidence with a sleeve or pant leg.
But when I’m at school, I’m much more comfortable being casual. I’m not trying to act like I’m just like my students, because I know I’m not–I don’t pretend to know about the things that interest them, but I do like to hear about them. And if it turns out we have shared interests, I don’t think it’s unprofessional to chat about Guitar Hero or Hong Kong cinema. Just as I don’t think it’s actually unprofessional to have a lip piercing, or to talk openly about it. (Yes, it hurt when I got it done. No, it doesn’t hurt now. Yes, having metal in your face can get cold in the winter.)
For better or worse, some kids are going to gravitate toward me because I might fit some part of their definition of cool. But they’re going to stay only if they think I treat them with respect and have something to offer–something that plenty of other librarians, my older colleagues as well as the younger ones, can and do manage just as well or better.
The key, I think, is consistency and truth to self. At an age where identity is still forming and changing every day, teens look to adults as models for the kinds of people they might grow into (or avoid). The best examples we can give them are librarians who are secure in, and proud of, our unique personalities–fun, professional, and everywhere in between.