Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Image and perception (or, why we shouldn't apologise for our profession)

I swear I'll get around to writing a post about the BIALL conference (no, really, I promise!), but other things have cropped up, and have led me in other directions. And one of the issues that I've been thinking about a lot lately, particularly on the back of the conference, has been that of the public perception of librarians.

Now I know that everyone likes to talk about this a lot, with the 'oh, but no one understands us and everyone thinks we're just glasses-wearing, shushing, school-marms in tweed'. Which, arguably, is still the public perception to an extent. (Oh the joys of telling people that you're enrolling to do your masters in librarianship! The rolled eyes! the confused glances! the requests for private shushing sessions in the stacks! Laugh a minute, I can tell you) But there's another issue in this whole image malarky that really irks me. And that's that only public librarians exist. In the public eye there is only one way to be a librarian, and that is in a public library. Well, maybe university librarians at a pinch, but only the one's that sit on the reference desk, not any of the ones that work behind the scenes. And public librarians, well, I don't think they represent the profession as a whole. They do a good and valuable and important job, and one that I wouldn't do for love nor money, but they only represent one facet of a profession that has so many different aspects.

I'm curious to watch Hollywood Librarian when it gets a more general release, but I am kinda disappointed that (as far as I can tell) the only side of the industry that's being represented are public librarians. Which is not to say that public librarians aren't important, nor that it's not a good place to start changing public perceptions (where better to start than with what people already know). But just that it's a bit frustrating to realise that it'll be a long time coming before there's any sort of public recognition of the work that the many kinds of special librarians do. Corporate librarians and medical librarians and one person librarians and legal librarians and all of those myriad information professional jobs that don't come with the word 'librarian' tacked onto the end. I can't help but think that it's terribly important to not just modernise our image, but to broaden it (I didn't even know that special librarians of any kind existed until I started my masters). How are we meant to meet changing needs, and tackle emerging problems, in all disciplines and areas, when all people see us capable of is running an (admittedly very modern and progressive) public library service?

I think that changing the perception of librarians and information professionals in any way can only be a good thing (hey, it might even help get us higher wages one day!), but I think changing the perceptions of the whole of the profession can only be a good thing as well. And I think that it has to come from within. I hate that when we introduce ourselves to people (and I know we mostly do this - I frequently do, and then kick myself later) we sort of cringe and say, terribly apologetically, 'Oh, i'm a law librarian'. You can almost hear the tacit 'sorry' tacked onto the end. As if that's not a good enough response! (hey, we could be introducing ourselves as a lawyer! far more cringe-worthy I'm sure). We have all this rhetoric about being proud of what we do, and standing up for the profession, and we talk the talk amongst ourselves, but put us in front of an outsider and we apologise for ourselves every time we discuss it. And this has a knock-on effect in everything we do (you think a managing partner is going to pay attention to your department if you can't even believe in yourself? I don't think so). There is such a broad scope of information professional roles out there, and I'd like to see librarians (information professionals!) not just embracing them, but advertising them. Promoting ourselves and our skills. Letting people know that we exist, that we do a highly skilled and kick-arse job, and that they should know about us!

Now, I'm not proposing any answers here, as I don't have any to give. I don't know what to do about it. What do you all think? How do you represent the profession? Do you cringe and apologise? What do you think we should be doing to try and broaden the perceived definition of librarian?


Sue the librarian said...

Solutions- I don't have any but I relate to everything that you said.
As someone who as always worked and wanted to work in Specials (formally Law and now Science) this always irks me. I get "oh you're a librarian- which library?" When they obviously expect a local library response I tend to fruitlessly try and educate them by explaining about a corporate libraries. But then it leads to puzzled expressions as though they can not figure out, then, what I actually DO.
The stereotyping is so pervasive. Even my husband, when I try to discuss this subject, just says we are being overly defensive.
My clients still apologize if they think they are talking too loudly or ask if they can eat their lunch in the library when there is no-one else around to be bothered but me.
My organization, when they recently restructured, now doesn't even call any of our positions "librarians" which still leads to me adding that tag to lots of my communications with my clients so they can figure out who I am.

hypatia said...

Yes - it seems very hard to get people to understand what we do, when their only frame of reference is a public/education service.
And also, yes. My service kept the name librarian, just because we knew that we were going to have to keep using the term anyway. It's not the best frame of reference for what we do, but it's better than no reference at all - 'information officer' and the like really aren't terribly descriptive titles :/

Dan said...

As someone who went from the public to corporate library world, I think a lot of that misperception starts among librarians themselves. Back in my library school days (only the '90s), one was expected to go into public or acadmeic work...corporate libraries were looked on as "a breath away from a lay off" and not really helping the needy. Even when I left the public library, I was looked upon as selling out. Even though I now earn enough from one job to be active in charities and donate to good causes, as opposed to my public library job, where I had to have two (yes two!) extra PT jobs just to pay my rent, I'm still looked on as an oddity among the larger library gang. It's ridiculous

James Mullan said...

Hypatia I'm really proud to be a librarian, especially when I remember all the jibes I got at 18 when I decided that I wanted to do an undergraduate degree in Library & Information Science.

Unfortunately sterotypes are everywhere and were never going to be able to move away from those I epsecially agree with your point about Public Librarians. I recently attended a wedding where I was sat on a table with a LOT of public librarians they were shocked that (1) I worked in a Library outside of the public docman and (2) I was taking home considerably more than them. BTW I don't want you to think I go around telling people how much I earn.

In my first two jobs which were based in further education libraries I did do a lot of telling people to be quiet and shushing and unsurprisingly I got a lot of stick back. I'm still traumatised to this day by some of it, its not everyday you have to call security to your library!

I think it is a real shame that a lot of organisations have dropped the L word from job title but I think this is just a sign of the times.

Seshat said...

Hypatia, would you believe that today I had multiple conversations on exactly this? And had someone apologise for being a librarian.

It's ridiculous, but I just don't know how to go about changing.

Anonymous said...

If you want to see the Hollywood Librarian in wider release, ask your local public library or "friends of the library" group to host a screening this fall. See http://www.hollywoodlibrarian.com and http://hollywoodlibrarian.wordpress.com . BTW, it does have some academic and special librarians, including a medical librarian and a business librarian.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately The Hollywood Librarian is showing only at libraries in the USA so far, this fall, 2007.