Our Image Problem

For the longest time, it seemed like I couldn’t turn around without reading another Librarians: Not Just For Books Anymore article or blog post. You know the kind–profiles of hip, edgy librarians by journalists who are shocked, just Shocked! to find a librarian running a gaming event, or teaching web 2.0 skills, or maintaining the library’s virtual presence with social networking tools. (Bonus points if the accompanying picture features a tattooed librarian!)

At the time, it was easy enough to just roll my eyes, or play Librarian Stereotype Bingo by looking for mentions of shushing or buns. (Seriously, did there used to be some weird hybrid of library and finishing school that churned out librarians with a uniform hairstyle? Is this a Thing? What is with all the emphasis on buns?!)

But now, it seems, we’ve reached new era when it comes to libraries in the news and blogosphere: the era of Libraries: Ur Doin It Rong.

You’ve probably seen one of these articles recently. They’re not really trend pieces, the way the Look! A Librarian With A Lip Ring! stories were. Many of them reflect the dire circumstances many librarians find themselves in–like the LA Unified School District Librarians, now forced to prove they’re capable of classroom teaching if they want to continue working. Lawyers there are outright demanding that school librarians prove themselves relevant. Elsewhere, however, librarians and non-librarians alike are giving sweeping predictions and advice on how the entire profession can stay relevant in the modern world.

So here’s what I don’t get: where, exactly, are all these “mere clerks who guard dead paper”?

Seriously. Seth Godin’s piece just happens to be the most recent, but I could’ve picked any number of blog posts or op-ed pieces that, frankly, come off as more than a little paternalistic, with authors scolding us silly librarians to get our noses out of the books and participate in the information age. Because when I read writing like this, I think, Who in the world are you talking about?

The librarians I know are the kind of active educators the LAUSD is (apparently) seeking. They are experts on the research process, they use social media, they advocate passionately for teens and libraries.

So am I missing something? Are there actually huge numbers of librarians (and libraries) dedicated only to outdated service models? Or are we, as a profession, suffering from a case of really awful PR? I would argue that librarians–or at least the librarians I know–are daily engaged in staying relevant. So how is it that we seem to be stuck in reaction mode, constantly responding to “advice” and prognostication?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.
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8 Comments

  1. We do have an image problem and I’d say that the image problem is intricately tied to our own PR.

    One issue is that we haven’t been able to get the message across that we are about more than the traditional bookshelf/warehouse/shushing stereotype. When we tell people we are more than the stereotype but then in the next minute get upset about something book related, the message that we send is very mixed.

    Another issue is that we aren’t good at really advocating and getting out there and saying what we do. We do a lot inside our buildings but what about going out and telling people about what goes on inside the buildings? I’m not talking about advertising programs and collections – I’m talking about talking about why we have those programs and collections. How does what we do inside our buildings (on virtually) support the needs of teens/customers? The why is more important than the what in this case. If we don’t talk about it, who will?

    I found it really interesting that in the article about the LA school librarians, where the focus was very much on all the ways that the librarians are going beyond the stereotype, that the author of the article still ended with a statement about librarians selecting a quiet, contemplative, book-stack focused profession. Even that article couldn’t see beyond the image/stereotype.

    Stereotypes are hard to break and it takes standing up and speaking out about what’s going on. It also takes an open-mind, careful listening, and an ability to not get defensive. We can’t react we have to act. We can’t wait until the lawyers or pink slips come. It’s got to happen outside of and beyond that.

  2. I think this is more a case of lazy journalism, than anything else. It’s fairly easy to come up with a story on an issue by looking at a few outdated stereotypes, getting a few quotes, noting a few changes, and calling it a story. That said, there needs to be some way to overcome bad journalism.

  3. If this is merely a case of lazy journalism, then journalism has an epidemic on its hands. And authors in the blogosphere aren’t just cobbling together pieces out of nowhere–Godin has addressed libraries numerous times on his blog. If we truly believe that these perceptions of libraries (and librarians) are missing the mark–and I, for one, certainly believe that–we have to ask why the misperceptions are so widespread, and why they’re getting so much press.

  4. This is an interesting discussion. I agree with Linda that a lot of it stems from the fact that I don’t think people truly understand what we do and why we do it. No matter how many times I tell people that I work with information (no matter what format) they still see a library as a mausoleum of dusty volumes. But I also agree with Linda that the only way we are going to break these stereotypes is by having a unified message. That is what great about ALA and YALSA, they can represent us, and our profession with a single message. But we all need to get behind them and echo that message over and over until people get it.

  5. Megan Frazer Blakemore

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this precise issue lately. Here are a few of my not necessarily connected thoughts.

    1. In my area, we’re still getting a lot of, “Do we still need libraries with all the technology we have these days?” types of articles, in which the old stereotypes (which were never true to begin with) are trotted out as fact. A false dichotomy is set up between books/libraries/old and new/technology that I find really perplexing.

    2. Part of the problem is that we are good at supporting others in our building. When we help do an English project, at least at the high school level, the student is most likely to go home and say, “Hey, let me tell you about this neat thing I did in English.” Rather than, “Let me tell you about the Information Literacy skills I learned today.”

    3. I think Linda is exactly right that we are good about changing our image within our schools, but struggle to do so outside of the building. I think we can do that locally by joining things like PTOs or going to conferences with other disciplines. I do think there needs to be a larger, organized effort to change our images. Things like I Love My Librarian help, but we need more.

  6. mk, I think you and I are used to working with and getting to know awesome librarians because they are the people who are on Twitter and going to conferences and writing articles, but that doesn’t necessarily represent the general population. There are some really awful libraries out there. My own town’s public library, for example. Awful. They don’t have any new books, their customer service is abysmal, and they have bored and unenthusiastic people working there who clearly aren’t reading SLJ. I assume that most of the reason for this is budgetary – not just for materials, but if you can’t pay people a lot, you don’t get the best people, and chances are most staff on the front lines aren’t degreed librarians. There’s probably not much time for professional development because they’re short-staffed and on the desk most of their shift. But here are things that don’t cost money: raise your fine ceiling for blocking checkouts from $10. When there’s a line at the circ desk and you’re the reference librarian sitting 10 feet away, start calling people over to check out books. Take down the NO CELL PHONE and CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR CHILDREN signs. Stop buying multiple copies of every singled Scott Westerfeld book so that you can buy a few off of the BFYA or QP lists. Etc etc etc.

    I’m frustrated because I had two experiences lately that made me think: “this is why libraries are going away.” One, the stuff I mention above. And two, I requested some new books be ILL’d to me because my library doesn’t own any books off the 2011 lists. But when I did, they told me they wouldn’t request them because they were too new and other libraries wouldn’t lend them to me. Then I asked if I could request that they be purchased, and they said that they needed more than one request. Sooooo…..I’m basically out of luck. I will have to buy the books, right? Or not read them for “6 to 12 months.” Seriously? So now I know that this library will not have what I want.

    I told my husband about this and he was like, “maybe only towns that are willing to pay for good libraries deserve them.” I don’t agree – the towns that can’t really pay for great libraries might be the ones that need them the most. BUT, I think if a library is not willing to fight for its own existence and try looking outside of the way it’s always done things, then maybe it does deserve to fail. What is the point of having a big building in your town full of books that people don’t want to check out? And a reference librarian sitting at a desk in the middle of an empty room?

  7. I think that we are hindered not only by the stereotype of librarians but also the stereotype of teens. We are thought of as quiet, timid, studious and that our job is to maintain a physical space that has the same attributes. Many people (ie people who don;t work with or have teens) see teens as rowdy, disruptive, lazy and self-centered. So, the public doesn’t see the two stereotypes coming together. If anything they think we serve the quiet nerdy teen and no one else.
    Libraries need funding, staff and public support to really provide excellent service to teens. In order to get this funding, we need to define what a teenager really is. Part of communicating with the public about the services that we provide must start with educating the public about teens, theirs needs, interests and potential. Next we talk about how we support teens and why this is essential to the community and to the community’s future. This is a three part message that must break three stereotypes: who librarian is, who a teenager is and what is the purpose of the library.
    Linda and Kate are right we need to be unified in our message

  8. Ditto what Sarah said. A lot of my non-librarian friends complain to me about our public librarians, saying that the librarians give off the air of being grumpy and bothered. My totally unfounded theory is that the less energetic staff sit at the desks while the librarians who have energy and passion are busy planning and running programs, in the stacks or at a computer helping patrons, etc.

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