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.

Friday Reading: Gender and Outreach

A weeks end look back at some of the archives, public history, and library world readings that I’ve been pondering on this week.

Gender in Libraries:

  • “If You Give a Librarian A Cookie” a great post by Dani Brecher Cook on the gendered work, the challenges of letting gender expectations control actions, and the need to find balance between doing traditionally gendered work you enjoy and being seen as a professional.
  • “Knausgaard Writes Like a Women” An interesting piece on gendered writing and the idea that you can tell if someone is male or female based on their style of prose. Link found via Allana Mayer (@alanaaaaaaa) and her thoughtful twitter discussion of gender in LIS

Outreach in Academic Libraries and Archives

I’ve been thinking about different ways to promote university archives in engaging, informal, and low costs ways.

  • An older post on the Mr Library Dude Blog on general outreach initiatives at the UW-Green Bay Library  is about general outreach at the UW-Green Bay library.
    • The slideshow is worth looking at, particularly for the linked videos within it.  I particularly enjoyed the video of the edible books contest they held as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations.
  • I’ve also started looking at institutional twitter and Instagram accounts.  Do you have a favourite archives or special collections social media account?  Is there an institution that does a particularly good job of promoting their collections through social media?  Is it worth the effort?

National Conceptions of History in Museum Settings

Amongst the museums I visited while in DC, my least favourite was The National Museum of American History (NMAH). Upon reflection, it is not that I disliked the content of the museum, I just had a hard time grappling with the national differences of conceptions of history.  I expected a grand narrative style of history in the museum and was confronted with something very different. 

Canada’s national museum system does not include a museum dedicated solely to the history of Canada as a nation, but perhaps the closest would the Canadian Museum of Civilization.  The CMC isn’t solely a national history museum, but it does currently give the most cohesive museum based look into Canada’s past. But, the two institutions are so different comparing them is akin to apples and oranges.

One of the main things I struggled with in the NMAH was the focus on individual great figures.  I found the large overarching history of America was told most frequently through a great man style narrative.  The most prominent exhibits that stick out in my mind as falling under this category include : The American Presidency: A Glorious BurdenLighting a Revolution—Electricity Hall (focused on Edison), and Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.  In each of these cases the emphasis tended to be on the individual not on larger historical trends.  

These exhibits also reinforced the extent to which Canadian Prime Ministers and US Presidents exist on very different plains of history in their respective countries.  Prime Ministers are viewed as players in history but Presidents seem to be points around which history revolves.  Presidents are seen as being directly associated (and responsible) for key events and developments, where as Prime Ministers are seen as parts in a larger less individualized narrative.  I’m not sure either interpretation is better than the other.  Rather, the interpretation reflects each country’s unique view of the role of government and the past. 

I also struggled with The First Ladies exhibit at the NMAH.  The NMAH website suggests “The First Ladies encourages visitors to consider the changing role played by the first lady and American women over the past 200 years.”  To be honest, I had a hard time getting past the fact that the prominent items displayed about each Woman were dresses and dishes.  Similarly, the majority of the prominent text panels focused on the First Ladies’ role as hostess, entertainer, and public face.  While walking through the exhibit part of me kept thinking “I wonder if they know that women can wear pants now.”   The exhibit also left me wishing that there was more content in the NMAH about the history of women’s rights and changing roles of women in America. 

Even with these conceptional struggles I did enjoy my visit the NMAH.  I think the highlight for me was the Star Spangled Banner exhibit.  I had never really considered the history of the first flag in America and the exhibit but the exhibit helped put that history into context.  This exhibit was also interesting to see from a curatorial perspective, as the flag is huge making special display considerations necessary. 

How do you see national conceptions of history being explored in museums?