Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Booknote: Not Your Ordinary Librarian

White, Ashanti, Not Your Ordinary Librarian: Debunking the Popular Perceptions of Librarians. Oxford, UK: Chandos, 2012. ISBN: 9781843346708.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Library science, popular culture. 

My review:

The book is organized as follows:
  • An introduction that sets up the context and tells you how the book is organized. 
  • Chapter 1 outlines origins of the library profession. Highlights Belle da Costa, J.P. Morgan's personal librarian, as a contrast of the "stereotypical" librarian. 
  • Chapter 2 looks at the librarian in popular culture with special attention to the films The Mummy and The Librarian (this one is a series, three movies so far). Argument made that these films challenge yet embrace the stereotypes. Personally I do not think they challenge that much, but that is the argument the author makes. 
  • Chapter 3 looks at librarians in children's and adult programming. 
  • Chapter 4 looks at images of librarians in juvenile and adult books. 
  • Chapter 5 argues why librarians need to be concerned with image. The author draws on personal experience to argue that some of the perceptions out there can cause harm to the profession. 
  • Chapter 6 looks at library anxiety and recruitment efforts in the profession with attention to how the perceptions affect those elements.
  • The author's conclusion. 
  • A set of appendixes listing films with librarians in some way (whether in main or minor roles, that they mention librarians, and in foreign films). There is also one appendix on "good" librarian websites chosen by the author. 
  • A bibliography. 

Overall, I was not impressed with this book. It was basically an OK book. There is nothing here terribly new or revolutionary. In fact, the book often felt like I was reading a series of blog posts, especially in the material other than the pop culture depictions; in other words, much of that I have already seen in either blogs or in some online forums where librarians gather to kvetch about the librarian image. However, the book is a nice, adequate summary of the status of the librarian image in popular culture blended with some personal experiences of the author and a few suggestions. The book is a nice one-volume stop for learning about librarian depictions in the media and in culture. In the end, we seem to be trading one stereotype for another. This leaves open the question whether that is a good thing or not. This is a book to borrow, not buy. Only folks I think may want to buy it are library schools with comprehensive LIS collections, and I make that suggestion with reservations, or maybe a library that collects material in popular culture.

It is getting 2 out of 5 stars for me.

(The review portion ends here. Below are notes I made as I read the book. Read on if interested)

Some of my reading notes from the book:

White points out that she gets the common "you don't look like a librarian" statements and questions. She goes on to state:

"Admittedly, I did have a unique look that is typically unexpected of one in the library profession. The brightly colored, frequently changing hair, the blatant tattoos, and eccentric clothing often confound people who expected more inhibited attire and less self-expression" (2). 

I might have been a bit more sympathetic a few years ago, maybe a decade ago. But given the amount of articles about hipster librarians, tattooed/inked/pierced librarians, librarians who may be seen/perceived as eccentric in some way, I think we are past seeing those things as unexpected. Even before I read further, I am willing to suggest that, in some areas of librarianship or some locations, her look and that of those like her may well be expected. I dare to ask if we (society, the profession, so on) are actually moving towards a new stereotype. It turns out the author will go on to argue just that, to an extent.

At one point, I had to simply ask as a reader if the author is really a freak of nature for doing her job and giving good customer service. She mentions this in the same context of being an "unexpected librarian." Really?

"Rarely was I sitting behind a desk; I was more than willing to cease my current task to locate items for which the patrons were searching. . .  I passed our customers with a 'hello;' I asked if they needed help finding anything" (2). 

So, is the author saying that sitting behind the desk being surly is the common expectation for librarians? I am sure a good number of librarians. quiet ones as well as those more vocal and expressive would beg to differ. I would beg to differ because a lot of my job is away from a desk working with patrons. I may not be some hot shot librarian or an author, but I do know the basics of common courtesy and human decency. So, the author distinguishes herself because she does her job as it should be done? I am two pages into the book, and I am not impressed, wondering who exactly this book is for. Really to dispel "stereotypes"? Preaching the choir, or rather a section of the choir? We shall see. Now, she may have a point on cultural minorities; valid, but that other stuff about doing the job sort of diminishes the good a bit. In the end, a vibe I am getting is she is a young, hip librarian versus the dowdy deadwood that hates teens. OK, got it.

Early librarianship did not really have stereotypes, argues White:

"Stereotypes, save for intelligence, were not assigned to early librarians. It was not until the establishment of libraries in the United States that current librarian stereotypes began to take shape" (12). 

Historically, librarian/archivists (often one and the same) were male, often priests, scribes, and government functionaries. So what happened when librarians started in the United States? Is the image obsession a "U.S. thing"? Well, in the U.S., women were not excluded fro librarianship as they were in other professions. Given this, women could be (and even today in general are) paid less than men. This is not right, but, as the author points out for instance, during the Great Depression that salary differential did mean many libraries could stay open. In addition, librarianship did capitalize on the image of women as nurturing, an image that pretty much is alive in many places today. Today, the job overall does not pay very well, regardless of your gender (though women likely still get paid less overall). As for librarian respectability today, when compared to the "old days," mileage varies greatly on that.

On the connection between librarians and cats: "cats were deemed to be the paranormal servants of witches. . . " (24). So, the parallel runs: librarian--spinster-- cat lady.

J.P. Morgan's personal librarian was one that did defy stereotypes. I made a note to look up the biography the author cites, which I am jotting down here as well:

Ardizzone, Heidi (2007), An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. New York: W.W. Norton.

Again, on the smiling. Do people really need to be told this in this profession?On the same page with the smiling reminder, was this quote:

"Librarians want to be recognized as engaging, helpful personalities, for the information they collect and share, and for the policies implemented to ensure that current and potential customers receive the best resources and services" (169). 

I can agree with that statement. Notice that there is not a word about image or looks in that statement. In other words, we should be known for our work that is well done. Pure and simple.

The author does come around to saying what I anticipated, that we have traded one stereotype (the old maid, the policeman librarian) for another (the hero and/or the parody librarian). Not sure that is much to celebrate.  In that same section, White writes about how librarians are embracing technology more:

"Librarians are posting YouTube videos and Twitter images;  they are creating Facebook pages and blogs that show their individual interests and talents. Most importantly, librarians are taking their service outside of the library. A number of websites allow 'customers' to connect with librarians who can assist them with locating the information that they need. These new-age librarians are defying the stereotype (or explaining it) so the public better understands who we are" (179). 

I definitely agree that technology has been revolutionary for our profession, and that many librarians are embracing it (even if some have to be dragged to do so). You are reading this on a blog, so you can tell I have created a blog. Now to say that librarians are taking their service outside as if it was now and new, not quite. I am sure librarians who before technology have had bookmobiles, outreach to their local schools and prisons, to the home bound, so on would probably have something taking the library service outside of the library, and doing long before new technologies came around. In other words, the "new-age" librarians did not just "invent" taking service outside of the library. They may have expanded on it, found new ways to do it, but they did not just out of the blue come up with it.


Anonymous said...

Also, if one actually looks at the citations? They're a hot mess. Some of it may be the publisher to blame (whole sections of citations clearly refer to different portions of the same chapter despite their numbering) but choosing to quote a secondary source in a lackadaisical manner (no page number!) when the primary source is online for free? Citing the School Library Journal as the Special Library Journal? It was a mess. (I was more interested in her sources than her book, so I was quite disappointed)

Angel Rivera said...

Anon.: Yea, I barely glanced at the citations. Much of the book did have a very lackadaisical tone to it, which did not seem proper, took away from the substance of what should have been an academic book.