by John Glover, MLIS Day
What kind of librarian are you? A Snotty NexGen? A Selfish Boomer? Bun-and-sensible-shoes? Decadent adventurer (not work-safe!)? Less shush, more lush? Politically active crusader? Just what pigeonhole is right for you?
In three months, my cohort will graduate and many of us will become librarians. Every profession has its stereotypes, to be sure, but the ones I'm considering at the moment are ours. This subject has been covered before in the Silverfish and many other places and will surely be again, so long as we have to deal with antiquated conceptions of our work and our lives.
How many times have you been at a party or met someone for the first time and gotten the Humorous Question? It's usually something or other about "doing Dewey," betting we "get to read a lot," asking why one needs an advanced degree to be a librarian, or something equally charming. Some of my female colleagues tell me that the first reaction they get is often sexualized in some way, based on the idea that lustful succubi lurk beneath those Danskos and denim jumpers.
On the one hand, this is bewildering. Before I started at the Information School, friends and acquaintances didn't make fun of my job or chosen path in life. Now? Suppressed amusement always seems to accompany discussions of my career. I can take a joke as well as the next guy, but it's really made me wonder. How many other professions are there where people reflexively make jokes about you, whether they are meeting you for the first time or have known you for years? Not to get all Noah Wyle on you, but what's wrong with wanting to work in a library?
On the other hand, a quiet voice in my mind tells me exactly what's wrong with this. Libraries aren't cool. The people who work in them are boring and dour. Books, at the end of the day, are really sort of a waste of time. America is full of anti-intellectuals who can't abide bookish, thoughtful people. We are powerless nebbishes, forever doomed to squareitude.
Now, though I don't believe any of those things, I believe there are plenty of people out there who do. These are the people who disrespect us, for whichever reason you want to name. As former Silverfish editor Katy Shaw noted in her piece on this subject a couple years ago, librarian stereotypes have been around for a long time. Many librarians have stepped up in recent years to do battle against them using tactics from high fashion to kung fu. I would like to believe that they are winning the fight, though I suppose only time will tell.
New stereotypes, however, seem to be appearing in place of their weakened kin. The latest stereotype to arise is to be that of the rockstar/riot grrl librarian, and it seems to spring from two different factors. First, there are things that some young librarians do on their own that attracts attention from the library community and the outside world. They get tattoos, piercings, or live some variety of wild life. They subscribe to Nexgenlib-l, commune at conferences, and actively work to form a group identity. They pay attention to shiny new technology and use it in the library.
The other driving factor is - you guessed it - the Gen X/Y/Z/Q/P thing. We all know about Gen Xers, right? Rootless wanderers, they follow a brutally mercenary code of business conduct, don't work very hard when they don't have to, don't take time to understand anyone more than five years older than them, etc., etc.
To be honest, I don't really feel like I belong to either of these groups. I read Nexgenlib-l semi-regularly and sometimes wear funky shoes, but I sure don't have all the stereotypical "young librarian" characteristics - and I really don't like it when one of us claims to speak on behalf of all the whippersnappers. As to judging people by their generation, it's just another form of discrimination. All librarians from 25 to 35 are Gen X slackers? Give me a break. I see precious little of that among students in our program. Most of us here are excited about going into the profession and want to contribute. Maybe our attitudes won't be so rosy a year from now, but for the moment we're eager. Sure there's a generation gap and some misunderstanding, but it does no one any good to think all younger librarians - or older librarians - walk, talk, and think the same way.
The thing for us all to keep in mind it that it's possible to be enthusiastic about the profession and have a fresh and different view of it without being radical, tattooed, or young. The bun and sensible shoes mindset does not have to go along with the clothing. Simple as this may sound, I think the best time, the one that will make us happiest and nearest equal in respect to other professions, will come when we are able to escape automatic classification. Stereotypes impede our ability to do our jobs well, get the funding we need to do those jobs, and maintain a useful dialogue with the public about our roles. The sooner we can get past these restrictive ideas about us and our roles, the better we will be able to do our jobs.