Monday, 16 April 2012

Not so cool but definitely a librarian

After reading the excellent blog post over on Library Wanderer's blog, I started thinking about the image of librarians and the ways in which we're going about our advocacy campaigns. Stereotypes of librarians still pervade our society's popular consciousness. Only recently, there was *that* Helena Bonham Carter video, the term 'librarian' is bandied about in the news as a metaphor for out of date outmoded thinking, and only recently a friend of a friend that I met for the first time said 'yep, you look a bit librariany.' These images are all around us, but what exactly do they mean, and what do they say about society's relationship to libraries and librarians?
What a librarian looks like   

Most people know that librarians often don't look like Marion the Librarian or Helena Bonham Carter. Yet, there is this cultural stereotype to which people automatically refer. That is the point of the This is what a librarian looks like tumblr. I don't think it's trying to prove the 'hey, we're librarians, but we're cool and wacky, right?' line of argument. I think it's trying to show that librarians quite often look very different from the stereotypical image. Where it falls down is when librarians are in fancy dress, or doing some wacky hobby, or when of course they look a bit like a stereotypical librarian. Stereotypes are around for a reason and whilst the librarian stereotype has inflated to a point beyond reality, the roots of the stereotype must have originally come from somewhere. This could well reflect the changing nature of the profession; in the past it was dominated by bookish types who wanted a quiet life guarding collections and now it is filled with boombastic bubbly blondes who want to promote resources and engage with users. I suspect that this clean-cut division isn't true either. People who like to read are drawn to librarianship but then again, there are readers in every profession. And librarianship isn't about reading books; it's about uniting our users with their information and showing them how to use it for maximum output. The public link librarians with books because it is the easiest way to contextualise what we do, but think of all the librarians in libraries who never see a physical book at all.

It comes down essentially to advocacy. Instead of focusing on these stereotypes, I think we should be focusing on what we do and how we do it well. Every profession engages in advocacy, but some need it more than others. We need to be more transparent and explain to people what we actually do. Challenge the person at a party who looks at you with envy, saying 'it must be lovely to read all day.' 'Well, yes it would,' I replied to this friend of a friend who thought I looked librariany. 'Unfortunately, what with making online records for all our new acquisitions, updating our social media presence, responding to emails, helping a user with a complex ejournals access problem and planning a new information skills session, I can't say I'd have the time.'

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