Career Strategies for Librarians
Seeing Ourselves as Others Do
by Jonathon Dyer
The release of the new Librarian Doll by the Archie McPhee toy company in Seattle (http://www.mcphee.
com/laf/index.html) by has stirred up a hornet’s nest around the globe over the image of librarians.
Newspapers all over the world have noticed the disgruntled rumblings of librarians who represent this
“stereotype” (if you’re curious about the kind of press we’re getting, Blake Carver’s excellent LISnews
site (http://www.lisnews.com/) will provide links to most of these stories - just type “doll” into the search
box). List-servers are running hot with the contributions of information professionals who want to have
their say on this burning topic.
But love her or hate her, Pearl the Librarian - with her “amazing push-button shushing action” - is really
just the catalyst for the most recent round of a much wider debate over how the public views librarians. It
is an ongoing argument that divides the profession and elicits near-fanatical responses from librarians
who might never bother engaging in any other library-related discussion.
The going concern is how people think of librarians. The collective “stereotype” of the dowdy middle-
aged women in sensible shoes, the library sentinel guarding against the slightest whisper of
conversation and the book-stamping control freak has mobilised an army of the loud, pierced, punk,
belly-dancing, barbarian, leather-clad, and laughing (Ruth A. Kneale’s extensively researched study of
librarian perception can be viewed at http://atst.nso.edu/library/perception/; Anthony Brewerton‘s online
essay “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) is a good overview of some of
the profession’s discontents).
The inaccuracy of this image is not in question. For starters, roughly twenty percent of the profession is
made up of men (this percentage increases steadily the further up the management ladder you look).
Many or the librarians I know have many years ahead before they hit middle age. And in my experience, it
is more likely the other patrons who will be telling people to be quiet.
Of course it rankles when you see a negative image of a librarian in the movies or on television, when
you see one at all (my personal grudge is with David E. Kelly; three very successful television shows, two
based on law firms and one set around a high school, and Kelley has never written a librarian-character
into any them). It should bother us. But is it the life and death concern that some try to make it? I would
say not. In fact, writing letters to the editor about how harmful a doll is to the self-esteem of the
profession does more to harm the public perception of librarians than Pearl possibly could all on her
own. In fact, I believe that as a profession we are chasing our tail with the physical image question, while
a far more important issue barely gets any consideration whatsoever.
Stereotype or Caricature?
The words we use can shape the way others see something, but they can also influence the way in
which we approach a problem ourselves. When referring to the issue of the librarian image, most
people fall into the trap of talking in terms of a “librarian stereotype”. This is unfortunate because the
meaning does not match what we really mean to say.
The word stereotype literally describes a technique of reproducing a relief image using a mould. The
implication being that the type is self-propagating. This is certainly the view of some. Jennifer Cram,
writing on achieving satisfaction in librarianship, wrote:
The subconscious cannot accept a joke. It takes every form of labelling seriously. That is why, however
much we deny it, individually and collectively, to a certain extent, we do accept as accurate the
stereotypical image of librarians and therefore we tend to behave in ways which reinforce that image
when we should be treating the stereotypical image as the joke it is, accepting that on a conscious level,
people know a joke (even a bad joke) when they here one. (Cram 1991)
When we talk about the librarian stereotype, what we are really referring to is a caricature, a cartoonish
exaggeration of the profession. By discussing librarian image in terms of a caricature instead of
stereotype, we disarm the image; we remove the sense of inevitability the latter term implies.
Every profession has a its own negative image attached to it. Well, in a sense, the professions ask for it
a little. We go to college or university; we become respected members and leaders of the community.
Obviously we think we’re better than everyone else and need to be brought down a rung or two. Lawyers
and doctors (and the clergy) have had fun and revilement poked at them since Shakespeare’s time. In
comparison, librarians have gotten off pretty lightly. In fact, as Cram also points out, ours is the only
professional caricature “that does not suggest an element of exploitation of others.” (Cram 1991)
However, the image really is a caricature, a boorish, overdone joke, but a joke nonetheless. Most people
really don’t expect to see a librarian with half-moon glasses and a twin-set shushing everyone in
earshot, any more than they expect to see a lawyer physically chasing after an ambulance or doctors in
their examination coats playing through on the 9th green.
I’m not saying that the dowdy clothes and hair-in-a-bun picture of librarians isn’t a subject that warrants
debate. However, I think there is a danger of fighting on the wrong battlefield. In the maelstrom of
rambling email discussions and letters to the editor, another significant and far more detrimental aspect
of the problem has been virtually ignored.
“But you can’t be a librarian…”
We’ve all been in the same situation at one time or another. You’re at a party, introductions are made,
small-talk ensues, and then the inevitable question. When you tell this new acquaintance you’re a
librarian the reaction is usually a variation on a theme. The look of surprise/bewilderment/horror and the
response, “But you can’t be a librarian; you’re too nice/friendly/polite/agreeable.”
I have conducted an informal poll among some of my friends and co-workers regarding what they
thought librarians were like. Nobody mentioned twin-sets or tweed skirts (although this may have been
in deference to my being a bloke). However, everyone I spoke to on the subject had had a bad library
experience at sometime in their lives. Even other librarians have had run-ins with one of those people
who, it seems, have been put on the earth for the sole reason of making everyone else’s life that little bit
Unfortunately many people base their view of what a librarian is on that one bad experience – the
grouchy old buzzard at the local public library who always treated them like criminals or the high school
librarian who saw her role as a kind of book warden. Often the “unhelpful librarian” isn’t a librarian at all,
but a volunteer or a casual library assistant. Sometimes it’s really a good librarian who is having a bad
day. But it’s that one bad experience that people drag out at parties when they find out that you’re a
librarian. And this is a problem that warrants serious attention.
Think Globally, Act Locally
So, what can we do to rectify this problem? I believe that the answer is deceptively simple. We keep
doing what we have been doing all along, putting people and information together.
Part of the problem, I think, is that many librarians have forgotten how to find enjoyment and fulfilment in
what we do. There is a simple joy that comes from helping people, but it is easy to lose sight of this
when you have a staffing roster to revise or another round of serials cancellations to consider. If you look
stop thinking about your clients as intrusions on your time and remind yourself that they’re reason you
are here, you may be able to relocate that satisfaction.
As librarians, we are a part of a service profession; that is, we provide a service to our clients - not just
books CDs or electronic resources, but our time, our experience and our expertise as information
facilitators. In an age defined by time-poverty and attention-deficit, we represent one of the few
professions that are still dedicated to the delivery of comprehensive, scrupulous personalised service. In
spite of our concessions to budgetary constraints and staffing cuts, we are still devoted to offering the
best service we possibly can to our clients.
We use the word “profession” when referring to our occupation without giving it too much thought, but
there are certain responsibilities that accompany the label. The word profession was originally used to
describe the joining of a religious order, as in a public profession of faith. Over centuries it became
associated with those occupations of service that required an individual to gain extensive academic
training, such as medicine, law or the clergy. The word retains more or less the same meaning today,
although it has grown to encompass any service occupation that requires extensive tertiary level training.
The accent here is on service. The term “professional” still carries with it some of its original meaning. It
implies a calling to service, a vocation of helping others. Librarianship, more than many other
professions, still carries that same sense of responsibility and duty, of providing a service.
Everyone who steps up to the reference desk has a need. When you connect somebody with that vital
piece of legislation, a previously overlooked research article, even a hard-to-find early novel by their
favourite author, that experience impacts in a positive way on their lives. When you help somebody you
change them, you challenge their perception of the profession, and just maybe you’ll enjoy the
Cram, Jennifer. “Self-love and joy and satisfaction in Librarianship”. Found at http://www.alia.org.
au/~jcram/self_love.html. (Originally published in Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services,
June 1991 and in Issues 17, August 1991, 4-7.)
About the Author:
Jonathon Dyer is a Librarian and Policy Development Officer with the Department for Business,
Manufacturing and Trade, Adelaide, South Australia, and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in On
Dit, Mainichi Daily News, Naga and Electricmusic.com and on the University of Adelaide and DBMT
Article published September 2003
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors