I love the web comic strip xkcd. Sometimes I have to get my engineer partner to explain a strip, but even as he explains it (thus lessening the humor for himself…jokes are never fun to explain) I’ll chuckle at the witticism.
Today, xkcd had a strip about librarians.
The strip is not necessarily derogatory, but it also isn’t flattering, and is pretty rife with some old stereotypes about librarians. If the strip had shown the boyfriend snapping a laptop in half, with the same reaction by the librarian, the strip would have been far more nuanced in its understanding of modern librarians. It would have been claimed by librarians and stuck on everything from tshirts to coffee mugs. As with other comics that chose to stereotype librarians, I expect at least a mini-backlash from this strip if the librarian community catches wind of it (and of course they would, because our fellow tech-geeks, the information architects and usability folks love xkcd).
Although my own feathers are a bit ruffled at this representation of librarians (which is wrong on so many levels) at the same time I wonder if we should really waste any time trying to correct the image of librarians in the public perception. Is it really necessary for people to see us as anything more than be-spectacled, be-bunned, shushing book lovers? If the only thing that matters is that more people start using the resources of libraries (not just our books, dear, our databases, our co-browsing services, our DVD and CD collections, our video-gaming tournaments), then perhaps we shouldn’t waste our energy trying to change the image.
Images/stereotypes are viral. There’s very little we can do to change the way the public views us. Badgering publishers or authors into printing retractions for their portrayal of librarians is defensive and not particularly productive or flattering, as it goes a long way towards perpetuating the myth that we’re a bunch of control-freak biddies running around in packs trying to maintain order. The only way to change the perception of librarians (and I’d guess that the Shh! variety of librarian stereotype will be around for a long time because of movies, cartoons and books) is to get people to come into the library. See that we have more than books. See that many of us don’t care how you treat our books as long as you use them. See that we can help you tame the torrent of information that’s available on the web and find real and useful sources of information for you. That many libraries have “quiet floors” instead of the whole library being off-limits for chatter. That we even encourage noisiness with some of our programming. Get people in the door and their perception of us might change.
As for pursuing perpetuate-ers of old myths? Well, we’re not going to start taking those books and movies off our shelves that do the same thing, are we? Free speech, free access to information, and all that jazz. Be active in your pursuit of changing the image of libraries (and consequently, librarians)…not re-active.