on fame and what’s enduring…

Okay so a few days ago I posted to tell you that I was quoted in the New York Times. This article had the predictable effects. I got some nice email. My family and friends made fun of me: “You’re in the Style section?! LOL!” MetaFilter talked about the article. MetaFilter talked about me.

The article also had many people who were pleased with it, or had mixed feelings about it, and some people who just plain weren’t happy with it.

I thought the article was silly and decent for what it was (a style article) and I usually think that anything that doesn’t flat out call us losers and psychopaths is okay by me. What I found most interesting, besides reading people’s commentary on it, was the generated buzz. As of right now, this article was the most emailed article on nytimes.com today. I had friends who sent it to me before they even knew I was in it. It’s the second most popular article on Technorati. And — and this is odd and I may be looking at cause and effect wrong — a totally unrelated article about librarians from the BBC news home page is their most emailed story despite the fact that the article is 18 months old. This is the long tail in action.

So, I don’t care much what you think about hipsters. I’m personally proud of the braininess of the profession and if it comes with dowdiness I’m all for it. However, a few things should be clear. The author of the article is trying to say something nice about hipsters by associating them with librarians and librarians by associating them with hipsters. Maybe you don’t share her cultural associations, but it’s not a negative piece. Everyone in the article is portrayed in a positive light. How often does that happen in anything but “puppet show a complete success!” articles about the library? The popularity of this article is likely not because people are sharing it saying “Heh, librarians are such total dorks and losers they think they’re cool and they’re not!” it’s because the framing of this story seems to resonate with people in some way.

People are sending it to their friends and family members who are librarians. Librarians are sending it to their friends and family members. People are sending it to their librarians. People who want to get their message out would kill for this sort of attention. If the message you want to send is “Wow, I would have written this differently and pointed out things that this author completely missed about the profession.” then by all means do that. But watch for the “Gee someone tried to say something nice about librarians in a major media outlet and the bitchy librarians bit their head off for it.” attitude. I feel like we as a profession have issues with popularity generally. We’re suspicious of it and frustrated by it. Librarian critiques of Google or Wikipedia often point to their popularity as if we should all see what a negative attribute that is. There is nothing wrong with letting ourselves and our work shine brightly, and we can still try to be gracious if gently correcting when others try to cast some more light in our direction.

33 thoughts on “on fame and what’s enduring…

  1. If you are simply a wage earner like myself, laboring in the field for a salary that is far far less than $51K, a salary that in fact barely affords you a cocktail at all, but you do the work because it matters for deep social and political reasons you feel at your core, it can be painful to see the work to which you hand over your entire life turned into a caricature of downing cocktails in Williamsburg. I think the article resonates for reasons that give me pause: Here is a class of people one might think existed in opposition to relentless capital flows. Instead, they live out commodification just like the rest of us! I know the article was in the Style section and so is ipso facto trivial. But my job isn’t trivial, so showing up there pretty much sucks. I also have plenty of experience with the troubles that come with mass media representation as a queer person. Sometimes no representation is better than any at all.

  2. Jessamyn, I stand by my observation that their mention of your age means if you were ten years older you would not have been interviewed. I don’t know that other professions “kill” for this kind of coverage because most of them don’t have the image anxiety we have, where we’re supposed to be grateful for this distorted “too cool for school” perspective. I agree with Pop goes the library that the MSM is simply perpetuating the whole concept of stereotypes. Portraying stereotypes in a positive light does not make them anything less than stereotypes.

    I see librarianship in part as the place you can go and be uncool and still be loved. In a way, libraries are like church to me. I am loved because I fly my freak flag, not in spite of that… a place where I am accepted on my own terms To turn librarianship into another facade of cultural imperatives, complete with cute people in their cute clothes drinking their cute cocktails, is painful and sad.

    It’s also o.k. for some of us to critique this article from a broader cultural perspective (including feminist analyses) and that these critiques do not necessarily mean we are debunking the profession, coverage thereof, feeling ambivalent about being portrayed in the media, etc.

  3. Actually that’s a topic for another post – the commodification vs. “progressive values” discussion and I have plenty to say about that, but I never expect the New York Times to speak well about those issues so there’s no big news when it doesn’t. I don’t think we should be grateful for this sort of coverage, I just think we should see it as it is: an opportunity for us to say what we’d like to about ourselves with the springboard that this silly piece in the mainstream media has given us.

    I don’t think it’s not okay for people to critique it, in fact I encourage that, I just think it’s a good chance for us to show off what we DO do well and what we DO know a lot about and not let their vapid portrayal of some of us make us toss out the whole idea of getting attention. Otherwise it just looks like some sort of fetishization of “I liked that band before they became popular” only it’s “I had that job before it became popular” which, again, seems to be something to crow about, not slink away from or rail against.

    People don’t thave to be happy that the grey lady deigned to mention us in some insipid way, but for a “can do!” group of people, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk of how we can use and refocus that attention on some of the things we do that really help people. It’s possible I’m being a real pollyana dork here but I feel like sometimes we have an image problem because we have an attitude problem and not the other way around.

  4. Jessamyn, I totally agree with you. I am really surprised with how offended everyone is by this article. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. I thought those librarians were adorable (even if I think getting a tattoo of the Depository library program is overkill) and they were the kind of people we’d like to have in our workplace. Newsflash: Librarians live in New York (on very little money…some people are willing to do it), have fun, and don’t take themselves totally seriously, and that is OK! I think everyone is making way too much out of this. And its pretty easy to put down a bunch of younger people in the profession and students. Way to go guys.

  5. I tried to take the article for what it was, a style piece about a particular group of people. But what got to me about the article was the following quote, ““When I was in library school in the early ’80s, the students weren’t as interesting,” Mr. Block said.” Were they not as interesting because they didn’t go to Dewey themed happy hours? The librarians I knew then were really interesting people, who cared deeply about issues and about connecting people to books and information. They are the ones who made me want to be a librarian. One man in particular. He was the librarian at the junior high where my dad taught. I didn’t go to school there, but he would always send books home with my dad for me. Books that were out of the ordinary, that none of my friends had heard about, and that to this day still rank among my favorite books. He was also a man who was a librarian, and he rode a motorcycle. In my memory, he was also a big guy (kind of like Hagrid), but when I saw him a few years ago at my dad’s retirement party, I was struck by the fact that he isn’t much bigger than me (and I stand only 5’3″).
    There are also lots of people I work with now who have been in the profession since I was in grade school who are innovators and care deeply for their communities. Maybe if they had spread the “cool” out over more decades, it wouldn’t have hit that sour note with me. It’s not that I was outraged or offended, just unimpressed.

  6. I have been amazed at the response this article has received. The public perceptions of librarians is obviously an issue that has been going for a while, from the backlash that came from the Nancy Pearl figure to now the idea that the people portrayed in the article are setting up a shallow image of librarians as drunken hipsters (and knowing most of the people quoted and pictured in the article I can safely say that is not true). I think the most important point has already been stated but feel the need to repeat it: It was in the STYLE section folks. Do you really expect much more than a fluff piece from something that has devoted pages to why the population needs Ugg boots? It was a cute article about a social group and I enjoyed it. If it was in another section of the times, then yes I would expect something with more substance but I find myself feeling the need to tell some people in the community to lighten up.

  7. Good comments, Jessamyn. I will say I find it fascinating that I wrote a post in which I said “this is in the Style section” and yet received loads of comments saying, “Hey, this is in the Style section.” ;-)

    In addition to my concerns about the reductive nature of MSM, I keep going back to my nagging concerns about Second Life and other environments where women are represented by very strange bodies. I ended up being some kind of weird bunny (I was conscripted into SL against my will) because I simply refuse to be a weirdly distorted “perfect” woman. The swirl of issues around attitudes toward aging/imperfection/women in general intrigues me. I think a lot of these issues are right below the surface for many people, and this article brought them out.

    It also very much interests me how the comments on my blog have broken down along gender lines, with men saying “get over it” (to a blog post that took me, what, 20 minutes to write and is hardly my life?). Hmmmm…

  8. Though I fully acknowledge that the article was in the style section, and perhaps should be taken accordingly seriously, what bothers me is that whenever you see some kind of “positive” story about librarians in the popular media, it’s always about this image thing … I feel qualified to say this because I’ve been out of the library profession for a couple of years now, and so I’m not immersed in library blogs and library news like I used to be, so when I see any talk at all about librarians in the media, it really sticks out to me.

    I’m not exactly offended by the image thing, but it’s kind of a lame point to make, when librarians are out there doing important things that aren’t getting noticed.

    I also want to point out that anti-hipster bashing is not exclusive to librarians – so I’m not sure about the bitchy librarians biting heads off thing.

  9. I wasn’t irritated with this NYTimes piece, but then I rather fit the persona of these “new” librarians. I find it refreshing to see some mass media coverage of the profession where librarians are portrayed positively. I’m a current MLIS student entering the profession in my mid 30s. What attracted me to librarianship was that it’s a field full of smart people helping other people. I wish I had recognized librarianship as a professional possibility years ago, but alas, most of my past interactions with librarians had been negative. And this is coming from someone who spent all my childhood, teen years, and college years skulking through the stacks. My first job out of undergrad was working in a university library. but I didn’t choose the MLIS route at that point because the librarians I worked with were less than inspiring. It was only once I was teaching college English and met a charming and funny retired librarian that I realized how exciting this job could be. No, it doesn’t matter how old (or young) you are. You can still be a smart, interesting, and stellar librarian. But I do think it helps that this piece featured younger librarians. I might have been more likely to enter the profession had I encountered some of these librarians ten or fifteen years ago. This is not to say that such librarians weren’t there then, but I’m not sure they were there in the numbers that they are now. I feel this profession is a good fit for me now because I am surrounded by people who share my goals, vision, and sense of purpose for the field.

  10. Let me tell you a story; I’ll try to keep it short. I grew up in Charlotte, N.C. and there was time, when I was a child, that the Charlotte community was worried because the city kept being confused in the press with places like Charleston, S.C. and Charlottesville, Va. So they went on this media blitz about how Charlotte was a “world class city” and there was much chest-thumping and ra-ra-ing, followed by much hair-rending and shrieks of “How DARE they? We are totally outraged!” when…you guessed it…the press still couldn’t get it right.

    And although the city had a reason to be a bit worried (I mean, it would be kind of nice for folks to know what STATE to find you in), it went about it all wrong. Because places that are actually world class cities, like N.Y. or London or Rome, don’t have to tell anyone that they’re world class. The whole thing just made Charlotte look like what it was – a nice, relatively small city with an inferiority complex and a PR problem. Fast forward 20 years and there’s much less angst – the city has grown into itself and if someone puts it in the wrong state the attitude is more – “*eh* Just shows that that they did poor research” – rather than “They insulted us and ten generations of our ancestors.”

    I see our profession as being in much situation. I would love to see the day when we as librarians see an article like this (and it wasn’t a bad article; in fact it was nothing really all that different than has been said of us in other articles from smaller papers over the last couple of years) and not go into convulsions of either joy or outrage. When that happens, we’ll have grown into ourselves as a profession rather than showing ourselves for who we really are.

  11. Hmmm. Perhaps the ‘outrage’ (or mild annoyance) at the article is not simply because it is about librarians being hipsters, but the fact that they’ve singled out librarians for this very precise torture. We don’t really get any other mainstream press, so the fact that our big moment is devoted to a fashion fluff piece really rankles. I doubt we’d see a piece on hipster firefighters, or hipster computer engineers, or hipster doctors, or whatever. And if we did see such a piece, it certainly wouldn’t be the only mainstream media portrayal of those professions — there would be (and are) a slew of other pieces about how heroic, or inventive, or rich, or world-changing firefighters and engineers and doctors are.

    I thought about starting a whole “it’s because librarianship is a feminized profession” rant here, but thought better of it.

  12. Isn’t the NYT the source who called librarian.net a “listserv” or similar back during Lucky? Again, I look at the source. But, several of my family members had emailed me the link before I read about it in the b-sphere (or actually, saw it in a chat status ;) and THAT’S RARE!

    I agree with many of the criticisms and yet at the same time, good press, ya know? I guess I have an expansive view of hipster, as I have seen an 88 year old academic library patron learn how to surf cooking sites online in less than an hour. That’s hip to me….

    To me, we are ALL hip. Thank goodness for blogs, where we can go on the record with our kudos and critiques.

    Speaking of, Jessamyn I am late on the uptake for reasons you may be aware of… but you go girl! Congratulations! In my mind we have many stupendous representations of superheroes in our field. RAWK!

  13. Heather better articulated the point I was trying to make above, about “our big moment” in the media.

    As I thought more about this on my way into work, I’ve realized that if an article appeared about a mass flood of hipsters in to *any* profession – medicine, law, etc. – I think members of that profession would get tetchy. “Hipster” is not a flattering term – it connotes someone who’s doing something just for the way it looks. I’m not saying the librarians in the article did it to seem cool or whatever, but when you call them “hipsters”, that’s what people think. Frankly, if I were them, I’d be annoyed at having been called a hipster.

    That said, I think the real danger of “the new stereotype” lies within our own profession … I mean, Gen X/Gen Y does not necessarily *equal* “hipster,” but I’ve had older librarians treat me like it did. Not in any bad way, exactly, but subtle things, like assuming that I knew about all the “latest bands” (I don’t), or assuming that I spend my weekends going to clubs or something (a wild Friday night for me is watching Bill Moyers.)

    These stereotypical assumptions may not seem very important, but they can translate into scenarios like, Young Librarian A always has to deal with conflicts with the teens because she is, by nature, “more in tune with their culture,” or, Young Librarian B can’t be trusted to get up early enough to open the library on Saturday morning because of his hipster party lifestyle.

  14. I suppose the general public doesn’t give the “librarian image” much thought, and we should be grateful for the free press showing that we aren’t as “stodgy” as people might think. Still, the article sounded way too similar to other things I’ve read about how some younger librarians have stumbled into, or cultivated, hip images. Although I could defensively chalk up my reaction to ennui with the whole issue, it also served as a reminder of my own not-with-itness. It seems even more acute since I fall firmly within the “hip” age group prescribed by the article.

    Not that I really care about the article’s definition of hip, but it reminded me of the insecurities I had in high school. I know that we should “grow out” of it, and I don’t think much about high school anymore. However, I have come to believe this: our perceptions of cliques (as insiders and outsiders) are less Wagnerian than in high school, but the nature of adult cliquedom can exert power over our lives. Not that it can’t be overcome, but we shouldn’t deny that cliqueishness extends beyond high school. As in that case, the “cool kids” once again define what’s hip, and the article distinguishes them by describing what they are not. For example, they are not “bespectacled women with a love of classic books and a perpetual annoyance with talkative patrons — the ultimate humorless shushers.” Bespectacled women? Depends on what you find attractive (though I’m surprised they somehow managed to avoid “bun”). Classic books? Heaven forbid they read good stuff! Humorless shushers? You have to have a sense of humor to deal with some people.

    Overall, the article isn’t really a big deal, and I don’t think it will harm or hurt librarianship in the long run. On the other hand, it did convey something about our “image” to a broader public, and it did somehow manage to merit lively discussion here.

  15. KGS,

    You stated

    It also very much interests me how the comments on my blog have broken down along gender lines, with men saying “get over it” (to a blog post that took me, what, 20 minutes to write and is hardly my life?). Hmmmm…

    I just wanted to point out that in the general discussion quite a few women have also expressed the “get over it” sentiment. Likewise, many male librarians were quite offended.

  16. Do you think, Michael? We’d really need to do an analysis. I was thinking this would make a great gender study.

  17. Jess… I actually enjoyed the article and thought it portrayed the people it talked about pretty accurately. What I went off on was the whole phenomenon of hip librarians who think their being hip and their being progressive automatically go together. I don’t think it was the author who made the link, it was the librarians she interviewed. (You linked to me as not liking the article; I just took it as an opportunity to rant about something related.)

  18. An even better article (perhaps this is where NYT got the idea) from the NY Sun. Favorite quote: “Asked how she can tell the archivists from the librarians, Ms. Cane said, “Different gang colors.”


  19. KGS,

    I agree that male and female reactions to librarian stereotypes might be an interesting study.

    For gaging reaction to this article The specific nature of this particular article, highlights that you would need to control for age. One of the critiques that has been made is that the article has the us vs. them, young vs. old mentality and deals with a whole different set of stereotypes.

  20. Medium-time listener, first time caller . . .

    If you’re being a pollyanna dork, jessamyn, where do I sign on? A lot of us seem to have practically defined ourselves by our defiance against the normative image of the shushing bespectacled gray-hair. We’ve fought so long against being defined in that way that we can’t stop: we object to being defined in any way by anybody. It seems to become a sort of an indiscriminate lashing out.

    While that may be a good thing in some regards (after all, no single image should ever define any group), it’s not so good if the image of “shushing gray-hair” is replaced with “cranky dour-face.”

    The strength of this article, it seems to me, lies in its telling folks who might not have otherwise imagined it that librarians are actually pretty approachable people. Even if we’ve known it all along, it may come as a shock to quite a number of readers out there. So if those that don’t know now know something they should have known–as the result of a fluffy (but fun) article–isn’t that a good thing? Until you can say with straight faces that the majority of the population sees librarians the way we see ourselves, we should be pleased when articles like these open the door to a reinvestigation of our public image–whether it gets it right (for you) or not.

    But I’ll say it right now. “Guybrarian” must die. I prefer “librarino.” ;)

  21. Wow. Long time coming.

    I’ve always thought librarians were cool. I remember having nice librarians in elementary school. Of course, I was a stack rat as a kid, too. Now I live in a county (Marin, in CA) with a lot of great libraries staffed by many friendly, helpful (and hip) librarians. I know my kids have appreciated their thoughtfulness, help, and humor. Are they cool people? Hell yeah. Knowledge is power. Power is sexy. So long time coming. Thank gawd the NY Times has taken note. Jessamyn, I guess W is next…

  22. Ha! I LOVE this article; it’s long overdue (‘scuse the pun). We librarians have always been cool, full stop. I’m a high school librarian in NZ and my library is hugely popular, fun, and funky. You gotta blow your own trumpet when the stereotype of the dowdy shusher still prevails – but I’ve got tats, an attitude, and I give the kids heaps; I’m also the councillor, receive the confessions, and give praise and support to those kids who deserve it. I own my job; I’m proud of it. This article confirms what we’ve always known.

  23. Joke comprehension may decrease with age.
    “Young, vulgar, tattooed hipsters–get real,”
    brave librarian cops will bristle and rage.

    But if one life is saved by this Style Page
    it has been worth it. Though I feel
    joke comprehension may decrease with age

    and sense of humor is a narrow stage.
    I can still laugh, but I know the deal:
    Brave librarian cops will bristle and rage,

    “Gen X Bandits Snatch Your Dignity,” page
    six. Curse. Push away your favorite meal.
    (Joke comprehension may decrease with age.)

    “Because we say so—now get in your cage;
    Who’s bona fide credentials did you steal?”
    Brave librarian cops will bristle and rage.

    I am a librarian not a mage,
    but I do my job with style. Here’s the spiel:
    Joke comprehension may decrease with age,
    brave librarian cops will bristle and rage.

  24. It seems that no matter what image of the librarian is projected in the media, someone is offended. Unfortunately, newspapers and magazines do not exist to always provide perfectly balanced, in-depth looks at vocations (especially in the style section). I think as a whole there’s a rather unhealthy obsession with the librarian stereotype and librarians in the media. This is to the point where instead of focusing on subjects that would improve the overall life of librarians (better pay, better benefits, more full-time positions, more realistic training, etc.), librarians are spending their time worrying about improving the image of librarians.

    Improve the pay, the training, and the professionalism and stop worrying what other people think and the rest will come. (BTW, where the blazes does the $51k median salary come from, ALA? I’d like to see those numbers.)

  25. I know that “what you said” comments are annoying, but I feel the need…

    Melinor Vix – Fabulous!

    Meg – Amen.

  26. The New York Times profile gets two thumbs up for me. It’s good to see librarians being profiled in the NYT.

    On the other hand, this profile should really get no reaction from librarians. We are way too overconcerned with our image. Our image among the public is very good. Does the public hate us more than doctors, scientists, politicians and sports stars? The image of librarians is a real non-issue.

    What we should be angry about is everything else. Where are the fucking jobs that are supposed to be available? Why is there such rampant ageism in the profession? Why aren’t any of these young librarians library directors? Why aren’t librarians paid more? Why do cities spend so much money on library buildings and not an equivalent amount on library worker salaries and books? Why aren’t librarians unionized?

  27. And why isn’t there some fun group like the Desk Set in my town? Maybe I should go start one. I’m thirty-something and like cocktails. You’re all invited to join me, regardless of age or perceived “hipness”. Hot wings for everyone!

    I get the annoyance with this article, even though I thought it was fluffy fun. The thing is to do what you can to change what annoys you. So write a letter to the editor of your local paper praising the wonderful summer reading program at your public library, or telling how the librarians at your university really helped you with your degree. Put on fun events of your own, and call your old college roommate who was a journalism major to tip her off that there’s a story to be covered. Offer yourself as an exhibitor on career day at the local high school, so you tell young people what a great job you have. I think there are ways that we can work to generate more positive press, even if getting away from the insipid is difficult.

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