Do I Look Like a Librarian?

I work in my local library. The key word in the previous sentence is the preposition: in, not for. I’m not a librarian. (I may have enjoyed being a librarian in former days, but the modern librarian spends a hell of a lot of time on a computer and not much time with the books. As a tutor who meets students at the library, I get to be with the books.)

I’m often mistaken for a librarian. Not sure why that is: the silver-rimmed glasses, the no-thought/no-effort hairstyle or the unfashionable clothing? I don’t always have a stack of books in my arms…. Sometimes I politely set the person straight, and sometimes I just tell the person what they want to know because one of the benefits of working in the library is that I know my way around it and my job demands that I keep up with book awards, etc. My bibliophilia has a purpose at the library. The assumptions that are being made do not offend me in any way.

Photographer Kyle Cassidy recently did a series of photos called “This Is What a Librarian Looks Like”. Apparently, it created quite the stir—as if the librarians’ appearance were more important than their knowledge of books. I read his blog, the article in Slate and, in a fit of senselessness, the resulting blogs and comments. It was like watching a natural disaster; no way could a human control something of that magnitude.

What’s intriguing about this is the stereotypes. Now, as an English major, I’m necessarily a big fan of archetypes: they’re dependable, highly communicative signs for a character. Stereotypes, though, are something I’ve been taught are bad things—horrifically terrible things. The word stereotype is synonymous with prejudice and racism; at best, it’s synonymous with common and vulgar. The communicator in me, however, hesitates to condemn the word. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Librarians are, frequently, more concerned with history and words than with modernity and being hip, just as most scientists look towards the future and what can be discovered. It’s a matter of personal preference that leads to a vocation.

Used properly, a stereotype is merely a sign. If one were looking for a carrot,

carrot

one wouldn’t pick up a bright pink oval with green horns.

If one were looking for an uber-cool night-club, one wouldn’t usually ask the octogenarian shuffling down the street with her walker; one probably doesn’t have any objection to said octogenarian, but reason must be involved in decision-making.

So, I’m reluctant to dismiss stereotypes, and the people who inadvertently depend on stereotypes.  Rather than turning vicious on people who clearly don’t know what a tutor looks like but think they know what a librarian looks like, I could just assume that they mean no harm and only want to know if the book is worth reading.

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