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.

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.

11 Thoughts on “Not Like Those Other Librarians

  1. totally speculating here but I think the shift in professional attire has gone hand in hand with how people are less concerned about sharing information online than they would have been 20 years ago and less worried about talking to a stranger too. society is more laid back in lots of ways that are positive.

    oh and people are less worried about proper spelling too. at least I am. 🙂

  2. Great post. As a student teacher-librarian, I agree it’s a fine line those of us in this field have to walk. We have to be careful about “modeling” the behavior we expect from our library users. And I think we have to give young adults credit that they will see through any disingenuousness on our part. If you feel you can’t be yourself and serve, something’s not right.

  3. Jamison on November 21, 2008 at 9:32 am said:

    As a pierced, tattooed librarian who favors comfy clothes and Doc Martens, I worried about how students and teachers would perceive me when I started my first professional school library teacher job this fall. I struggled with whether or not to go out of my way to cover my tattoos or to invest in a new wardrobe. To my amazement and delight, it’s been a non-issue. Even the most apparently conservative of my colleagues has had no comment on my appearance and if the students even notice, it’s to ask about the details (the “Did it hurt?” type questions). I like to think that’s because everyone can see that I’m working hard to provide excellent library services for the entire school, curriculum support for teachers and a welcoming environment for students. I’d love to believe that everyone can come to define professionalism by the way we do our jobs, rather than by the way we’re dressed while we’re doing them.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since it showed up on the blog. As someone who also struggles with balancing the comfy with the professional (and I’m by no means a new/young librarian) in attire and manner, what I’ve realized (and think is a key point in this post) is thinking about the where,what, when, and who of the attire and manner one takes on is important. For example, if I’m going to a professional meeting I think about who is going to be there and ask myself, do I wear the comfy version of my wardrobe or do I wear the more button-down version of my black clothing. Some professional meetings I can definitely get away with the comfy and some I can’t. It’s just thinking it through before I sit down to the conversation.

    And, this is of course exactly what we often talk about when it comes to teens. We want to help them learn to understand that their lives are filled with choices based on situations and circumstances. They have to choose how to write for a particular audience, how to act when in a particular situation, and what to wear based on who they are going to be with and where.

    Choices aren’t static and stagnant, they are constantly changing based on situations and circumstances. As librarians working with teens we need to remember that for ourselves and we need to help teens come to that understanding.

    (BTW, it’s very likely my feet would have been on that desk shelf too.)

  5. I was just thinking about this issue. I’m a young librarian in a public library. (Today, I’m wearing my “Twilight” t-shirt in honor of the opening of the movie. yay!) Most days I wear more “work appropriate” stuff. However, I find that my clothing has little to do w/ connecting w/ my teens. My attitude is what makes the difference. I try to let things be calm, fun, and I don’t nag until I really have to. My favorite line is “Don’t make me be the bad guy.” When they cross a behavior line, I say, “Don’t make me be the bad guy – quit doing that before I raelly have to scream at you” or something like that. That allows them to put me in whatever role they need/want. I’m perfectly happy to hang out, chat, recommend bands and books just like any other friend. If they start acting wild or pushing the limits, I’ll step up and be the “grown up.”

    Professionalism means supporting confidentiality, finding good resources for people and a service attitude. It does not mean that all fun and individuality is stripped from you once you are a librarian. It is a fine balance though – I want people (teen or adult) to go away from the library thinking about the awesome book they found or the help they got – not about the wackadoo librarian. We can be fun and quirky, but not to the point of distraction.

    Random thoughts: Never ceases to amaze me that teens seem to think when you are over 18 that you no longer listen to music. They are like, “You’ve heard of metallica?” or “You know who Brittany Spears is? (who wouldn’t in today’s world??) Anyway, they must think all us old librarians live under a rock.

    I also love to put my feet up on the furniture. It’s a daily struggle not to do it at my desk. 🙂

  6. I have lots of tattoos and a nose piercing, I also dye my hair any number of crazy colors and so far my boss has been cool with things. I usually try to cover my tattoos if I can, but sometimes it gets too warm and I need to wear short sleeves or else I will die. The response to my tattoos has been very positive.

    I agree that teens might gravitate towards someone they see as “cool” but will really stick around for someone who shows them respect.

  7. Julia S. on November 23, 2008 at 1:05 pm said:

    I’m also a pireced, tattooed, metalchick librarian, and though I don’t work in a school, I am my public library’s YA Services librarian, so I have to find that happy medium, too.

    My piercings and ink are easily covered, so that’s not an issue, but before I started my job, I decided to re-dye my flame-red hair a more sedate auburn and buy some business attire. It put me at ease that I would look professional (and it also got my mother off my case).

    I got here to find that the children’s librarian has visible ink and everybody wears jeans. Nevertheless, I continue to dress professionally because I also work the reference desk, where older people come in, take note of my age, and ask me patronizingly if I’m my colleague’s assistant.

    As for my teens, I agree that they make their judgement on you by how you treat them, not how you look. It would be nice if they thought I was cool, but I’d rather they think that I’m nice and helpful to them than impressed that I once got brought up onstage at a GWAR concert.

  8. Rebecca D on November 25, 2008 at 1:43 pm said:

    I have a similar problem – my system requires that I dress “business casual”. I would much rather wear jeans to work – not only do I think they look better than my dress pants, but they are more comfortable and practicle when I am doing messy crafts, black light game days or other active programs. I also think that wearing more casual attire makes a person more approachable simply because our society has become more casual. Professionally dressed people can look intimidating or unwelcoming – which is certainlly not the image librarians want to project. I can understand wanting the staff to “look nice” but I think I look just fine when I’m wearing jeans and a nice shirt.

    As far as my teens are concerned though, they don’t really seem to care what I’m wearing. They are more interested in what programs are happening soon and what books I can recommend. : )

  9. I am so glad that someone addressed this theme, which seems to be common both in how we related to teens as YA librarians, and also how a new crop of young (dare I say “hip”?) librarians are perceived by colleagues and patrons. I find that it is a fine line to walk. In some ways I feel that working with and setting an example for young people makes me much more mature than friends in other fields who interact only with peers. I do feel the need to present myself more professionally than I might in other jobs because of the patrons I interact with, and because I am the youngest librarian on my staff. But part of me also remembers what it felt like to be a teenager and how important adults who seemed to represent whatever artsy/ cool/ hardcore rockstar ideals I had in my brain at that point were, especially in the relatively conservative area I work in– and those are the days I wear my purple suede boots. I think we are lucky to have a community of fellow colleagues of all ages who are helping to redefine what makes a YA librarian “cool.” Thanks for this post!

  10. I don’t think how you sit matters. Sometimes you have to discern the relevance of advice, the goal behind giving it, and who is giving it. Is this someone whom you respect and want to emulate, is it someone who is respected by their students? I watch people who have achieved great successes and who are well regarded by their peers and patrons. Those are the people I want to emulate. I think it is great that you jump on opportunities to relate to your students. I have been told by patrons that I am not a typical librarian because I am fun and approachable. I appreciate it but I feel bad that they have encountered unapproachable librarians. Seriously, who becomes a librarian and then is grouchy about it? Why bother? Certainly not for the money. Welcome to the profession – glad to have you.

  11. Now the major trend is FOR “hip” librarians, so I must buck it. I wear plaid jackets and long pleated skirts, and if I could get my hair into a bun, I would, just to be difficult. All the teachers wear jeans and casual clothes, so I feel compelled to be different in order to show middle school students that it’s okay to be whoever you want to be. In the spring, I wear vintage polyester prom gowns. Why? I can. I’ll let the rest of the librarians be hip!

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