Inside Higher Education published a story on changes at the University of Oxford’s libraries, implying that the changes were treating librarians like baristas, who apparently all wear “large bright badges offering help to customers,” at least in the UK.
(Is that an American thing as well? Whenever I see baristas I’m often still a little groggy waiting for my caffeine that I don’t notice.)
Here’s the description of the offensive badges:
Gill Evans, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge and a regular user of Oxford’s collections, noticed at the start of term that staff in the reading rooms with “embarrassed expressions” were sporting big yellow badges saying “ask me.”
“They were issued with T-shirts too, though a fair few of those could be seen discreetly hung over the back of chairs.”
Big yellow badges distinguishing some people from others? I seem to recall that was a favorite tactic of a certain dictator a few decades ago, although not even Hitler added insult to injury by making the people wear special t-shirts as well.
That the librarians had “embarrassed expressions” is subjective, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
However, according to a spokeswoman for the library, those librarians aren’t embarrassed at all.
But the library responded that the badges and T-shirts were not worn under duress and were designed to “enhance the visibility of staff” and aid “apprehensive” users. “We wanted to find a simple way to reduce that apprehension and encourage readers to seek assistance when needed,” a spokeswoman said.
So the library responded that the librarians liked the badges and t-shirts. Of course the library responded that way. How else would they respond? That someone had ordered the librarians to wear badges in public regardless of what they wanted? Does that “we” in “we wanted” actually speak for the librarians?
Somehow I doubt it, at least not for all of them.
No library has ever forced me to wear a badge or a t-shirt or a nametag or anything like that, which is probably a good thing for all of us because I wouldn’t do it.
And why not? Because I’m a professional librarian and not a fast food worker or a store clerk. I don’t wear uniforms, name tags, bright badges, or t-shirts. If I wanted to wear special badges I’d go work at Walmart.
Partly it’s a matter of environment. When working at an academic library, I might start wearing badges and t-shirts when the teaching faculty started doing the same thing. When I see a professor wearing a bright yellow badge saying, “Ask Me about Physics!” then I might relent. But probably not. Regardless, it would never happen.
More importantly, it’s a matter of status. Who wears badges, name tags, and uniforms? People who have no autonomy or control over their own work, that’s who. Soldiers, store clerks, and other people whose work is directed and controlled from people above them, people who ultimately don’t wear badges and uniforms.
People who wear special badges and t-shirts rarely choose those items for themselves. The items are chosen for them by other people. Professional indignities, from wearing nametags to working in cubicles, are almost always forced on people by other people who don’t have to endure them.
On the other hand, maybe I’m making too big a deal out of it. Just because I have a shred of dignity and don’t want to wear bright badges or special t-shirts doesn’t mean other people feel that way.
So I’ll put it to you. Bright badges? Special t-shirts? Does your library force you to wear these? Would you want to wear them? Would you feel embarrassed or silly doing so?