ASSOCIATES (vol. 9, no. 2, November 2002) -


There they were: thread sculptures that were pinned to the wall like elongated, impossibly slim, delicate spiders. Nearby, needles thrust into fabric, ribbons twined with eyelets, thimbles and needle threaders gently dangled, or were closely boxed in miniature scenes, divorced from their meaning, and oddly antiquated. The show by Robin Ripley was aptly titled "Notions."

Also divorced from their meaning were outdated microfiche, carried off by Ripley from her work at a library. My friend Anne read off the labels: subject headings, titles, books in print, on and on. Their content didn't matter. What mattered was the medium of emulsion-coated plastic that was used to scratch on patterns and illuminated from behind. I suspect only those of us who worked in libraries, like Anne and I, could see the irony.

In this world it's very hard to see what we look like from the outside, to show others the meaning of the work we do and the people we are. We might think of ourselves as charming, reasonable, tolerant, fun, educated people trying to do good service for everyone who walks through that library door, and we are, and yet ... and yet. It is like trying to see what the back of one's own head looks like with a single mirror. The public only sees what's illuminated -- what's scratched or reflected on the surface, devoid of context and content -- as do we.

It's too easy to tear our hair buns out and stomp on our spectacles over the pervasive stereotypes about librarians and library workers. Will Manley devoted one of his recent columns in American Libraries to the misperceptions the public has about those of us who work in a library, and how it adversely affects how we're treated and what we're paid. And he has a lot of good solid grievances. I've been on the picket line myself over similar issues. (Maybe he can come visit next time to show his support, eh, Will?) But, is it really so surprising that the public relies on outdated stereotypes and media portrayals for their perception of who we are and what we do? Don't they do that with all professions?

Fact is, Hollywood people think libraries and their workers are unsexy and boring, and like to portray them as such. How would they know differently? Why would they care? How many times do actors, directors or producers need to go to the library in the course of learning their profession? They use these images because it's unlikely to occur to them that anyone would be hurt by them, even though they may take their kids in to the local library and grab a few books once in a while themselves, all the while grumbling about the wait lines.

Conversely, how many library workers end up in the movie industry? Our people as a whole are not known to be extroverts. (You folks over there can sit down; I know you're the exception.)

The subjects Hollywood tends to go for are either full of inherent drama (crime, sex, family crises, medical emergencies, war, strife and so on) or are about people whose lives are dramatic (performers, spies, criminal lawyers, etc.). Introverts must be as alien to Hollywood as the far side of the moon to a fish. So they retreat into "harmless" stereotypes for accountants, librarians, civil servants and others they perceive as introverts.

Let's take a look at one of the more famous "librarians" today. Anthony Stewart Head, the actor who plays Giles in _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_ is a pretty hunky guy with a plummy English accent whose character kicks demon butt regularly, but to be truthful, in major part he still portrays the librarian archetype: fussy, over-educated and cultured, tweed- and glasses-wearing, awkward and bookish, passive, poor, dedicated, and sexually inhibited.

Wait a second. I think some of these are *good* qualities! I like tweed, I admit it, and educated, cultured, well-read men, and ... er, I think I'll just stop right there before this ends up being an ad for the "personals" column.

To get back to the point: what if we had a TV show featuring an amoral but sexy and cultured librarian, a hip and sassy library technician, and a funky art-student library assistant or two (like Robin?), all of them overworked and underpaid, with the script dramatizing a lot of the trials we face every day, from dealing with disturbed and abusive people to coping with computer crises. Would people still have these misconceptions?

I'd say yes, because it is very hard to change such a pervasive professional "snapshot" of who we are. I'd ask you, what would you want to change about it? And how would you go about making the change in a way that's effective? (Rather than just huffing and puffing to each other in our own literature. Like I'm doing right now, come to think of it.)

By the way, the misconceptions don't just flow one way. I've noticed library directors, in an attempt to be "with it," trying to bring libraries into the twenty-first century with new names, new services, even new architecture, in an attempt to put on a new "hipper" face and hopefully also find new funding for libraries.

How well does this work? Sometimes, when all parties involved have had input into the goal, their input has been taken seriously, *and* it was a good and necessary goal to begin with (e.g. a new library building) it works, and works well. I am the first to applaud any such effort, because the people involved obviously worked very hard to make it a success, and it spells real progress and improvements for libraries, their employees and their patrons.

More often it falls flat, or means the death or diminishment of a valued traditional service as the new goal gobbles up valuable funds and staff time, or estranges staff, or confuses the public. Occasionally it just feels like when you were a kid, and your (insert appropriate well-meaning caregiver here) tried to use modern slang with your friends.

Ewww. How embarrassing!

As an example, I'll bet you can think of at least one "information centre" or other pseudonym that ended up calling itself a library again. Sometimes it helps staff get better pay, which is a good thing, but it also reinforces the perception that libraries and the people who work there are old-fashioned, and thus undervalues us.

Honestly, I think it's okay to be a little old-fashioned. It's okay to turn off the TV or the computer, and read a book or listen to some great CD's you just picked up, or wrestle with the kids. It's okay to enjoy spending some time doing nothing, sitting around, gassing with your friends for an evening or an afternoon, even though you know there are many things you need to be doing. It's okay to write a letter and send it via regular mail, to spend time making a real meal instead of nuking it, to go for a walk and say hi to the neighbours instead of to the mall, to read bits of the newspaper out loud to others, or a book to a kid, or *gasp* even poetry. To use butter instead of marg.

I'd hazard a guess that those of us who work in libraries also want it to be okay to help a patron find what she or he really wants, and maybe even venture into the stacks or on the 'net or into our databases, regularly, methodically and critically, rather than just firing up the computer and punching in keywords again and again, or shoving materials in, out, and on the library shelves, because we're under pressure and there are lots of people waiting.

That it's okay that we spend a little time acquainting ourselves with the materials we're shelving, or cataloguing, or processing, or linking to, whether they are CD's or books, videos or magazines, electronic files, web sites or realia. That it's okay to take the time to keep our library skills up to date, and to get to know our patrons. (Note here that I don't say "customers;" it was a rotten idea to start using this term, implying that good library service is the same as a good business transaction, with the same base equation of "value for dollars spent," and it should be tossed out with the trash.)

And finally, that it's okay to take the time to show people how to discover, analyze and understand the complexity of current issues in the world today, to be skeptical and inquiring, in spite of anti-intellectual sentiment and the demagogues that seem to be leading too many peoples, in too many nations, into ignorance and intolerance. That is, unless the paper is due tomorrow.

We try to do it every day, but it's getting harder, isn't it, what with the shorter attention spans, the shrinking budgets and staff, the challenging patrons, the multiplying means of communicating, the hunger for instant access, the quick fix and the knowledge byte?

I don't know about you, but I'm fed up with feeling guilty about not "producing" at "highest efficiency."

However old-fashioned this "notion" is, we should be proud to roll up our white pressed-cotton sleeves and do what we're best at, using the ways and means that make us the best, whether it's at a desk, behind the scenes, in a support service or in front of the library board or administration. I believe we're here to dig in our (low) heels, to be intellectual, old-fashioned, deliberate, complicated, and mule-stubborn, to say that it takes time, money, proper staffing levels, remuneration and education to help our patrons, even if it means not being the trendiest or most popular kids on the block.

Even if we're also sometimes on the line. Wearing our tweeds, spectacles, sensible shoes ... and cellphones.

Sylvia Skene
Library Technician
Advanced Education Media Acquisitions Centre
Langara College, Vancouver, BC Canada

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