The Not-So-Hip Librarian

Jul 20, 2007

Recently the New York Times wrote an article profiling a younger, hipper crowd of new librarians. Could it be true that the library profession is really ditching old stereotypes - or will it really play in the heartland?

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By now there has been quite a bit of discussion in the library world about a recent NY Times article, 'A Hipper Crowd of Shushers' and there has been quite a bit of reaction as well, at least among blogging librarians. Some of the reaction has been critical, complaining that the article perpetuates yet another stereotype, library science as 'geek chic'. Others have pointed out that the small number of librarians interviewed, as well as the picture that accompanied the article, only served to reinforce what is not just a stereotype but a sad truth about the profession -- it is not only overwhelmingly female (although the article did make mention of this, using the cutesy term 'guybrarian' to describe the rare male librarian) but overwhelmingly white. (The article failed to mention this little fact at all, but every one of the librarians pictured appears to be, well, white.)

The criticism I would like to make, however, is more along the lines of a caveat to the library student of today -- yes, okay, there are tattooed, pierced, alterna-librarians out there, perhaps the Brooklyn Public Library is staffed only by the hippest of the hip (I kind of doubt it, but I haven't been there lately), but if you're applying for a job somewhere outside of Brooklyn, Manhattan, maybe Seattle or San Francisco...well, you just might want to pass on getting those facial tattoos (whether library-related or otherwise) just yet.

There are no readily available statistics (at least not ones I can find -- so much for my Library Research Queen cred) on how appearance affects library hiring, and much as I'm tempted to make something up (87% of tattooed, pierced library school graduates must go out on at least 20 interviews before they give up and move to Brooklyn to find jobs), that would be against the Librarian Ethics Code. (What, we don't have one? Whew! Now I can go back to looking stuff up on Wikipedia.) What I do have, however, is anecdotal experience and a cautionary tale based on my own experience.

I graduated from library school a little over 5 years ago in Denver -- not a hipster mecca, to be sure, but then again, it's not exactly the back of beyond. I was definitely one of the younger graduates from the library school program -- our typical student was a woman (yes, a white woman) in her 40s or 50s, married to a man who made the big bucks that would allow her to pursue this not-too-well-paid position. (Which is a whole 'nother rant, one I'll save for later -- bet you can't wait).) For the most part, my classmates preferred corporate or academic positions, but I interviewed for more school and public library positions as I'd specialized in young adult librarianship (where you'd expect to find the most leeway for divergent lifestyles and self-expression -- wouldn't you?)

So anyway, there I was, going out on my interviews, dressed as conservatively as possible, taking care to wear long sleeves to cover up my own (non-library related) tattoo, and my interviewers time and again expressed enthusiasm for my skills and background, and yet time and again I was never the chosen candidate. The library world in Denver is a small one, so I eventually met the people who had been chosen for many of the positions I'd interviewed for, and in every case they turned out to be little old ladies in cardigans. Okay, so they weren't always all that old, and they weren't always wearing cardigans (no, I was the dummy having to cover my tattooed arms in the 95 degree heat!), but they were inevitably much 'straighter', more like, well, the stereotypical librarian.

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Eventually I did land a job, with a large pubic library system in a very conservative Denver suburb, and I got lectured on a regular basis about toning down my appearance -- no matter how I tried, it seems my heels were always too high, skirt too short, tattoo just peeking out below my sleeve -- big no-no there. After a few years there I moved on and out of Colorado -- I had a much better experience, actually, in the District of Columbia Public Library system, which, unlike Brooklyn's or Manhattan's libraries, is primarily staffed by African American librarians (women, of course), many of whom had their own very distinctive sense of style and encouraged me to lose the Colorado frumpiness and get back to looking like myself again, visible tattoo, short skirts, platform shoes, and all.

DC is cool, DC pays well. DC was very good to me, but even so, I decided to move on, get a job with more family-friendly hours (which is yet another rant, as is the tale of my unwed pregnancy on the children's desk in what is possibly the most conservative of Colorado public libraries), in short, pursue school librarianship, which once again put me back in the territory of hiring managers who, well, wanted the glasses, bun, and sensible shoes.

Yeah, hiring managers -- these are two words you need to keep in mind, prospective library job hunter! Words that need to strike just a little fear into your heart. I mean, it's good to know the NY Times appreciates your facial piercings and literary-themed tattoos, but they're not going to be the ones offering you a job, now, are they? (They may have librarians on staff, but probably not too many of them, and as to their tattoo-and-piercing status, I couldn't say.) And as it so happens, in most schools, public libraries, and corporations across the country, the person who does the hiring may well feel that appearances do count, and all things being equal (or even if they're not) is going to pick a candidate who looks, well, a bit more like what you'd expect a librarian to look like. Sure, it's unfair, but so is everything else in life, especially when it comes to getting a job. Just ask any lawyer whether he wouldn't really prefer to be wearing something other than that 3-piece suit. And if you really, really want to work as a librarian, but you've already got facial tattoos and piercings -- well, you can always move to Brooklyn. (Or DC.)

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