Where's the Librarian?

Where's the Librarian?

Patron's views of public perception in the Internet age

Ruth A. Kneale, Special Library Association, June 2004

Here we are again, in the latest of an ever-increasing line of talks on librarian image and perception. In 2001, Alison Hall presented "Batgirl was a Librarian, and so was Casanova"; in 2002 I was lucky enough to present "You don't look like a librarian!"; in 2003 Jennifer Tobias gave a talk on "AdLib: the Advertised Librarian". And here we are, in 2004, with "Where's the Librarian?" - a kind of Where's Waldo in the stacks.

That's all fine and dandy, but what, exactly, am I talking about anyway? Sure, the topic is fun, and sometimes teeth-gnashing, but what's the point - how is it relevant to us? Why are we interested in what people think about librarians?

I'll tell you. One word: Marketing.

How we are perceived... seen... thought of... directly affects how our patron groups (whatever they may be) approach us and use our skills. How we are marketed to the masses has a direct impact on our day-to-day existence. How do we look? How do we sound? What are we wearing? All of these things affect what our patrons think of us.

No stereotypes! So: this talk. This is a followon talk to "You don't look like a librarian!", part I of my research, where a survey was sent to a large number of librarians asking them how they felt their patrons saw them. (I want to thank once more the participants in Part I of the survey, all those librarians who took the time to fill out and return the questionnaire.) This talk, Part II, covers the results of a survey provided to patrons asking them their views of librarians. I figured, I'd asked the librarians what they thought their patrons thought of them, now it was time to ask the patrons what they thought themselves. (I have to admit to certain expectations from Part II based on the results of Part I.)

We'll also, of course, touch on the latest advertisements, books, movies and other things that discuss or present librarians. That's half the fun!

The Survey, Part II

Requests were sent to libraries around the world, primarily via posts to various listservs, asking if they'd be willing to put a link to this survey on their web sites. Quite a few responded, and they put a link to the survey on their main page, their catalog search page, and often times both. The big question of the survey, which led to the title of this talk, was "Is anyone who works in a library a librarian?"

I need to mention the probable skewed results of this survey; I had intended it to be a patron-only survey but did not clarify that I would rather the librarians not complete it, even though they are patrons too. I also learned a great deal about how to build a survey for the general public - especially about word choice and selection order! It was an illuminating experience and I hope, if I do another survey in the future, to remember what I've learned.

A Few Details

I used SurveyMonkey and I just want to say, SurveyMonkey rocks! They made this phase SO much easier than the last one; and setting up the survey itself was very easy. I recommend them. There were 782 total responses, although not every respondent answered every question. The survey was posted on main and catalog library web sites from August through October of 2003, and I'd like to profusely thank the following libraries for participating:

Tucson-Pima Public Library
Pierce CC
Pierce County Community College
UW Madison Woodman
UW-Madison Woodman Astronomical Library
Stratford Library Association
Solano County Libraries
European Southern Observatory Library
Tarrant County
Tarrant County Law Library

In addition, the SurveyMonkey link was sent around to other listservs, college departments, and book groups, so the number of respondents is more than those who were actually sitting at a library computer. (Of course, with the web being location-independent, there's no guarantee that any of the respondents were actually sitting at a library computer!)

Librarian Action Figure! Before we get into the details let's have some fun....

OK, so does anyone not have one of these Librarian Action Figures yet? (If you don't, you can get one from Archie McPhee.) This action figure was quite possibly the hottest topic, bar none, on the library listservs in the last year. Based on Nancy Pearl, a librarian at the Seattle Public Library and founder of the "What if all of Seattle read the same book" project, thoughts and feelings about the action figure ranged all over the spectrum. On the one hand, WE HAVE AN ACTION FIGURE! How cool is that? On the other hand.... what's with the Shushing Action?!? One person accused Pearl of setting the profession back 30 years. Isn't that what we've been trying to get away from, that image that "you can't talk to a librarian, she'll just tell you to shut up"? It's hard to argue with the fact that, well, it's groovy to have our own action figure. But... does it really help to overcome our stereotypical image? Only time will tell, and Nancy Pearl regrets nothing. (She's really a stupendous representative of our profession - tirelessly promoting libraries and librarians.)

The Librarian Action Figure not only was a topic of conversation on listservs and in newspaper and magazine articles, she also appeared in at least two comic strips: Unshelved, October 13, 2003, and Stone Soup on November 2:

Unshelved Stone Soup

(An informal poll of talk attendees as to whether or not the doll helps our image ended up with another split of opinion; quite a few thought it was positive, but a few more than that felt it was negative.)

Speaking of dolls.....

Barbie poll Did anyone not hear about Mattel's online poll for Barbie's next profession? Turns out it was tongue-in-cheek; just something to get folks using the Barbie web site ("Just for fun!"). However, the librarians mobilized and voted like crazy! In May 2004, of the three options, librarian came in at 45%, policewoman at 31% and architect at 23%. At the time of this writing, the numbers have changed a bit, but librarian is still in the lead!

Interestingly enough, in the Feb 3rd 2003 issue of Forbes there was a brief statement in the "Informer" section about this poll and the librarian push on it, using the phrase "Some people just have too much time". I wonder if the architects and policewomen voters got similar comments? (Poll-for-fun or not.)

Now, for some survey results: first, the age range of the respondents:


I was hoping for a nice demographic representation of the general populace, and I got it. Teenagers, 20-somethings, all the way through. This is a nice curve, and I was especially glad to get some young folks on the survey.

Length of use Next question was, "How long have you been using the library?" This is where I suspect we start getting the "librarian skew" - three-quarters of the respondents have been using the library for more than 10 years. But the other quarter is what I was expecting, a bit more of a balance across the options, from "I've been using the library forever" to "I just walked into one for the first time yesterday".

Next up was "How often do you use the library?" Someone who only uses the library once a year will have a very different perception than one who's in and out regularly looking for reference help. I'm amused by the fact that seven people said "never" - I'm assuming those are not seven people who were sitting at a library computer filling out this survey! I like that the majority answer was "several times a month", although of course I'd be happier with several times a week! I want to get people into the library! How do we do that? How do we get them to perceive the library is a useful place to go, to think, "I have a problem... I can go to the library to get an answer!"

Frequency of use

Super Librarian! One group that figured out a way to get folks into their libraries were the New Jersey state librarians....

The New Jersey State Library, the New Jersey Library Association, and the New Jersey Library Network got together, worked their butts off for a year, to completely reposition their libraries as an information resource for their state. Super Librarian was born! They did a huge amount of public relations on this - newspaper articles, press releases, spots on the nightly news - and they've had a tremendous success with this concept.

Atypical Librarian ad What other ways can we get people into libraries? And how can we get people to want to be librarians? One way is through taking a different approach to your job advertisements, for one thing! This ad appeared in Library Journal for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. I hope they got a lot of applicants! And then... again with the New Jersey librarians! (They've really had a good year.) They've begun a program called "Ask me why I love what I do" and registered the site becomealibrarian.org. It's a well-put-together web site that lists a bunch of reasons why to become a librarian, success stories, etc., and you can tell from the web site that the people who are doing it truly love what they're doing. More power to them!

Let's talk about computer use.

The next pair of questions was "Do you use the library's online catalog" and "Do you ask the librarian for help with the online catalog?". These first answers didn't surprise me much - it's great to see that so many folks are using the online catalogs. They're not asking for help, but at least they're using it! I'd be surprised if that didn't change in another year or two, though.

Library computer use

But, the next set of answers surprised me a lot. The questions were "Do you use the library's computers for Internet access" and "Do you ask the librarian for help with your Internet use?" Based on my own experience, I expected these numbers to be reversed - every time I go into my local library every single terminal is full of people surfing the web, checking their email, just checkin' out things online. But two-thirds of respondents said no! And, again, people aren't asking for help.

Internet computer use

How can we change this? How can we position ourselves in the eyes of our patrons so that they see us as a usable, valuable resource? "We are your information professionals!"

The next set of questions had to do with appearance. Would you be comfortable talking to... a male or female librarian? A younger or older librarian? A conservatively or casually dressed librarian? Now, this is where I made one of the word-choice mistakes I mentioned earlier - I should have said "which would you prefer". But, perhaps this is better, for what it does show us.

Male First up was the gender question, male versus female. Of course, everybody knows only women can be librarians, right? (This is where all the guys pipe up going "Excuse me?") From the first survey, pretty much every male respondent had a story where folks had told them "You can't be a librarian, you're a guy!" - but it looks like things might be changing a bit. Fewer folks seem to have a problem talking with a male librarian... although there does seem to be a slight preference for the female librarians. But, it's evening out quite nicely, which is lovely to see. Female
Older person Next up was age... of course, the stereotype is the old lady librarian, but looks like things are changing here too! There do seem to be fewer and fewer "You're too young to be a librarian" comments these days, which is good, because just like every other profession there's a wide age variation in ours, and if people are starting to realize that, that's good. Younger person
Conservative The last question had to do with attire - conservative versus casual. I realize in some situations you have to be professionally dressed, down to the suit and tie aspect; but there are some situations where you don't. I'm lucky enough to work in a very casual environment; folks in my workplace are dressed up if they wear pants! (Versus shorts and a Tshirt, which is common attire.) I was surprised to see the below-90% response rate for the conservative attire... it's the only one that dropped below 90%, and I wasn't expecting that. Casual

A question was asked about geographic locations of respondents on this question, as it would be interesting to know how the answers stacked up against location. SurveyMonkey is very particular about privacy, and while I got a set of answers, I had no way to determine where those answers came from. But, one could possibly assume that folks on the East Coast would lean more towards the professional attire, whereas those out in the West would probably lean more towards the casual. It's a good question and it would be interesting to see if the assumption matched reality!

OK, so we've talked about young librarians, guy librarians, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing librarians....what about naked librarians, or librarians on Harleys? Let's talk about the calendars that came out this year!

Camden Calendar Girls From zero calendars featuring librarians we went to three in 2004... the Camden Calendar Girls in the UK, Easy Readers @ Your Library out of California, and Hot Picks @ Your Library in Alberta, Canada. The Camden Calendar Girls did the whole "Calendar Girls" thing, posing nude in their library with creatively placed library "things". They did tremendous business, selling out of their calendar within about a month! The Easy Riders are a group of librarians in California who did a calendar featuring a librarian, a quote, and a Harley (only Harleys, no other motorcycles) in different locations around the county each month. Hot Picks were actually put out by the Canadian Library Association, and also sold out very quickly. I loved these calendars - was sad that the calendars themselves are no longer available to show you, but at least you can read about them!

Library Bar wallpaper Of course, sometimes the library job crunch is a bit difficult - we've all been there - so if you really want a change of pace from the calendars, you can visit New York and go to the Library Bar! Be sure to check out the wallpaper they provide for your desktop. If I'd known about this bar in 2002 I would have made a point of visiting it while at SLA just to see if it's really like this! And if this entire setup doesn't feed into the "sexy librarian fantasy", I don't know what does!

Degrees So, there isn't really a gracious way to segue from the Library Bar to college degrees, so we're just going to make that leap and go for it. The next survey question was "Do you think a librarian needs a college degree?" - we, of course, all know the answer is YES! And, to be honest, I had expected the answers to be flipped... more "no" answers than "yes" ones. Based on what I hear, what I read in newspapers, and the first survey results, I thought this would be flipped. I'm happy to see this! But I'm hoping it isn't completely due to the number of librarians responding to the survey - I'm sure it is, but maybe not! And I also didn't ask about "advanced" degrees, just "college" degrees; again there's that word choice thing.

The big question! All this leads up to the big question of the survey: "Do you think that anyone who works in a library is a librarian?" We've all heard "I was a page, so I was a librarian" or "I worked in a library doing X, I was a librarian", and often times a place of employment will call you that, regardless. So, I wanted to know - does the public think this? If you work in a library, you're automatically a librarian?

I got a kick out of the answers. There may be some of the "librarian skew" here, too, but not enough to sling the numbers like this. What I'm hoping is that, because of the deluge of articles, webcasts, newspaper articles, etc about librarians, the public is starting to see that this is a profession that requires attention, detail, care and diligence, and it takes extra training to do what we do. And it seems like it's starting to work, and the news about us is getting out to the public!

Mr. Douglas Forrester But, not to all the public..... especially not to Mr. Douglas Forrester. Mr. Forrester ran for the Senate in, yes, our favorite library state of the year, New Jersey. He stated in a TV ad campaign that he was just like the "common man" because "I flipped burgers... I was a librarian." Turns out what he did was shelve books at Harvard as a student. The New Jersey Library Association spoke up, and got ALA into the fight as well, and made him recant and apologize for his statement. (Sadly, all the links to Mr. Forrester's run are defunct now, since he lost the race, and the ALA also doesn't have the letter posted anymore, but you can read about it in the LibraryStuff archives.)

What was he thinking?

Librarian for a day! Speaking of what were they thinking....This is from a writing essay competition sponsored by ALA and Woman's Day Magazine. The tag line reads "If you've always wanted to field queries, read to kids during story hour, and make book selections, tell us about it!" The idea was a great one - get people writing - and get them writing about the different opportunities available in libraries. The winner of the essay contest would get to work as a librarian for a day - but the contest didn't specify in what library, doing what kind of library work. I mean, do you get to read to the kids during story hour, or do you get dropped behind the scenes to deal with deaccessioning and budget struggles? The contest ended in May 2004 but at the time of this talk, the winner hadn't been announced... we'll have to keep an eye on the site since I'll be very interested to read the final essay and hear about what the winner got to do. There were a lot of comments on listservs wondering if perhaps the wording could have been a bit better. I mean, for example, I didn't become a librarian because I like reading to kids at story hour. That may be perfect for someone who wants to be a children's librarian, but not for someone like me! Part of the discussions focused on how this may have been designed to focus on the "Womans' Day target audience" but between ALA's using it on the @YourLibrary site, and various press releases, it actually went to a much wider audience.

Now, for some fun media examples.......

Cover of Bust magazine The Spring issue of Bust Magazine has a cover and article about librarians, "Revenge of the Librarians". I love the cover's tag line, "Baby Got Book!". It's a great article, about the "new breed" of librarians that's "closing the book on a stodgy old stereotype", and the author talked to the Riot Librarrians, Lipstick Librarian, Laughing Librarian, and Jessamyn West of librarian.net fame.

In the movie arena, both sides of the coin were presented in the two movies "The Time Machine" and "Day After Tomorrow". In "Day After Tomorrow", when the big freeze hits New York City, a bunch of people take refuge in the Manhattan Public Library, and (from a review) you have "the head New York Librarian, the longtime traditionalist librarian and the indie-minded feminist librarian type" arguing about what books to burn to stay warm, and why. The head librarian also saves the life of the heroine by finding a medical treatment in one of the books. In "The Time Machine", the librarian is actually a hologram named Vox, who is "the repository of all human knowledge". I thought that was pretty cool, 'cause it's true when you get right down to it!

Read or Die! Another movie, which I myself have not been able to find yet but it's got to be out there somewhere, is a Japanese anime film called "Read or Die!". In it, the heroine is a bibliophile hired by the Royal British Library. But she's not hired to be just any librarian, but to be a Superhero Librarian Agent in the Fight Against Evil! Her superhero powers (because, of course, she has to have them) has to do with paper - she can do anything with paper, turn it into a weapon, make it into a shield, and things of that nature. I found a great quote from an online reviewer, who said "The Paper makes for the most delightful, if not unlikely, of superheroes: a young woman whose library card is one of her greatest weapons."

Speaking of movies leads us to movie awards, specifically the Oscars. Did you notice Liv Tyler's glasses? Not one, but two commentators sure did, and their quotes give a good insight into Hollywood's perception of librarians....directly linking Liv's glasses to the sexy librarian fantasy.

"The Hottest Librarian Ever: You can bet guys make passes at girls who wear granny glasses when they look like Liv Tyler, whose smart-girl eyewear contrasted sharply with her Marilyn Monroe-like voice." - Kat Giantis, MSN, March 3, 2004 (page 4 of article)


"There seems to be an extraordinary number of men last night who went weak at the knees for Liv Tyler and her glasses. Something about a librarian fantasy." - Dish Diva, MSN, March 1, 2004

Tori Amos, Tales of a Librarian Moving on to music.... Tori Amos came out with a CD collection called "Tales of a Librarian", and stated in a few media interviews that she'd always considered herself to be a kind of librarian. We all sat back and went, "Huh?" She clarified later that what she meant was she is "the librarian of her life's stories". Well, that makes sense, ok, we're all librarians of our own lives in that context.

Before I go on any further, I wanted to share some information I've learned in just the few days I've been here! One is from the Monday, June 7th 2004 edition of USA Today - an article on page 9B is titled "Racy teen apparel gets tamed", and the subheading is "Fall clothing expected to be a 'sexy take on a librarian'." It has to do with a young woman in Washington who was offended that all she could find for school were racy clothes; she contacted Nordstrom's about it and they replied "Ok, sure". So, because Nordstrom's replied to her, her story was spread all over the place, and Seventeen Magazine leapt into it with "a whole new look for fall", with the "sexy take on a librarian" line being delivered by Gigi Solif Schanen, fashion editor for the magazine. And here we are again, back to the image of 30 years ago - don't get me wrong, I'm happy for the young lady and that she'll be able to dress to her comfort level at school, but why are they dragging the librarians into it again? (Read more here, and here.)

I also found out about another regional happening up in Massachussetts, at Harvard, where Desiree Goodwin, a librarian, is suing the college because she's been passed over for promotion too many times, because she dresses too sexy for her job. In online interviews, she says she's been passed over because she's a black woman who dresses provocatively. (Read more here, and here.)

And something I was told here at the conference.... apparently the Chemical Abstract Society put out a poster honoring National Librarian Week, and the tag line was "Shh! We're honoring the librarians!" (Mass groan here.) Enough librarians objected to the line that the CAS pulled back that poster, and reissued it without the "shh" line, just saying "We'd like to honor the librarians." That works!

Conan the Librarian film clip While doing online research for this talk, I discovered there's a whole subculture around the Conan the Librarian theme! I wasn't expecting this... I mean, there's always the word play, but there's a whole subculture! There are web sites, and blogs, and computer art, and.... film clips! I wasn't sure about showing this, but it's quite amusing and we can always use a good laugh, right? I found this on a Swedish web site and don't know its provenance (later provided by a member of the audience as being from the movie "UHF"... ask a librarian, it always works!)... so let me play for you a small clip from "Conan the Librarian.... tonight only on U62!"

As well as fun little clips like that one, I also found some new favorite web sites...

So.... now that we've had all this fun, what's the point of all this? I want to share a quote from Evelyn Poole-Kuber (who gave me permission to use this):

"I read the other day that one's reputation is what others think of you and character is what you think of yourself. We librarians, men and women, create our own image, style, and look, what others think shouldn't matter."

Yeah.... but.... we've already seen that it does matter what they think of us. If we're too scary to talk to, or to repressive, or they don't think we're going to give them any help, they aren't going to come to talk to us. I thought this was an interesting perspective, but I have to say it's not one I agree with. I have a separate quote from Rory Litwin, the organizer of Library Juice, who says it so well I can't figure out how to say it better:

"In terms of information needs that public librarians would love to help with but which are too unconventional or "unserious" to bring the library to mind for most users, there is the question of how to promote the library and the librarian as an approachable helper. This is where the discussion of the image and stereotype of librarians, which sometimes seems self-involved, has actual relevance. We want users to feel comfortable coming to us with questions about "whatever." We want them to feel that we are comfortable speaking in their vernacular, and many of us want to tell the rest of the profession that it is and should be our vernacular too. But it is a difficult thing to communicate the importance of thoroughness, accuracy and information literacy without reproducing the impression that we are, if not sexless, not exactly cool. I believe that the problem may be inextricable from the nature of what we do at one level, but that at the same time it can be very helpful in many cases to use an informal manner, even to the point of not communicating so called "professionalism," when communicating with information seekers." from Library Juice 6.24

I think this is something we've all seen.... if you talk to your patron, whatever your patron base may be, if you talk to them in their own language, they're a lot more likely to talk to you. What else can we do? How do we promote the library and the librarian as the approachable helper? We:

Educate, Assist, and Inform!

Keep talking to people. Keep sharing with them. If someone comes up to you and says "You can't be a librarian because X", now's your chance! Educate these people that "well, yeah, you can be a librarian if X", or "We're better librarians because of X". All we can do is what we've been doing.

Thank you for coming!

Ruth A. Kneale, rkneale@nso.edu, . No, I don't look like a librarian.