Portrait of a Librarian

22 06 2007

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.

Comic strip from xkcd.com entitled

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.

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7 responses

22 06 2007
T Scott

I absolutely agree that fussing about stereotypical images in the media is a waste of time — but I would also point out that if you are in DC this weekend, you’re not going to have much trouble identifying the librarians who are there for ALA. As Lynn is fond of saying, “The stereotypical librarian is alive and well and going to the ALA meeting…”

The flip side to that is that I hope one day to be stepping off a plane somewhere in my usual black outfit, with my black hat & boots, my laptop briefcase in one hand and my guitar in the other and have someone look over and say, “Hmmm… must be a librarian.” We’re not quite there yet, although I would say that pretty much every one of the librarians I’ve hired in the last three years is a definite stereotype-buster.

The one thing that I’d quibble with is your statement that the “only way to change the perception” is to get people to come into libraries. As I’ve said numerous times (on my blog, in print, and in a number of presentations), we need to get librarians OUT of the library and interacting in effective and positive ways in our communities. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an academic, public, medical, school librarian or whatever, the key to an effective future is finding ways to interact with people where they are. And I mean in person, not just virtually — “second life is not a substitute for first life”.

22 06 2007
librarynation

we need to get librarians OUT of the library and interacting in effective and positive ways in our communities.

I had forgotten about this aspect of our profession (you’ll have to forgive me since I’m still cloistered in the ivory tower at the moment)… Every motivational librarian speaker who’s come to talk to us has told us how important it is to make ties in the community – join the Rotary club, the Lyons, attend city council meetings, etc. Since I’m still playing catch up, would you mind pointing me to a few of the articles you mentioned that say where you suggest participating? I’m always keen to hear new ideas on this…it’s a subject I’m not well versed in and I’d love to get more perspective. Thanks again as always for your thoughtful comments.

22 06 2007
librarynation

Oh… and unfortunately I will not be attending ALA this summer. I do hope to go to midwinter and annual next summer, but I just couldn’t make it happen this summer. I’ve seen the YouTube video though, and I’m fully convinced that our stereotype still exists. I guess I just thought it funny that xkcd would be dating one 😉

22 06 2007
Debbie

People who use their library know what we are really like and I doubt that anyone doesn’t come to library because they’re afraid of us. Most customers are so thankful that we can help them navigate to useful sites on the internet and introduce them to databases which most do not know exist. Just basic reference interviews and getting them on their way to a subject heading in the catalog or to a particular aisle is enough for some to be very grateful

I think we are just a group that is stereotyped when someone wants to make a joke or cartoon that needs that kind of person.

22 06 2007
Tea Leaves of Information » Random Access Mazar

[…] Kathleen Houlihan hit the nail squarely on the head: Images/stereotypes are viral. There’s very little we can do to […]

22 06 2007
T Scott

Here are a few links to things I’ve written that deal with the topic.

These are from my blog:

Librarians Unbound
Better Buildings
What Do You Call Success
Librarians On The Loose

And then somewhat longer treatments of those themes in a couple of editorials that I wrote for the JMLA back in ‘04:

A Singular Moment in Time
Means Not Ends

Given my background, these all (in particular the JMLA editorials) have an academic medical library slant, but I think the principles apply widely. From a public library perspective, I suggested one time (I can remember the circumstances) that you ought to find out which nursing homes the parents of the members of you library board were living in, and set up a program where you had a librarian visiting there once a week or so to do internet searching with them, bring them books and magazines, and just generally hang out and be a part of their lives. There are lots of people in our communities for whom “getting to the library” just isn’t feasible given the circumstances of their lives, and we ought to be able to use the tools we have at our disposal to do a much better job of getting to them.

10 07 2007
Mirrors of Ourselves : Part One « The Fifth Law

[…] “Portrait of a Librarian” from Library Nation. […]

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