Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Should the ALA Tell You How to Dress?

A Kind Reader forwarded an email about some new cutting edge research by a couple of librarians. It’s the sort of research that will be sure to increase their chances of tenure.

As with so much research done by librarians, it consists of a rigorous and scientific survey at Surveymonkey.

Before you click through and take the survey, or just not bother to like I did, here’s the main part of the email. The email wants

to request your participation in a study to examine librarian dress codes and the value of a professional code. We hope that results of this research will help the perception and open a discussion of whether the library profession should have a standard dress code that is endorsed by the American Library Association. Our research will also discuss if business attire will lead to increased salaries and increased professional status of librarians. The results of this survey are intended for publication.

Speaking personally, that’s just what I think we’ve been missing: a “standard dress code” endorsed by the ALA. Or maybe not.

I’ve gone on the record for years arguing that the ALA should stay away from non-library issues. Now I think I’m going to have to add that it should also stay away from sartorial issues.

Partly, I fear that the average fashion sense of librarians might become part of the standard dress code. I don’t want to wear sweaters with pictures of kittens on them, or big baggy dresses.

But mostly I just don’t like the idea of a “professional code” devoted to dress. For one reason, it’s not anybody’s business but mine how I dress.

For another reason, librarians, in their own way, have style. It’s not always a good style, but it’s definitely a librarian style. There’s a librarian look, or a series of librarian looks, and none of them involve taking off glasses to turn into a sexpot.

That’s why you can usually tell who the librarians are. I think that’s a good thing, especially since I know how to avoid the look when i want to go incognito.

But the key part of the research, and I suspect the motivation behind it, is the question of whether “business attire will lead to increased salaries and increased professional status of librarians.”

See, it’s not just a “professional dress code.” They’re really talking about “business attire,” so every librarian everywhere would have to look like the army of indistinguishable drones in the corporate world.

If people want to wear suits, let them wear suits. If they want to wear jeans, let them wear jeans. Must everyone look the same? The only time I’d recommend always wearing a suit is when negotiating with vendors.

One thing a lot of us like about libraries is not having to dress like corporate hacks. Besides, why should all librarians be expected to dress the same?

As for increased salaries, forget about it. The only way dressing up would benefit your salary is if you dress up for an interview at an administrative level higher than your own.

In most libraries, no matter how you dress you’re not going to get paid more, and if the whole profession started dressing up for work, the only thing it would result in is more librarian salary going for professional clothes.

And then there’s the issue of professional status, worrying about which is the mark of insecure librarians everywhere. In whose eyes do you think wearing business attire would increase your status?

If you’re at a public reference desk, would wearing a suit make you look more professional in the eyes of patrons? Or would it make you look very out of place and even less approachable?

The dress norms in academia go from power suits to casual skirts depending on the area and time of year. If academic librarians start dressing better than the professors, will they therefore get more money and respect? In case you didn’t think that was a rhetorical question, the answer is no.

I highly doubt the ALA would get involved in promulgating a librarian dress code, which would surely annoy a lot of librarians. But if it does, I’ll still dress however the hell I want and ignore the ALA like everyone else does.



  1. Manohman says:

    Dress code shmress code.
    And is that an awkwardly crafted email or what?

  2. It does seem strange to have dress code for a profession where the pendulum swings so wildly. I mean even within the same library the librarians in the various departments (Children’s, Teen, Adult, Technical Services, etc.) all dress according to their specialty. If I saw a librarian in the Teen Department dressed in a suit I would roll my eyes and think there was something very wrong with the culture of that library.

    • A-a-anonymous says:

      I agree. Children’s librarians in suits wouldn’t be approachable at all. For that matter, suits would probably intimidate a lot of library users who aren’t white collar. Maybe we should make the library more accessible — not less!

    • I agree as well. I work with teens and I manage to dress professionaly yet with a youthful style that makes me more approachable. I think this also makes the kids I deal think I’m kind of one of them, but with authority, and I have established wonderful, long lasting relationships with many even after they are to old for our programs. This also means that they open up to me so much more and I truly believe it’s because they feel more comfortable with me and my sttire helps with that.

    • Nah, you don’t get it. The Uniform of the Day depends on your specialty. Children’s librarians would all dress like Big Bird; in the Teen section you’d wear torn denim; lab coats in the Science and Technology department; pinstripe suits in the Business section; something Edwardian in Fiction.

    • @Mark
      And I would LOVE to wear a lab coat at work and attempt an Albert Einstein accent to annoy people. It would be awesome, and I would run around saying “Only a life lived for [books] is a life worthwhile.”

  3. Guybrarian says:

    This sounds like a completely stupid “research” undertaking, so a big nay to this dress code nonsense. That said, there are a few (okay more than a few) librarians I’ve worked with (ssshh…some of them are close by right now) that I want to pull aside and ask, “What are you thinking? You are a professional, at least try to look like you haven’t utterly given up on life!” I’ve seen enough ill fitting bedazzled sweatshirts, too short pants exposing dirty grey sweat socks, and blazers from 1987 (not worn in an ironic, hipster fashion way) to last a lifetime. Sometimes I feel like I work in some strange amalgamation of a spinster outreach ministry/tea room/insane asylum…which is at least more interesting than corporate blandsville, but still….

    • OliviaNOPE says:

      The worst was a co-worker who would wear a dress that she’d obviously had forever and a button had popped off. Rather than just sew a new one on, she kept the top closed with a safety pin. Sigh.

  4. I don’t like to do it, but I’m pulling faculty status here and saying that it really isn’t anyone’s business what I wear to work. Frankly, I’m offended that another librarian would do such “research” and when I saw the solicitation, I quickly deleted it. I’m a librarian at a major university, and dressing better than teaching faculty would make us look like we have even more inflated egos than we have solely with faculty status.

  5. GetAClue says:

    We should have a dress code? We set the dress code! Librarians are trendsetters in the business attire fashion industry. Think about the last 20 years. Have librarians been dressing better to keep up with fashion? No. Everyone else is following librarians and dressing much more casually (sloppily?) in the workplace. Remember when it was “casual Friday?” Now it’s casual everyday – same as it’s always been for librarians.

    The world looks to librarians to see how to dress and we need to continue to set these standards. Yes, it might become marginally more difficult to play “spot the librarian” at ALA conferences when everyone comes around to our way of thinking, but that does not mean we should give up our leadership role in determining workplace norms.

  6. Is any other profession so strangely obsessed with how they dress? Where’s the “accountant wardrobe” blog?

  7. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    A branch manager should always be wearing a Chanel suit and heels when attempting to unclog the public toilet. It’s just proper etiquette! And who doesn’t shift a collection while wearing an Armani suit?

    Perhaps then we can adopt the same level of service as provided by the finely dressed personnel of the Grace Bros. Department Store in “Are you being served?”

  8. Why in the world would dressing up increase my salary? Are you ( the creators of the survey) completely ignorant, or do you just feel like wasting our time? Come on… Many libraries can barely afford to keep their doors open, budgets are shrinking all the time. And secondly, dressing in a nice blouse and dress pants already sets us apart from the gentleman with his pants around his ankles, and the girl who should learn that shorts should cover (to be polite I will say) certain areas of the female anatomy. Plus… sitting at the desk is generally a pretty big indicator that I work at the library…

  9. UnFreakingBelievable says:

    I probably should have deleted the survey, but it so incensed me that I took i, and spent a number of minutes in their survey explaining the idiocy of their “research project”, and how intellectually offensive their assumptions were. You dress for the job you do – and librarians do pretty much everything. Meeting with your library board or outsiders of importance? – Throw on a tie, maybe jacket. Building, bracing, shifting, stacks? – Jeans and a t-shirt are quite apropos (I would recommend work boots – steel shelving v. feet in sandals – the feet almost always lose badly). Finally, you know what – I am really hot when I take off my glasses. For a 50-something guy who works in a library. :)

  10. Seth Stephens says:

    I find it ironic that the researchers are asking how to be perceived as more professional and they are using an amateurish research tool to conduct their investigation. Begin, demonstrating your professionalism, by showing you have a basic understanding of social research methods.

  11. finette says:

    I took the survey yesterday and called the idea “condescending and fascistic.” Glad to see I’m not the only one! (Didn’t think I would be.)

  12. Free2read says:

    If this qualifies as research it’s no wonder that the MLS degree is often derided, even by librarians. Embarrassing.

  13. Overlooking real issues and focusing on superficial solutions is just easier, I suppose. The building is burning, and they’re worried about what color paint it has. Sigh.

  14. Dr. Spock says:

    If it’s good enough for Star Trek, it’s good enough for librarians. I think colored lab coats (your library picks!) would be awesome. Only “librarians” get to wear them. How cool would that be?

  15. Emily Dickinson says:

    I have long maintained that crawling on the floor in an effort to locate that last copy of “Goodnight Moon” is a work requirement incompatible with pencil skirts and high heels. And I would *love* to receive reimbursement for the clothing items I’ve had damaged over the decades by broken media cases, sharp-edged boxes and totes, and worse-for-wear library furniture.

    Safe, clean, practical, and appropriate to the situation – when did dressing for work become rocket science??

  16. Wait a minute! I thought we had a professional mode of dress? What happened to the polyester suit with a bow blouse, support hose and orthopedic shoes? Why mess with perfection?

  17. Ruthann Robson says:
  18. I think the idea of ALA having a dress code is beyond silly. That being said, why do so many librarians dress so badly? I know that everyone does not have the means to buy expensive clothing, but gee whiz, even on limited means, you can dress nicely. So many of my colleagues don’t only have good fashion sense, they are just downright tacky. At any library related convention, it is just one big advertisement for “What Not to Wear.”

  19. miss.smith says:

    Oh don’t worry the ALA avoid non-ALA issues like the plague

  20. Only if it implements a uniform so that all MLIS/MIS professionals are visible and marked. I’m thinking sleeveless sweater vests. Come up with a uniform cut and style that will look great on both genders. Color and patterns are endless! But please no cat prints, since this is professional attire, people. Plus, as a personal bonus, it’d finally get my academic librarian hubby into a sweater vest–grrr! It would be professional and identifiable. The lab coat is a good idea from a previous commenter, but we need to be taken seriously. Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer always gave the air of being a librarian.

    • Yeah, but I think Giles was dressing more as uptight-British-old-timey-librarian than anything else.

  21. Kym Lucas says:

    If I wanted to dress like a banker, I would have become a banker. And probably would have made a lot more money.

  22. While I do not endorse an ALA endorsed standardized dress code, there are libraries that do have dress codes. I work for one of the service academies and male faculty are expected to wear a coat and tie (women, a comparable outfit) in classrooms and professional environments. The library follows this dress code for staff working at the reference desk, administration positions, or participating in campus meetings. Of course, the dress code is flexible and you can wear more casual clothing if you are shifting books, lifting/packing boxes, moving furniture, etc.

    • Sure, an organization-enforced dress code is normal. But a standardized uniform decreed by the ALA? Ludicrous.

  23. just a para professional says:

    ALA, please go away.

    • Corrector says:

      I think you misunderstand. The ALA has nothing to do with this research on dress codes. It is a couple of librarians doing this silly “research”. I doubt ALA would ever endorse a profession-wide dress code.

  24. just say no to pantyhose says:

    I made a vow in my teens to never take a job that requires pantyhose. I’d hate to have to stop being a librarian.

  25. Advisor says:

    I can’t see that they’d even get this research published.

  26. Public Librarian says:

    How about this insightful post on the topic:

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