When Stereotypes No Longer Apply

During their last semester, students in the LIS program I attended had to take a one-credit class called “Issues in Library and Information Science.” It was designed to get us thinking about current trends in the profession we were about to (fingers crossed) find work in, as well as help us prepare for our comprehensive exam. The students in the class were divided into groups, and each group selected an “issue” from a list we all voted on. We researched the topic, prepared an annotated bibliography, and led our fellow students in a group discussion. Some topics (which I won’t mention specifically) did little to inspire debate. One topic that did get a rise out of this group of future librarians, not surprisingly, was the subject of the “stereotypical librarian” image.

Now, I know there’s been a lot of talk about the image of librarians on websites and blogs, in movies, and elsewhere. But what these venues primarily focus on, as did the discussion in my Issues class, is what a librarian looks or acts like: bun-wearing, finger-shushing, glasses-around-the-neck, doesn’t have any fun, reclusive, female, older, etc. What I find interesting is not so much the “changing face” of librarianship, but the changing philosophy of it. By this, I mean the change from Librarian as Keeper to Librarian as Advocate.

I started thinking about this after reading a book that had a passing mention of a librarian as a meek, but strict woman, always pushing in chairs and admonishing patrons when the library became loud or books were left around without care. And this wasn’t the first time I’d come across the suggestion that librarians have played the role of crypt-keeper, protecting the book and the library at all cost (remember Lt. Bookman, from Seinfeld?). Likewise, in the past, librarians have been seen as all-knowing authorities on what qualifies as a worthy or unworthy read: in a recent book review on Amazon.com, a 53-year old woman recalls a school librarian who objected “strenuously” to her science-fiction reading habits.

I can’t say for sure whether or not all of these misconceptions were ever actually justifiable, but thank goodness librarians are no longer thought of in this way. Now, we have groups like the Social Responsibilities Round Table and the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (both created in the late 60’s). Librarians are still viewed as protectors, but now the objects of their protection are people and their right to information rather than just books. As our collections and resources become increasingly electronic, and the image of a “traditional library” continues to blur, one of the many roles I see modern-day librarians filling is that of an activist. I like the idea of removing ourselves from the idea of library as place, and providing access to users in ways our predecessors never would have imagined.

Whatever our reasons for becoming an academic librarian, I would imagine that many of us (myself included) chose this profession at least in part because of the opportunity to defend user rights and increase access to library resources (in whatever form they happen to take). My question to readers is this: how have you defied the stereotype of librarian as keeper? What kind of importance do you place in the role of librarian as advocate / provider / activist?

3 thoughts on “When Stereotypes No Longer Apply”

  1. I think the Amazon comment about a school librarian who disapproved of sci fi is hilarious… because all my friends who read sci fi…are librarians =)

  2. I particularly applaud your recognition of the “librarian as advocate” and the “librarian as activist” roles.

    In addition to SRRT and OIF, the ALA Washington Office, established in 1945, is an active advocate for libraries at the governmental policy level.

    Along with direct lobbying of congress via the Office for Government Relations with the able assistance of the Committee on Legislation the Washington Office also has a policy research arm (the Office for Information Technology Policy) which seeks research and other funding via grants and similar opportunities.

    Some OITP tools: The Copyright Advisory Network,
    The Copyright Slider, and the Digital Copyright Slider

    Some OITP reports: ‘Regional Libraries Cooperatives and the Future of Broadband‘(PDF) and ‘Library Connectivity for Public Access‘(PPT)

    More about OITP focus areas

    Last but not least, remember ACRL’s Legislative Advocate program — if you serve students, you have a stake in policy decsions!

  3. I think that your shift from focusing on the librarian image appearance to the librarian image substance is really the discussion we need to be having. I don’t care if people think we’re all young and hip a la NY Times article or older cardigan-wearing women/tweed-wearing men. What matters is the substance of our profession. The conversation you are proposing is the one we need to be having as librarians.

    I fall in the “advocacy” camp. To me, being a librarian means helping people gain access to the information they need to solve any problem. I think we should be breaking down road-blocks rather than creating them for our users.

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