Librarians Rarely Make the News

As a librarian under 30, the idea of young and interesting people shaking up the perception of librarians is as outdated as thick stockings and sensible shoes.
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Librarians rarely make the news. You might spot an article about branch closings in a big city, or a local library threatening to shut down during after school hours to curb the rowdy behavior of local teens, but those of us who work in libraries are seldom the story. Apparently there are still people who think of librarians as outmoded, sort of trapped in an earlier, pre-Google time like bun-sporting, bespectacled bugs trapped in amber.

I mention this because when I got the library on Monday, between my work and personal email accounts, there were five messages all containing the same link to a New York Times article entitled "A Hipper Crowd of Shushers." The article describes a 'new' crop of hipster librarians who sport tattoos, dress in thrift store finds and attend functions put on by the 'Desk Set' to dance and drink cocktails with names inspired by the Dewey Decimal system.

As it turns out, my friends were not the only folks spreading the word that librarianship is now hot: The article, featured in the Sunday fashion and style section remains, two days later, the most emailed article on the New York Times website, and the seventh most-blogged. Here's the big story: Librarians aren't all old. And some of them are downright cool and fun to be around.

Here's the real story: We librarians know already. Like many others, I found this to be simply more old news. As a librarian under 30, the idea of young and interesting people shaking up the perception of librarians is as outdated as thick stockings and sensible shoes. But I am also aware that while the folks who know and love us understand that very few librarians are stern, humorless women, we must recognize that librarianship has an image problem. So an article in the New York Times about cool, young librarians of both genders interested in social activism and pop culture should be welcomed wholeheartedly by a profession seeking to update its image, right?

Actually, some librarians have had a negative reaction to the New York Times piece, finding it to be sexist and elitist. Piled into my inbox after the article links was a growing list of mixed reactions posted on NewLib, a listserv ostensibly for people new to the profession, some of which pointed to library bloggers' reactions. (The library world has carved out quite a niche in the blogosphere: Do a quick Google search and you'll find thousands and thousands of blogs by independent library professionals, neighborhood branches and national organizations.)

A post on the popular blog, 'The Annoyed Librarian,' ripped the piece from top to bottom: "According to the NYT (so you know it must be true) some new librarians are hip, you know, now that they don't have anything to do with books and reading, and they're all about tattoos and social activism." It should be noted that such vitriol is not uncommon from the AL and one of the reasons that this blog has such a following. One point that the AL makes that has been echoed through other blogs and listservs is that the term 'guybrarian' offensive: "Apparently the label librarian is actually a feminine noun, instead of librarianship just being a feminized profession. Perhaps we should adopt the term librarianess and let the guys be called librarians occasionally." Another blogger, The Free Range Librarian concurs: "the "guybrarian" reference is "the rest of the world laughing at men who go into female-dominated professions. Women=worthless."

People commenting on the AL post, such as 'Cherie,' objected to the focus on the librarian's clothing choices: "I study gender in my librarian position, and I am constantly sick of women in the media being examined for their physical appearance. Male politicians' do not get their suits written about; Hillary Clinton does. Male Fortune 500 CEOs do not get written about in terms of if they look tired or peppy or are sporting a new hairstyle; the 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs who are women do. I think librarians' personal appearances are being written about because, duh, it is a female- dominated profession and it can't possibly be serious, so let's write about what they look like."

Others find the article presents a rose-colored view of librarianship as "for creative types who want to pursue their passions outside of work and don't want to finance their pursuits by waiting tables" and a haven for people "devoted to social activism." As stated by an anonymous poster on the Annoyed Librarian blog "I am a public librarian in Brooklyn. Most of the people profiled in the NY Times article do not work in the NYC public libraries. I've met some of them. The majority of them are special or corporate librarians who do not wish to work for the public libraries. Some are library students who I am sure will not graduate to work in public libraries."

Basically, you won't meet these particular hipsters in your local library (although to be fair, there are lots of young people and even hipsters working there too.) The profiled librarians are working for businesses and organizations where their interest in "social activism," described as a hallmark of the new librarians, would likely have to be pursued on their own time, such as at Desk Set functions. A point brought up on the NewLib listserv notes that nowhere in the article is it mentioned that the event attended by these hipster librarians was a benefit for the organization Books Through Bars, which collects used books for prison inmates.

In truth, social activism remains an unsung characteristic of all librarians, including those gray-haired ladies. I don't think any of the Connecticut Four, librarians who remain the only people to successfully have a Patriot-Act gag order rescinded, would call themselves hipsters. Nor the thousands of public and school libraries who stand up to threatened book bans, censorship, and possible firings each year. Librarians, especially those who work in the public sphere, serve all, the rich and the disadvantaged, equally, an everyday form of unrecognized 'social activism' that isn't as splashy as a benefit party thrown in a trendy bar, but just as important.

The backlash against the article is interesting, if a little persnickety: It is an article from the Style section, after all. It may not illustrate the struggle that many public librarians face everyday with shrinking budgets and challenging patrons, or illuminate the actual work that librarians do, as some in the profession have complained, but it does emphasize that the supposed librarian shortage is a myth, and that despite Google, we are here to stay. As a whole, the New York Times article shows librarianship in a positive light, and its popularity is exciting.

As a profession, I don't think librarians care if the public thinks we're cool: We just want the people we work for to know what exactly it is that we do. For all its emphasis on hipster librarians as another example of nerdy chic, the article's title perpetuates that most outdated image of librarians -- the Shusher -- implying that while these new young professionals might be trendy and -- dare I say it -- sexy, they are still fussy librarians who want to keep it quiet.

The truth is that I myself am not a hipster (although I am always ready for a Dewey cocktail) and I don't see librarianship as an interesting-enough day job to support my 'real' life as a filmmaker or musician or actor. As it is for many librarians, this is my chosen career. Librarians are cool, not because of how we dress, what we drink, or who we associate with. Librarians are cool because our job is cool: We protect people's freedom to seek out and find the information they need: All service and no shushing.

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