Personal Websites And The Librarian Stereotype

Reprinted from Revolting Librarians Redux with permission from the editors.

Clairol’s Herbal Essences made a commercial in which a librarian tells a female patron, “I urge you to be quiet!” At the sound of the word “urge,” the patron launches into an elaborate hair washing fantasy, complete with three or four studly hairdressers singing and carrying shampoo. As she reaches orgasm, the ad cuts to a close-up of the shocked librarian just as soup suds splash all over her face in a suggestive manner.

The librarian, of course, is a picture perfect example of the librarian stereotype: an overzealous school marm with ugly glasses and her hair tightly pulled back. She’s rude to the patron and, at least in the commercial’s subtext, sexually frustrated.

Note: “an overzealous school marm” is a description used by Sony Barari in his now-infamous UCLA Daily Bruin column “Library Science Degree: File That Under ‘Stupid.’” I’ll be coming back to this later

At her website “Library Chicks of the World United,” Megan Palasciano declares that librarians are not “a porn fantasy.” The advertising industry, however, seems to be run by librarian fetishists. One print ad describes a Honda Accord as “the automotive equivalent of a really hot librarian.” Another has a picture of the back of a woman in a skimpy outfit holding a drink with the caption, “Librarian by day. Bacardi by night.

In addition to being viewed as both sexual objects and uptight bitches, librarians are also seen as nefarious corruptors of youth. After all, where do kids go to read about sexuality, evolution, and Harry Potter? Oh, and to surf the Web for porn? The public library. Any parent can tell you that. Any politician could, too.

Underlying all this is the perception that librarianship is a doomed profession because of the internet. All the information we’ll ever need is online, so print is dead, and if print is dead, then what do we need libraries for, and if we don’t need libraries, then why do we need librarians?

Note: Of course, and you may sense some personal experience here, an attorney who declares as he gives a client a tour of his firm’s library that “someday this all will be online” is the first person who gets annoyed when a librarian tells him that the information he’s looking for is available online.

Ironically, librarians have become arguably the most Web-savvy professionals. Having a research-oriented job tends to make one adept at finding information in any form, whether it’s a website or just a plain old antiquated book.

It stands to reason that if we’re spending a lot of time online, then librarians are going to have a strong web presence. This turns out to be true. As Owen Massey points out on his website, “a peculiar online library culture was quick to grow up … and nearly every adjectival librarian has their own library weblog.”

It also stands to reason that if we have issues with our self-image, then librarians are going to use our personal home pages to try and tear up the stereotype. Well, the negative aspects of it, anyway. There is something infinitely badass about being perceived as a bad influence on children.

Anyway, peppered around our websites one can find statements on what we are and what we aren’t. Eris Weaver’s “The Bellydancing Librarian,” for example, states, “We do not spend our days shushing people and dusting books! Public librarians toil to provide free information access to all citizens in the most democratic of institutions.

Palasciano’s website offers a point by point description of what librarians are and are not. “Library chicks are … Smart, funny and unwilling to take bullshit from anyone,” while “Library chicks are NOT … Any sort of person that you can easily pigeonhole.”

Massey blows the stereotype off by calling it “nothing more than cartoonists’ shorthand, like depicting Frenchmen as cyclists in berets, striped jerseys and necklaces of onions.”

He also raises the issue that the public perception of librarians matter more to us than to anyone else. Citing an article by Deirdre Dupré in NewBreed Librarian, he writes, “the true responsibility for perpetuating any poor image lies with librarians ourselves.”

Note: “The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession” was instrumental in helping me establishing the tone of this piece. Also of help was a similarly-themed article from 1999 by Antony Brewerton called, “Wear Lipstick, Have a Tattoo, Belly-Dance, Then Get Naked: The Making of a Virtual Librarian.”

It is true that librarians tend to be a bit overly touchy about how we’re regarded by others. Take the uproar that occurred when Sony Barari’s column that poked fun of library science made its way around various librarian-oriented email lists. We completely overreacted, flooding his inbox with irate emails and throwing our two cents everywhere we could.

Note: I stress the word “we” here, because I sent him an annoyed email. After all the controversy, I felt bad and apologized for contributing to the uproar. Anyway, a good overview of the situation can be read at LISNews.

But, all that said, the fact is librarians are still frequently underpaid. Tami Sutcliffe notes, in a section of her website called “librariansRgeeks2,” that the average librarian made $31,915 in 1998, and Salary.com shows that the average went up to $40,399 in four years.

And while it may be more a myth than a reality that librarians aren’t valued, sometimes issues such as library outsourcing can do a lot of damage to a librarian’s self-esteem.

Note: Again, referring to “The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession.” This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart in that I was at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro when they outsourced their library. It took me a lot of might not to go into painful detail about the story. Maybe in Revolting Librarians Neoredux?

But, all that said, by letting this bother us so much (and it does bother many of us a lot), we’re only just putting ourselves down instead of raising ourselves up. Therefore, we’re self-propagating the stereotype.

Note: If you haven’t already, you really ought to read “The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession.”

Perhaps, then, the best way to fight the image is to simply be ourselves, and to not worry about how we’re being perceived.

For example, Kristina Spurgin and Jessamyn West both have home pages that are essentially websites by people who happen to be librarians, as opposed to being librarian websites. The distinction lies in the fact that they don’t necessarily use their profession as the basis of their respective home pages.

On the other hand, Katia Roberto’s website branches off from librarianship. She includes two personal essays about why she became a librarian and why she became a cataloger, as well as a list of reasons why one should get one’s MLS. The aforementioned websites by Massey and Palasciano are also good examples of using the profession as an informational base for a home page.

Note: And I realize that I could be perceived as kissing up to my editors by including sites by both Jessamyn and Katia in this essay. However, both home pages have been very influential to me, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to ignore them.

The mainstay of almost every personal site are links. All the personal sites I’ve mentioned have them, and something seemingly so basic or innocuous can actually go a long way to outline the site owner’s personality. For example, Palasciano and Spurgin both use links to provide more information on their various interests. Roberto scatters links around her autobiographical essays as a means to fill them out.

Related to a links page is a resource page, which is more focused on providing general information that isn’t necessarily internet-based about a particular subject matter. For example, Roberto’s “A Topical Guide to Queer Resources in the Social Sciences” is divided into areas of study, then subdivided into print and online resources.

Note: the site was created as a part of a project for a class she took in grad school, but it is still updated with some regularity.

A less formally structured resource site is Dan Cherubin’s Second Generation page. Providing information for gay children of gay parents, Cherubin states, “Second Generation was formed out of my own needs and what I presumed were the needs of others.”

One of the drawbacks of the Internet is that it only has the information that people provide for it. The reason why all the information one will ever need isn’t online is because someone has to put it there first. That was Cherubin’s motivation for the creation of Second Generation page, and it seems to be the motivation for many of the pages Rory Litwin hosts at Libr.org.

After all, how else would you find information about Cuban libraries, globalization’s effects on librarianship, or anti-war librarians? There’s not a lot of personal information at Litwin’s home page, other than a résumé and some photo galleries, but his sites collectively offer a good glimpse into his character. Speaking of character (How’s that for a segue?), another style of librarian personal home page is the _____ Librarian site. The site owner takes one aspect of their interests or personality and either elaborates on it or uses it as a starting point for a website.

I mentioned earlier a perfect example of this type of page. Eris Weaver’s “The Bellydancing Librarian” consists of two pages. One is autobiographical, discussing briefly her work and her interest in bellydancing. The other features pictures of, bios of and links to other bellydancing librarians.

Weaver was one of the first people to use the Web as a way for librarians to redefine their self-image and public perception, so the number of people who list it as an influence is fairly sizable.

Note: She told me in an email that she was inspired to put up her site by The Lipstick Librarian. I didn’t include that page in this survey because it didn’t feature any personal content, but its influence on the development of librarian Web culture casts far and wide.

Another influential site, Dan Cherubin’s “The Ska Librarian” uses his music interest and profession as a starting point to build upon. As he points out, “[The Ska Librarian] was an enigmatic name, now it’s called a poseur name. By next year, it’ll be just another pick-up line.”

Despite that, the name does offer a unique hook to lure in readers. Like “The Bellydancing Librarian,” it plays off the stereotype and introduces site visitors to aspects of librarian culture they may not have encountered before.

A good way to summarize all this is by mentioning Jonny Neutron’s “Rockabilly Librarian.” The unique name draws people in, and while he opines briefly on shaking up the image of librarians, he isn’t self-conscious in going about it. In addition, while his profession is at the base of his site, his website isn’t necessarily about his profession.

It’s probably inevitable that a librarian’s website is going to touch upon the librarian stereotype at some point, but it’s also increasingly unnecessary. As the online librarian community grows and develops, it’s likely going to be less defined by cool librarians and more defined by cool people who are librarians. It’s a small distinction, but it’s a good distinction to make.

Note: Either way, you can find a whole bunch of librarians’ home pages at Open Directory.