Monday, September 23, 2013

Librarians' in-house stereotyping, now, then, and no more

This week, I was thinking about a game an old friend and I have played whenever we meet up at an American Library Association conference. It goes something like this:

Emma nods in the direction of a middle-aged woman wearing glasses with zany, multi-colored frames. Stuck to her jumper are all kinds of pins, including one that flashes like a strobe light. In each hand, she is lugging large Baker and Taylor bags stuffed with fanciful posters, review copies, and other giveaway items.

"Children's librarian," Emma says.

"Yep, I think you're right," I reply.

Sure enough, when the woman passes close by, her name badge reveals that she is a Youth Services Librarian from Ohio. I push the "pot" of candies and pens in Emma's direction.

Next, we ante up, her offering a foam stress toy in the shape of a computer terminal, and me providing a bumper sticker with the slogan "librarians do it by the book."

I point a pen toward a group of men in similar, expensive-looking suits who are confidently striding through the conference hall. 

"Vendors," I say.

"Really?" says Emma. "No, they look more like academic library directors to me."

I toss a miniature Hershey Special Dark bar into the pot. "Nope. First of all, the guy who is doing all the talking is older than the rest, and the younger guys are listening really closely to what he's saying. If they were college library heads, I think they'd be closer in age, they wouldn't be as good-looking or wearing as nice suits. No, it looks to me like the older guy is the lead rep, and the other guys are junior salesmen."

Emma mulls over my logic, then adds an Ingram pen to the pot. "Heck, I need that chocolate! I'll stick with academic library directors."

When the men charge by, it turns out I am right. I am not overly enthused about stress toys and more pens, but am glad I proved my point.

For about a half an hour, small piles of writing utensils, Post-It notes, a USB drive, candy, and other exhibitor loot will trade hands as Emma and I guess at the identities of an electronic services librarian (male, polo shirt and khakis), LIS students (young, all either hipster or comic-con), and other colleagues.

Our game came to mind this week, because a research "find" prompted me to rethink about librarians stereotyping the various subcultures within the profession. While I was in Erie, I came across a little booklet called "The Song of the Library Staff," written by Sam Walter Foss and illustrated by Merle Johnson. According to the "Library History Buff," Larry Nix, Foss was both a librarian and poet, and he read his work before the 1906 ALA conference. It must have been quite popular -- so much so, that a copy found its way to the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, anyway. Below are some images:


As delightful as the poem and illustrations are, some of the possible implications between the lines may be troubling. In the bags around the Cataloger's eyes, her description as "perpetually jogging," and the piles of books and wastepaper nearby, there may be signs of overwork, or perhaps a person who worries too much about small details to get much accomplished. The Head Librarian, like the Cataloger, is cramped between piles of books and receipts. Interestingly, he is the only male employee, the only person to merit more than a page of verses, and yet, with long hair, a balding pate, and a slight build, he seems meek. An interesting choice of characters to bracket the beginning and ending of a poem/booklet about librarians.
Viewing the page about the Reference Librarian, there is strong praise of her "erudition." However, exclusive emphasis is placed on her cognitive apparatus, with no acknowledgment of other reference skills, such as asking probing questions of customers. The illustration reinforces such an interpretation, because her "cranium" is oversized, her mouth is tiny and closed, and her head is perched on a shriveled body. On the other hand, the "Desk Attendant" (circulation worker) is blond and shapely -- but ultimately faceless. More importantly, the text describes such attendants' efforts as some kind of battle, the throng being like "beasts at a circus," and books akin to "un-inspected canned beef" and "spare-ribs" thrown to them. In fact, of all the library employees, only the plump Children's Librarian is smiling about her work and is warmly engaged with a patron. What do these words and illustrations say about how library employees think of each other and the public?
So, as enjoyable as Emma's and my annual ritual has been, I may pass on it next summer. Thinking about how she and I discuss other colleagues, I have come to realized that some of the attributes we've identified with certain groups aren't completely kind, nor are they accurate of every person of the same type of institution or position. Librarians get highly annoyed when outsiders portray us with hairbuns, glasses, humorless expressions, and calf-length skirts, so it's wrong to pick on each other in a similar fashion. We should value and study the unique subcultures within the profession, but we shouldn't resort to stereotyping as a convenient way to kill time.  

1 comment:

  1. Let's pretend we are in the Middle Ages at a tourney. Two knights come onto the field with heavily painted shields. They are watched by men and women wearing very specific color schemes. By the shields and the colors you can tell what family or house that person belongs too. It's called heraldry.

    Now let's go back to ALA. We see a brightly smiling woman wearing a bunch of pins. We see a group of men in suits. We see polos and khakis. We see hipsters and the comic-con crowd.

    What we are seeing is the new heraldry.

    We dress the way we do in order to be seen in a certain light. Oh sure, there are people who buck the trend in their professional peer group, but it is not stereotyping or unkind when we can correctly identify where someone is coming from by what they are wearing. It's the entire point of the endeavor. Being unable to do that actually leaves you disadvantaged both inter-personally and professionally.

    Rather than giving up your past time, I say you should take it to the next level: panel discussion. Grab a bunch of colleagues and talk about it at the next ALA. Talk about things like Librarian Wardrobe ( Talk about the psychology behind our clothing choices (why do children's librarians dress the way they do?). Talk about dress codes and how they benefit and/or constrain us. Which is more important: looking professional or wearing clothing that helps us engage our particular patrons?