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.

Changing Expectations: Parenthood and Work Balance

I’ve started, rewritten, and deleted this post a few times.  I’ve been struggling with how to broach a topic that is intrinsically personal – pregnancy, parenthood, and workplace expectations – but has a need to be discussed more broadly.

 My partner and I are approaching a life changing event, the birth of our first child.  As the due date creeps ever closer I’ve been thinking a lot about how parenthood and concepts of gender interact with workplace expectations.  Particularly in relation to the archival profession, academia, and historical trends in Canada.

A few years ago I had taken a sick day and was shocked when a colleague responded with “You aren’t pregnant are you?  Because you know that would pretty inconvenient timing for us all right now and throw a wrench in our plans.”  At the time I laughed it off.  But now that I am actually pregnant the words shed light on some of the obstacles many women face in the workplace.

That single comment isn’t representative my experience — I’m extremely lucky to have a very supportive workplace and access to generous maternity benefits (yay for living in Canada).  I plan on taking seven months off work and my partner will be taking the remaining five months of the parental leave. I decided not to take the full year off work for a number of reasons – the desire that my partner have a chance to bond with the baby, a strong feeling that I might go stir crazy at home, and because I don’t want my professional life to stop when I enter this new phase of my personal life.

On a professional level I’ve been struggling with how to prioritize my semi-work related commitments.  Things that aren’t required by my job but that I’ve always associated with work and professional development.  Namely journal issues, book chapters, and conference panels I’ve been asked to contribute to.  I’ve declined a couple of contribution requests out of a desire to try and simplify my commitments in the upcoming year.  But, I’ve committed to a couple of lower pressure and longer deadline projects for 2015-2016 and hope to keep up with most of my current commitments (albeit scaled back a bit). I know my life is going to drastically change in the next couple of months and it’s impossible to gauge how that will impact my commitments long term. 

When thinking about this issue I’ve found it helpful to read about the experiences of others in the heritage field and academia who are discussing work/life balance in the context of parenthood and gender expectations. A few of the most useful sites have been:

  • Nursing Clio a collaborative blog project that links historical scholarship to present day gender and medicine issues. 
  • The Women in Archives series on the Chaos —> Order blog. A two week series focusing on the issues of gender and social inequalities in the context of institutional/professional/social legacies. 
  • Hook and Eye is a group blog dedicated to writing about the lives of women in the Canadian University system.  Contributors are from a range of backgrounds affiliated with universities such as undergrads, grad students, postdoc, sessionals, professors, administrators, alumna, emerita, etc. A number of posts have been written on parenthood, gender expectations, and life balance.