Picture a librarian. Do you picture a librarian who works at your school or public library? Or do you, perhaps, picture a generic middle- aged woman wearing a cardigan — probably covered in cat fur — with her hair in a tight bun and low-lying thin-rimmed glasses, perhaps sitting with her long, bony index finger pressed against her pursed lips as she whispers “shhhhhh.” Perhaps you picture a younger woman — still in cardigan and glasses of course. Maybe you see a librarian from a film or TV show like Rupert Giles from “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer,” Evelyn Carnahan from “The Mummy” or Marian the Librarian from “The Music Man”.
The librarian stereotype is perhaps one of the most well- known and iconic in American culture. I’ve been told, many times, that I even “look like a librarian.” I’m never sure if that is supposed to be taken as a compliment or not. I wear glasses; I wear cardigans; and, yes, I even own a cat! However, while I certainly don’t want to be seen as a stiff, shushing, craggy woman, I can’t deny that I’ve had to tell a child or 10 to quiet it down in the library.
So, as a proud cardigan-wearing librarian, I’m here to tell readers and defend the reason there just might actually be some — very basic — truths that lead to the out-of-proportion librarian stereotypes. Let’s start with the cardigans: cardigans are convenient! They are easy to put on and take off. Library HVAC systems are anything but reliable. Many libraries are freezing in the wintertime due to poor heating and also freezing in the summer due to arctic air-conditioning. It’s not always cold though; sometimes the AC will decide it just doesn’t want to work — usually on the hottest days of the summer — or, on rare occasions, it might actually be a comfortable temperature. Plus, different people feel comfortable at different temperatures and keeping a cardigan nearby is usually just a library staff member’s way of preparing for fluctuating, and even extreme, indoor temperatures.
Next up: eyeglasses. A lot of people wear eyeglasses; I’m pretty confident this is not something exclusive to librarians. Yes, some people, including librarians, even wear eyeglasses like a fashion accessory or because glasses fit their personality. Most people wear eyeglasses, though, so they can see better. Wearing contacts for hours on end can also be pretty uncomfortable — dry eyes or eye strain come to mind. So, like wearing cardigans, wearing eyeglasses is also partly about convenience.
What about cats you ask! Why do so many librarians own cats? Well, first off, I’m not sure that’s true. And cats are liked by many — if they weren’t, cat videos wouldn’t be so popular on the Internet; admit it, you probably just watched one a few minutes before reading this column. Cats are unpredictable and that’s part of the fun; one minute they want nothing to do with any human and the next they might be purring away on your lap like a personal furry heating blanket and then suddenly jumping off to tackle a toy mouse that has been sitting in the same corner of the room, unmoved, for three weeks. Librarians don’t hate dogs — well, at least I don’t. I know and have even worked with many librarians who own dogs! I’m sure there are some who own other pets as well.
Librarians are always saying “shhhhh.” Not always, but sometimes, yes, especially in libraries, where people might be gaming online and doing homework only a few feet away from one another. Part of being a librarian is helping to manage the atmosphere of the room and this always means dealing with volume control. Youth service librarians probably say “shh” more than others. Children in a library get rowdy. It happens. They’re children.
Librarians do nothing but read all day, every day! I would absolutely love it if I could read every book published for older children and teens; it would make me the most knowledgeable youth services librarian ever! But the truth is, who has the time to do nothing but read? Not me! Like most librarians, I try my best to read as much as I can so that I can better provide recommendations and also be knowledgeable about my area of focus; but, saying that I’ve actually read every children’s and young adult book would be a huge lie. Of course, I could be lying and keeping safe the librarian secret that we are actually able to manipulate time to our will — but that’s just ridiculous … or is it?
In all seriousness, being a librarian is a rewarding job in which we get to work with the public and, yes, even at times get to read new book releases in advance. Still, the stereotype is one that tends to hover over us in a not-good way. Recently, many librarians have even tried to combat the old stodgy stereotype by promoting the tattooed, hipster stereotype to the public. One stereotype isn’t better than another though. There is also no librarian-approved attire as a whole, although each individual library may have their own culture of dress.
What matters most shouldn’t be what we wear, the pets we own or the corrective lenses on our faces — what matters is the job we do each day and how well we serve our patrons. We, like all people, have off days. Hopefully, overall, we […] are doing our profession and community proud by providing top-rate librarian services regardless of what else might be going on in the background. That’s our goal each and every day.
This article first appeared in the West Orange Chronicle and News-Record of Maplewood & South Orange on 3/31/16.
Kristen Julia Anderson is the teen librarian at the West Orange Public Library in NJ.