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What are the Real Librarian Stereotypes?

Last week I criticized a lazy journalist for doing what lazy journalists do: write about stuff they know nothing about. In his case, he knew nothing about libraries, but wrote with the assurance of an expert. That’s why he ended up sounding stupid, with his talk of bun-wearing shushers and dark-framed glasses.

A media image problem for librarians is that people who write for news organizations apparently never use public libraries. Their knowledge of librarians is based entirely on old movies with librarian characters written by screenwriters whose knowledge of librarians was also based entirely on older movies with librarians characters.

The only movie librarian written by someone who knew about librarians was Carole Lombard in No Man of Her Own, who is pretty and slightly odd and described as being “a bit of a handful,” but somehow that type didn’t catch on.

So it goes. Most people who stereotype librarians don’t know anything about librarians and don’t use libraries. But on occasion, someone gets it right.

For example, a letter to Washington Post last week had nothing to do with librarians, but the writer’s daughter had obviously visited a library or two in her time.

In a discussion of medicine ruled by assistants aided by computers rather than doctors, the person wrote, “As my perceptive daughter said to her new doctor, who sat typing into a laptop instead of looking at her and listening to her, ‘Are you a doctor or a librarian?’”

That one hits a bit close to home, I bet. Right now, at just about every reference desk in every library in the country, a librarian or someone who the public probably thinks is a librarian is staring at a computer screen and ignoring the surrounding library patrons.

Their eyes might be temporarily redirected in the direction of patrons asking questions before they dash back to the computer screen to look for the answers to those questions.

My stereotype librarian is a pleasantly plump, middle aged white woman who really likes to help people and can’t understand why more people don’t want her help. Is there someone like that on your staff, or is it just the librarians I’ve known over the years.

I’ll leave the question for all the readers who work in libraries and thus know what real librarians are like. What are the REAL librarian stereotypes?

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Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    Stephen King had a decent sympathetic portrayal of librarians in the character of Mike Hanlon in IT, of all things. The presence of an eldritch abomination taking the form of a killer clown tends to overshadow the librarian who is shown to be a pretty stand up guy, if a bit on the nerdy side.

    • Lisa says:

      There’s also a really evil librarian in one of his short stories/novellas, I think it’s the Library Policeman. She feeds on fear and eats children, if I recall correctly. Extremely terrifying.

  2. For most of my life, I viewed libraries as material warehouses with staff employed for directional inquiries and to shelve the books and videos. My experience was with staff who projected a “don’t come near me” facade that let them toil at their hand-work unbothered by patrons — or with more pleasant staff who provided directional and retail service. Upon attending college full-time in the mid-2000s, I got a hint of library as something more though sadly still experienced a pronounced lack of staff engagement with patrons and ideas.

    Through my advocacy work over the past few years, I’ve developed relationships with some of the profession’s best & brightest and have a much better understanding of what librarianship can be about.

    • Kaylin says:

      I’ve heard the term ‘librarian butt’ on more than one occasion to describe the results of sitting at the reference desk for prolonged periods.

  3. librarEwoman says:

    The librarian stereotype that I find most accurate is that librarians love comfortable shoes. Just take a look around you at any library conference, and you’ll see that to be the case.

    The “pleasantly plump” stereotype is pretty accurate, too.

  4. Walt Lessun says:

    We drink a lot

  5. will manley says:

    AL…congrats on a refreshingly interesting twist on the “stereotype” issue. In my travels to library conferences I find these qualities to be fairly common among librarians: love to laugh, cerebral, tech savvy, and pushed by professional peer pressure to honor a tight little set of norms and attitudes: an “anything goes” view of intellectual freedom, a whiny sense of being underpaid and under appreciated, and a fear of the future. Also mostly white and female.

    • Diane Briel says:

      Will,
      That’s dead-on for me and quite a few of my friends from library school as well as some colleagues today, I do take exception at fear of the future. I’m firmly in the camp that the only constant in life is change. Throw in AL’s “slightly odd” as well

  6. quietly says:

    Unapproachable is definitley true. Before working in libraries, I was the patron who stood timidly to the side of the desk, waiting to be called upon. Now those people drive me nuts, but I still get it. We need tablets instead of computers, and official librarian scooters we can ride around the stacks. Work would be a lot more fun, anyway.

    • gatoloco says:

      Years ago, at a library to go unnamed, I had a colleague who worked microfiche and microfilm. She found four full height cubicle panels, and closed herself inside for the day. The ultimate in approachability, the unseen public service employee!

  7. Having worked in the library field for more than twelve years, first as a para-professional with the Navy and other public libraries and then as a Children’s/Young Adult Librarian-I try to project an air of helpfulness and welcome for every customer I come in contact with, no matter their station in life, religious background, appearance, etc. I also, however, try to be who I am and not anything else. Like the fabled hipster librarian in the duced article, I have tattoos (only one is visible), I have short hair (currently brown, but was burgundy), I wear tinted glasses-silver frames, and I wear Doc Martins or sneakers. The glasses are tinted because I am photosensitive and have migraines.
    I don’t have as many earrings as I used to have because I am 43 and think it’s just tacky. I do know what I am doing, but too often, my customers don’t want my help unless it’s computer assistance or assistance with their electronic reading devices. I read your blog because you tell it like it is and I respect that. Too often the ALA doesn’t know when to get its collective head out of the sand and stop lamenting the fact that libraries are underfunded; they need to do something about it-something concrete. I don’t know about other libraries and librarians, but I work in the second poorest county in Florida and have had to undergo additional training in SOCIAL WORK to help people to fill out unemployment and welfare benefits online. That’s not counting the senior citizens who need help filling out their taxes online.

    • MG says:

      I think it’s great you had extra training in social work. I’ve been saying for the last 15-20 library schools should require psychology classes to deal with all the extra ordinary people our buildings attract.

  8. Overworked Librarian says:

    When I started working as a library assistant years ago. I was very naive and too approachable. I don’t know if my ethnicity had anything to do with it. I am multi-racial in an urban environment with a high concentration of African Americans, Latin Americans and Hmong Americans as well as Caucasians… I think it was moreso that I went above and beyond our stated policies. I would practically type up a patron’s entire resume for them if time permitted.

    Fast forward to today… I still try to help as much as possible… but I adhere to our stated policies and services. It protects me from overzealous patrons who seek to monopolize my time. I also have a ton of duties now that I am a ‘real’ librarian :)

  9. Techserving You says:

    AL, I have to say your librarian stereotype is pretty much dead-on. Sure, there are plenty of librarians who aren’t like that, but most librarians ARE white, and ARE women, and are middle-aged (or older.) I’ll expand on the “plump” description – as a colleague at an unnamed Ivy League university once noted, most librarians seem to either be very fat or very thin (bird-like.)

    I think a great exercise in figuring out whether a stereotype has merit is to go to a large airport, en route to ALA. Long before you get to your gate or even go through security, guess which of the people you see are librarians. And then…. note that your picks arrive at the same gate for the same flight to ALA that you’re taking! Often, you’ll notice later on that they have a tote bag or other product from a vendor or publisher, and maybe they read Choice or some other librarian publication.

    I have also guessed (accurately as it turns out) that complete strangers in strange cities and even foreign countries are librarians, purely from their appearance and general demeanor. After 15 years in the field, I have some sort of sixth sense. Interestingly, it’s not even the case that all of these people look the same… there’s just some sort of intangible clue my librarian-dar picks up.

  10. Techserving You says:

    Also… librarians tend to be TERRIBLE dressers. Again, not all librarians are. There are, of course, plenty of regular people who dress in normal nice clothes, and happen to be librarians. Some even look so nice that you might imagine them to be in other professions!

    But again, let me reference the ALA conventions… I have been in plenty of cities when other professional associations, such as APA and ABA, have held conferences. Attendees looked professional and well-groomed. The majority of librarians are ALA look incredibly dumpy. You CAN dress reasonably well on a low salary. Go to TJ Maxx. Go to Target! You don’t have to look like a bag lady. My first ALA convention was a real eye opener when I realized that the dumpy librarians I’d worked with were actually fashion plates compared to the masses of American librarians.

    • I completely agree! My first Midwinter conference a friend and I played Librarian or Not Librarian as we walked around. It was painfully obvious, if not in the clothes choice, then the shoes.

    • Joneser says:

      I refuse to shop at Target. I am a radical librarian!

    • Michelle Sellars says:

      My favorite professor in library school was a southern gay man with impecable style. He always wore three piece suits with vintage pocket squares and ties. I fit in better with the “hipster librarian” stereotype with my tattoos. I have toned down my dressing for work–I used to wear more crazy vintage outfits, now it’s brightly colored skirts and dresses. It seems to make me more approachable anyway.

    • Vauban at Namur says:

      Yeah, but some of the younger female members of RBMS are good looking and trim, with a few actually in the hot category. They also can dress *really* well…cute, sharp-lookin’ cocktail-length fitted dresses and heels for a night out after the opening social. Day-um. ‘Course with the heels it means you have to be a gentleman and spring for a cab even when just heading to some bar just down the street a few blocks for drinks. But so worth it when you have to keep you company a hottie or two who look like a million bucks *and* are brilliant bibliographers or curators, etc. F***ing-hey.

  11. Eleanor says:

    I am annoyed by the attempts to create blogs or other types of demonstrations to illustrate that librarians don’t look like the expected stereotype. They bother me for 3 reasons: 1) As far as I know, only other librarians/library workers see them; 2) They come across as defensive, which is a tone that does nothing to help the cause of librarianship; 3) The majority of librarians pictured inevitably match the librarian stereotype to some degree, thus undercutting the point of the effort.
    That being said, I do love cardigans!

  12. riley0003 says:

    I have to agree with “Techserving” – I can always spot the librarians in airports as well!

    But my major pet peeve about librarians’ appearances is seeing the hoardes of women wearing name tags outside of the conference halls, while walking down the streets. C’mon people – that’s just not safe!

    I have to admit that I have dark framed glasses and do usually wear comfortable shoes. But my clothes are usually pretty trendy; not that I’d ever make the cover of Cosmo!

  13. The Book Mage says:

    Although all the above is probably true at some point, it would be nice if we start to refrain from sterotyping ourselves. The fact that we buy it makes it worse.

  14. Janice says:

    A student asked me one day how come I didn’t wear glasses and declared that all the librarians he knew wore glasses. So I asked how many librarians he knew other than me. His response? One.

  15. Amber says:

    I made my best girlfriend swear that the second I started dressing like I librarian she would stage an intervention. That having been said, it has become almost a joke with my family that I seem to walk around with an invisible “I am a librarian and will help you.” sign above my head. Even hundreds of miles away from home, people will walk up to me in a crowded area and ask for help.
    So it’s more than just comfy shoes and quirky attire. It must be an attitude or an aura one gives off.

  16. JG says:

    I am typical I guess: white middle aged pleasantly plump, wear glasses, dress in flat comfortable shoes, and love cats. However I am also radical, dress very fashionably, lots of big costume jewelry, am loud, laugh too much and have an incurable sense of the odd. It isn’t the clothes that make the stereotype, it is the slumped shoulders, the timid attitude and the confusion about all this technology.
    I find that the librarians I work with are aggressive, bitchy, smart and fabulous fact finders. They are amazing!

  17. Michelle Sellars says:

    If my library school graduating class was any indication, the librarians of today love Dr. Who, graphic novels, new technology, and want to interact with patrons as much as in humanly possible.

  18. ItGirl says:

    Two words: cat sweaters.

  19. NorCalLibGal says:

    This is sad on many levels, one being that apparently there’s a new stereotype that all you sheep buy into: that of ‘hipster’ librarian. Puh-lease!

  20. Kim says:

    I like to wear classic business casual at work, and am into running, hiking and various outdoor sports, which doesn’t fit the stereotype. No one I meet outside of the town where I work has ever guessed correctly what I do, nor has asked for my help at an airport… When I went to my first and thus far only ALA conference, I thought librarians would dress better there, but no.

    My colleagues look and dress pretty much like you say, though I don’t get why being a librarian should mean having to dress terribly. On the plus side, they are also very nice people and kind of quirky — perhaps part of the stereotype, too?

  21. Walt Lessun says:

    I wear what I can afford — the best styles from Goodwill, Salvation Army and St. Vinnie’s…

  22. MG says:

    I am the woman you speak of: white; pleasantly plump; wanting to help; frustrated that no one wants her help; middle aged woman. I embrace who I am. I wasn’t always middle aged or plump but I suppose all those books I enjoy reading instead of exercising out with brought on the rolls of adipose tissue.

  23. Oleg K. says:

    I wore a bow-tie to work today. I am a librarian.

  24. joy4evr says:

    I’m a librarian in training and i get very disgusted with the stereotypes placed on librarians. It is understandable that the majority of professionals in the field are middle aged plump ladies but realistically the younger generation, such as myself, we are striving to change this outlook and eliminate this stereotype. Mind you I’m already half way there, because every time I’m asked my profession and I answer a librarian, the ensuing response is “yeah you look the type”, I’m still not sure what that type is but to me there is no type. People should not judge based on the physical look, they need to get to know their librarians and realise that they are very, very nice, quirky and well educated people.

  25. Carolyn says:

    My best friend (also a librarian) and I love to play a game at ALA annual in the Exhibitors hall. We sit somewhere central where we can see as many attendees as possible and then play, “God, please don’t tell me I look like that!”

    I like the idea of trying to pick out the librarians at the airport pre-gate arrival, but you can really get an idea of what most librarians look like physically and fashion-wise by going to the Grand Central Station of librarians at any conference: the Exhibitions. For the most part, the comments I’ve read have had an element of me in them, some great, some, sadly, stereotypical, but one of the things I enjoy about being a librarian is an inclusive community of professionals that tend to be more interested in diversity than tired and worn-out visions that are well past their expiration dates!

    Let’s retire the old perceptions of librarians perpetuated by people who probably haven’t seen a library much less a librarian in a cat’s age and continue the air of individuality and eclecticism librarians of all ages, sizes, fashion senses and ever-present humor and intelligence possess and demonstrate every day.

  26. Marion says:

    When I started in the field twenty years ago, I dressed fashionably in heels and skirts, sort of “bank teller”. Now I wear black sneakers, black dress pants, and have the same silky t-shirt top in seven different colours, that I occasionally switch out for a different blouse. There’s just no point to dressing up when you are crawling around plugging computers back in. I am also white and plump.

    Yeah, we have some hipsters… but we all end up as one of the two – thin and cardiganed or fat with outrageous arty jewelry.

    Yes, I would like to help people, but not the ones that spit, stand too close, or just drive me crazy with their obsessive weirdness… Sigh. You’ll find me glued to the computer too.

  27. Penny says:

    I am a librarian, but I wear beautiful clothing. I know this because I think some of my colleagues like to point out how “different” I am. My hair is professionally styled (including highlights) on a regular basis, and I wear tastefully applied make up every day. Yes, I wear glasses, but they are the most fashionable ones I can find that fit my face. Most of my colleagues are white and female, and even many of the young ones dress badly. Why the heck are grown women wearing knee socks with skirts?? They wouldn’t know lipstick or blush if it hit them over the head. That being said, they are smart dedicated, hardworking people who do all they can to support the students and faculty. (I work in an academic library.)

    • Kim says:

      I like to dress well too and be in good shape. I’ve never understood why being a librarian means having to dress terribly. The people I work with are great to work with but dress like you describe, though I’ve not yet seen knees socks.

  28. Jess says:

    Librarian stereotypes was discussed a few weeks ago in one if my information management classes. We looked at a range of stereotypes, from stern bun-wearing librarians, to hip librarians with tattoos and piercings, as well as the idea of the ‘sexy’ librarian, which is often portrayed in movies and images.
    What interests me is that all of these stereotypes are extremes in some way; librarians are placed at two extreme ends of the spectrum in being perceived as either boring and conservative and radical. In some ways, the ‘sexy’ librarian falls in the middle of the spectrum, often being both repressed and sensual.
    I wonder why society seems to have a need for librarians to be ‘extreme’ in some way or another.

  29. I would love to be an “imbedded librarian” setting up for a few hours in various gathering places in the neighborhood like coffee shops, and bookstores. I would, however stay clear of the nail places.

  30. Mike says:

    Male librarian = beard. I was afraid I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate from library school if I didn’t grow a beard.