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Month: June 2007

xkcd and the shhing librarians

xkcd and the shhing librarians

This morning I saw today’s xkcd strip, “Librarians“. My reaction went like this: oooo yay some librarian love, yippeee….oh, it’s the “librarians love books more than anything” meme again…boo. He’s clearly never dated an actual librarian, because this is so clearly the perspective of a person who doesn’t know what librarians actually do, and man, now I’m all disappointed. I was going to write something about it this morning, but the words kind of trickled out of my head and pooled together into nonsense, so I didn’t bother.

But Kathleen Houlihan hit the nail squarely on the head (link via Steven):

Images/stereotypes are viral. There’s very little we can do to change the way the public views us. Badgering publishers or authors into printing retractions for their portrayal of librarians is defensive and not particularly productive or flattering, as it goes a long way towards perpetuating the myth that we’re a bunch of control-freak biddies running around in packs trying to maintain order. The only way to change the perception of librarians (and I’d guess that the Shh! variety of librarian stereotype will be around for a long time because of movies, cartoons and books) is to get people to come into the library. See that we have more than books. See that many of us don’t care how you treat our books as long as you use them. See that we can help you tame the torrent of information that’s available on the web and find real and useful sources of information for you. That many libraries have “quiet floors” instead of the whole library being off-limits for chatter. That we even encourage noisiness with some of our programming. Get people in the door and their perception of us might change.

This is something we’ve been wrestling with at my place of work, as well; there is a stereotype of librarians out there in the world, for good and/or for ill. While Kathleen thinks it’s okay either way, from my perspective as an academic librarian, it’s not okay and we really do need to change perceptions, at least locally. That strip demonstrates the idea that a librarian is so closely tied to the collection that hurting a book is torture to her; libraries are primarily understood as houses for their collections. The distinction between the library as a structure and the librarian as a thinking person and a professional is getting blurry. Librarians are far more than merely their collections, and we need to challenge that perception if we’re going to be taken seriously.

As I’ve heard it expressed at a couple of different institutions now, librarians need to better express the business that we’re in. The number of times we encounter people who don’t know the difference between a public library and an academic library is staggering enough; why don’t we better express what it is we do? What sort of resource we are to the universities in which we’re ensconced? We need to better articulate our expertise, as well. We are not a little-league version of an academic; we are the people who watch the flow of publication and information distribution, keep tabs on the different entry ways into a discipline. We are the people who know how to find sources of information when you know nothing about a discipline, because we know how to read its tea leaves. We fight to make sure information is available to the people who need it; we haven’t done very well so far at expressing that battle to the faculty who’s work is the fodder for it.

I’m not saying we should ask for a retraction; it’s not xkcd’s fault that we have a shhh-ing reputation. It’s ours. And it’s our job to get out there and make a new reputation for ourselves, not as bespeckled, cardigan-wearing biddies, but as loud-mouthed, politically-savvy, compassionate brainacs with a pendant for the rare and obscure. With a talent for divination, of course.