where the tangent is the architecture
I'm an independent bookseller, so please forgive me if I chatter about books. They're almost all I have.
Librarians, gather round. Lean in to your screen. If we, all of us, have an image of a librarian as an old and musty individual, either too formally or too shabbily dressed, perhaps strict, perhaps suspiciously accommodating, maybe with a voice in a weird timbre, that is not wrong. We, most of us, were children when we met our first librarian. To children, children at the right age, ALL adults are strange. They are all old and slightly terrifying. You, you librarians submitting photos of yourselves in ill-fitting tank tops and hugging cats and running some kind of mud pit race as if that were a sport, you are exactly as terrifying to children. For all your virility and sex appeal, you are no less a stranger with a weird smell, imposing senseless rules on the young. If any of us were to meet the librarians from the Carnegie-built marble book-tombs of our childhoods today, they would be nice, normal adult people, just like you.
What’s more, you are making the profession—honestly one of the noblest around—look needlessly sad. You are all, almost down to the individual, trying too hard. You are trying too hard to prove something: that you are young and joyous? That you have a hobby? A boat? A zany outfit? And that need, that desperation to, what, to display your wholeness as a person, encapsulates its own failure within its effort. Do you see? Scrolling through this, like with so many facebook walls, so many other tumblr pages, I see little but pleading hollow skulls. Skulls throwing frisbees, skulls cutting wedding cake, skulls playing roller derby.
This Is What a Librarian Looks Like, or lookslikelibraryscience, has been around for a little under a year I think, and I’ve seen 10 months worth of faces flit by as I scroll down my dash. It’s never been one of my favorite tumblrs, but its one I’ve lived with for a while, and so here I am, defending it.
I remember my childhood librarian. She was probably in her mid-thirties and she had short brown hair. She walked with two canes. She helped me fill out the forms for the summer reading challenge and, when it came time, doled out the certificates for free ice cream at the McDonalds across the street, the reward for every 10 books read. (NB: I love the substance known as McDonald’s ice cream.) She smiled, and I thought she must have read every book in the world. My childhood library was a bright, low-slung, yellow brick building that had much in common with the midcentury architecture that dominated Connecticut Avenue north of the zoo in DC. Wide, paneless windows, weather-stained concrete, stainless steel lettering. I mention this woman, this building, only to illustrate that there is no real “we, all of us” here when we talk about libraries, librarians, and especially the stereotypes associated with them.
An important thing to remember about lookslikelibraryscience is that it is not for you, nonlibrarian readers, it is for them, the librarians. Yes, its description is “challenging the librarian stereotype one post at a time” but a quick glace through the photos will reveal several that are nothing if not stereotypical, and that is okay. And frankly, if you find the images posted there sad, you need to check yourself.
Librarianship is about service and a library, at its core, is one of the most fundamentally democratic spaces available to us. This particular alchemy of profession and place makes librarians perhaps the least pretentious people out there. They are here to help us, regardless of our forehead sheen or awkwardly fitting tank tops—even a rank smell, or utter cluelessness. They are people who love community, and it is unsurprising that they’ve built a thriving one here too, on Tumblr.
Everything about lookslikelibraryscience is about librarians sharing a part of themselves with this online community. There is the guy who loves Doctor Who, there is the person who has a hot dog chair (A HOT DOG CHAIR), there is the adorable face behind Librarian Problems, there is this handsome man (for real crushing on this one) who does radio, there is this Croatian librarian with a sword (!!). I don’t see people desperate to prove their worth (or wholeness) despite the uncool title of librarian, I see people celebrating themselves and celebrating the community they belong to.
Turning the focus of your snobbery (and that is what this is, the faux-gentle advice to nix the bathroom mirrors, take care of oily skin, wear better fitting clothes, look like you don’t care—snobbery) on a profession that is a paragon of nonjudgment is cheap and it’s condescending. And here is the thing about librarians, the reason why I love them: they do care. They always try really hard. They wouldn’t be in the job if they didn’t.
Molly! Howdy. Thing is, we are in agreement. Well, we are in agreement about some things. We might disagree about the part where you ascribe the stereotypes I am guessing at to me, and the part where you get all riled up and misread me.
You put up a great defense of librarians. Which speaks somewhat to my point. I don’t think librarians really need defense, you know? We know they are hardworking, cool people. Or, some of them are cool. And all of them are just people. If we have a misleading stereotype of them it stems from childhood (and probably TV, and then, as happens with these things, from reverse-engineering efforts to explode that stereotype) when all adults are a bit scary. I think I might have been terrified of your personal librarian as a kid, and I’m willing to bet you might have as well on the right day or at the right age. They are adults, living their lives, and so are a fathomless alien to some kids.
You are right to call the tone of my thing snobbery. But have you seen photos of me online recently? I look fucking TERRIBLE. My snobbery isn’t leveled at these contributors, but at people. I’m not saying that librarians look any worse than anyone else, or that they need to somehow be aloof. I’m dismissive of them in an effort to show that their normalcy isn’t in doubt. What I was saying, all I was saying (I didn’t run the thing on Melville because the point is so banal), is that librarians have the same foibles and affect as all of us, including myself. And if their photos online on hot dog couches make me sad, it’s only in the way that all photos of people make me sad. They are just adults living their lives like the rest of us, and if there’s anything more sad than that I’ve yet to hear it.
The fact that you feel the need to leap to their defense against a non-attack (although, granted, it sure sounded like an attack at times—self-loathing has its ways of creeping into generalized writing) is an indication of the persecution complex that infuses so much of the culture around librarians. Which, as you’d agree, is silly. I don’t think photos of their hobbies is a good defense against criticism, but neither do I think they NEED defense at all.
So, self: checked. Status: still doesn’t think ill of librarians, or at least, no more ill than of everyone. In fact, so sure that librarians are cool, I don’t believe they need impassioned and angry boosterism.