Stereotypes and Misconceptions of Librarians and Archivists

Erin Leach recently shared some powerful words about being a cataloger in instruction spaces and stereotypes that are often used to describe those involved in cataloging. I’m not a library cataloger, far from it, however Erin’s words struck a cord with me.  Her anecdote of interacting with others and their responses to her cataloguing status stayed with me, “What I imagine the librarians in public-facing roles who tell me what an anomaly I am are actually saying is, it’s okay that you’re a cataloging because you’re not that kind of cataloger.”

I remember expressing an interest in library school as an undergraduate to a much older male who worked in a education context. His response “You’re too pretty to be a librarian.”  Fast forward a number of years to having a colleague remark “I had no idea that librarians could have personalities” or “Librarians just shelve books and tell people to be quiet, that can’t be stressful” or “It never occurred to me that archivists can do instruction.”  There are a whole lot of misconceptions about library and archival staff. Sometimes these misconceptions are tied to perceived personality traits and sometimes they are tied to confusion around roles and skill sets.

In the media librarians and archivists get painted with a wide, dull brush a lot.  Media and other unrepresentative portrayals often fall back on gendered expectations and are related to the gendered nature of the profession. I’m not going to do a deep dive into the visual stereotype discussion as so many people have already done so and done so well.  Jessica Olin and Michelle Millet’s 2015 look at gender and leadership roles in the library profession indicated that the profession is comprised of approximately 80% women and 20% men. Despite women gaining leadership roles and closing the gendered leadership divide there are still a whole lot of challenges associated with being a woman in the library field and perhaps mores so if you are in an authority role.

I don’t have a solution to the prevalence of these stereotypes.  My thoughts are mostly around more outward facing advocacy and speaking up when we see comments being made to colleagues.  Projects like Librarian Wardrobe aim to highlight the aesthetic diversity of clothing choice within the librarian profession.  And initiatives such as Archival Awareness Week and ArchivesAware! seek to share ideas about increasing public awareness of the archival profession.  However I think these are just a few of many examples of outreach, awareness building, and crushing stereotypes – and that what types of conversations and outreach you’re able to engage in is going to vary greatly depending on your position, privilege, and workplace.  And we need to do more to support those who speak out on this issue.