librarians, and hipsters, and cocktails, oh my!

When I met Kara Jesella, co-author of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, at Pete‘s monthly party Chuffed! held during the ALA conference and she said she was doing a piece on librarians for the NY Times, I was intrigued. Fluff piece for the style section? Probably. Fun? The odds certainly looked good. And really if I had a dollar for every time someone quipped that I don’t look like a Librarian, I’d be on vacation right now. So while the “hip librarian” thing might be a new cliche, maybe with a true glut of these articles I can stop trying to come up with a reasonably amusing response every time someone comments on my appearance when I tell them my profession.

I am a little surprised by the twitter over the article (pun intended), although I suppose I shouldn’t be. While I will try to maintain, as my friend Carrie (who is also quoted in the article) put it, some emotional distance from the content of a story that I didn’t write, I will say, that as I stated, it’s true that I finally decided on library school after listening to a zine curator at a public library speak. She was passionate and articulate, and worked in Salt Lake City, for the love of God. I saw her at what was once the Underground Publishing Conference which has since morphed into the Allied Media Conference. The conference that year was full of people who were focused on getting information “out there” to people. Among them, naturally, were librarians, library students, and a great many people who recognized the powerful role that librarians can and do play within society. For me it was less, the job sounding “pretty awesome“, but more opening up the possibility of what the job could be. That it could be more than a job, really but perhaps a personal philosophy, of a dedication to putting information in hands where it was necessary, and useful, and in some, albeit extreme, cases life-changing. To supply an abused woman with the information she needs to get help, to give an elderly world-traveler who can no longer fly on a plane an book that will make them forget that they’re in their own living room, to show a student how to get the information they need to write a good paper. That’s cool. That’s hip. And maybe when I’m done I’ll celebrate with a $10 cocktail, because I’m in DC and that’s just how much a cocktail costs when you miss happy hour.

At the end of the day as Kendra notes, the article wasn’t for us, us being library types. Jessamyn points out that,

“As someone who talked to the author of this article at length about politics, I think the problem was that the publishable article was about hipness but the article the author *wanted* to write about was about progressive politics… I agree, fluffy article, but if it can get a little more attention to the leftist aims of some librarians, I’m all for it.

I couldn’t agree more.

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8 comments
  1. Thank you for expounding on what was, I imagine a two second clip of a longer quote. I respect your thoughts and ideas about what made you interested in librarianship and what you heard at the conference you attended. I really wish more of that (or hell, any of that) came across in the article.

  2. bill said:

    Hi Sarah, I very much agree: the cool factor is in loving the access the job gives you to people, ideas, and to a philosophy of service (hopefully shared) that is inclusive at all levels. The promotion of a hipster mystique seems useful only in marginalizing people.

  3. Pete said:

    Bill – that’s another way of saying that if someone is coded as “hip,” they have place being a part of the public face of the profession. That’s not only absurd, it advances the marginalization you claim to criticize.

  4. jaleh said:

    Sarah,

    I am not going to comment on the whole hip vs. not hip or whatever. I just wanted to say I was glad I stumbled across your blog. I haven’t talked to you in ages and I hope you are doing well!

  5. bill said:

    Hey Pete, I don’t understand the syntax of your comment. I take it there is a ‘don’t’ missing – i.e., they don’t have place. That’s not how I feel at all; hipness is separate from the job, but when the two are marketed together in way that it becomes the second most promoted archetype of the profession, then you’re marginalizing folks who don’t seem themselves fitting into one mold or the other.

    It goes with what I wrote at billville: that there are people who adopt the perception of librarian quirkiness, or “outsiderness,” to advance themselves professionally (which is their business, but seems kind of lame to me), and this idea of “outsiderness” seems to me to mask efforts to make the library a place that wants quirk at the expense of quality. Or hipness (which I think pop culture equates with relevance) at the expense of aptitude.

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive (and aren’t in any profession) but we don’t see equal if any coverage of librarians who aren’t, or don’t see themselves, as either spinsters or hispters. But then, these folks don’t sell the profession in a way that jives with years of existing professional stereotypes. Pop culture wants librarians it can box and sell – whatever it calls them.

  6. Pete said:

    Bill- what do you care how someone dresses or if they’re “quirky” to “advance their career?” (Not sure how that would work, but whatever.) If they do the job, they do the job. The author clearly wasn’t putting all librarians into one box. Quite the contrary; she was saying that the profession was becoming more diverse. If you do your job and do it well, I don’t see why that notion is so threatening.

  7. bill said:

    Come on, Pete. I don’t care how people dress. And, as I wrote above, if people adopt quirkiness or another stereotype to advance an agenda, that is not what I’d choose, but it is ultimately their business.

    I probably went too far in opposing the notion of quirk against the idea of quality, but I think I am focusing more on how people outside the field perceive or sell the career, versus how individuals see themselves.

    I don’t know that I can articulate this any better the more seemingly heated this conversation becomes, but I wrote this yesterday, and it fits well with what I’m expressing, or perhaps failing to express better:

    “Maybe I am too skeptical about what sort of influence these impressions of cool v. geek have on people who think about librarians. But to me the position, or how I see my job, is about assistance and right-to-access versus these small categories of ‘hip’ or ‘outdated’ that can set up boundaries to either personal or material accessibility. As a culture, we overmarket everything to types, and that kills opportunities for individuals to connect in deeper, more significant ways.”

    There is no war against hip going on here. But I do enjoy discussing these external perceptions.

  8. Pete said:

    A librarian being hip or not is less of a boundary than their being black/white, male/female, gay/straight, tall/short, skinny/fat, etc. and… I dunno… I am not one of those who thinks that exposing people to varied background and experiences in whatever venue is a negative.

    I’ve seen other people advancing the idea that librarians being “hip” might keep people from the profession because they might not feel that they’re “cool enough.” I know that’s not what you’re saying here, exactly, but I feel like there’s the same set of discomfort there that I don’t get.

    I guess this goes back to the stuff that Jessamyn West wrote on her site; the article is quite positive towards everyone in the piece and clearly intends to compliment both “hipsters” and “librarians” with the mutual association. I honestly don’t think anyone beside librarians see anything negative in that. Oh, maybe three top tier conservative bloggers were snotty about it, I guess… but as I have said, pissing them off is usually a sign that you’re doing something right.

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