The Anti-stereotype stereotype

One of the greatest bugbears in librarianship continues to be stereotype and the image of librarians. Long perceived as old women who wear buns in their hair, glasses, and a twin-set, this image has become stereotype thanks to the image of librarians in film, novels, and journalism. The American Library Association has decided that this impression needs to change, especially since a large percentage of librarians will retire in the next ten years and there will be many vacancies to fill. The ALA has embarked on a recruitment drive, promoting the work of a librarian as being worthwhile, awash with new technology, and overall, just 'cool'.

The ALA has attacked the recruitment problem by looking to youth to fill the void. In the US and Australia, a newly graduated librarian is rarely a hip, young, 20-something. Most graduates have come to librarianship after trying another profession, and are often in their mid-30s. The ALA is looking to change the age base of its new librarians by promoting the MLS to those who have just finished their undergraduate degrees in their mid-20's.

There's nothing wrong with looking to get younger people into librarianship. After all, libraries attract all age groups across the population, and we should a wide range of age groups in our staff to reflect that. What is wrong is the ALA's method of recruitment, which has the potential to divide old and young in librarianship.

Some articles that have appeared in recent months -

"It's becoming a younger profession," said Paige Wasson, an American Library Association spokeswoman, who donned sneakers at the event. "You see folks with dreadlocks and chunky boots. They're not the 'shush, be quiet' librarians of old." (Arizona Central)

"I like to go out to eat," she said. "I like to go to bars. I like to travel. Pretty much, I'm up for anything. I consider myself very adventurous." (New York Times)

"Melissa Schneider kickboxes, wears trendy clothes and at 25 is a far cry from the image of the schoolmarmish librarian in reading glasses, finger pressed to pursed lips." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

"She straddled a red Harley-Davidson, flashed her bright smile and spread her arms wide open. It wasn't a typical photo shoot for the director of the Ocean County Library System, but it sure was fun." (Asbury Park Press)

These articles are all about image, and a false one at that. Even more worrying is that these articles are the beginnings of an "anti-stereotype stereotype". Simply, that they do nothing more but create a new negative image about librarianship that is just as unreal as the old one. The ALA's determination to get away from the old image will only cause more confusion amongst librarians about what we really stand for.

Not once are the values of a librarian mentioned, nor what they actually do in their day to day work, or how much money they make. These are the things that people need to know to choose a career. It matters nothing if they get to wear "trendy clothes" or not.

How do older members of our profession feel about being relegated to the "shushing schoolmarm" category? Has the ALA forgotten that most of the hip young librarians will in fact be working with the "schoolmarms"? Division between young and old can only be a recipe for disaster. All members of the profession need to work together towards the same common goals.

Creating a new image based on the library's "coolness factor" would not be wrong if it was about values. It librarians were written up in the press as defenders of free speech, opponents to filtering, technologically-savvy individuals, we would be doing well. Surely that would make a profession appear "cool" to anyone, not just youth.

We want to be a profession that includes all kinds of people, not just those who fit the stereotypical box.

Links and further references -

New looks pull kids into libraries http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0316libraries16.html
Web overturning image of book-filing librarian http://washington.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2000/04/03/focus4.html
Librarians Adjust Image in an Effort to Fill Jobs http://college3.nytimes.com/guests/articles/2001/08/23/864013.xml
Few check out the work, so librarian hiring lags http://www.jsonline.com/news/wauk/apr02/35296.asp
Biking for books: Library director dons leather for Harley fund-raiser poster
http://www.app.com/app2001/story/0,21133,548851,00.html
Image and the Librarian http://home.earthlink.net/~cyberresearcher/ImageHomepage.htm
Wear lipstick, have a tattoo, belly-dance, then get naked: The making of a virtual librarian http://www.careerdevelopmentgroup.org.uk/impact/archives/abrewerton.htm

If you have any information to add to this page (links, comments etc) please drop me an email!