Enough With the “Sexy Librarian” Thing, Already

While we at the Riot are taking this lovely summer week off to rest (translation: read by the pool/ocean/on our couches), we’re re-running some of our favorite posts of 2014. Enjoy this Best Of, and we’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming on Monday, July 7th!

This post originally ran April 21st.

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Can I vent for a second?

I am not big on pearl-clutching. I am not typically prudish. I TRY not to be a whiner. I don’t seek out things to get angry or upset about. But, man oh man, I am SO SICK of the “sexy librarian” trope, I could scream. I know, I know, this perception of librarians has been around and talked about for approximately *checks calendar* FOREVER. It’s rooted in our culture and it’s sometimes portrayed in “good fun” and it’s not something I expect to go away anytime soon. Such is human nature. But lately I feel like we’ve been bombarded by this weird fetishization/sexualization of the profession more than usual. Or maybe I’m just oversensitive and noticing it more thanks to the magic of the internet (I’ll admit, whenever I see anything related to libraries or librarians in the media, I involuntarily cringe as I click on it). Either way, I personally have had ENOUGH, y’all.

(This ostrich was meme'd by the great Rachel Fershleiser!)

(This ostrich was meme’d by the great Rachel Fershleiser!)

Here are a few examples:

A few months back in a Dear Book Nerd column, I gave my advice to a reader who asked “What’s the Best Pickup Line to Use on a Librarian?” I won’t rehash the points I brought up there, so feel free to read it if you want a deeper discussion of my views on this issue. But in a nutshell: librarians are professionals and deserve to be treated as such. (And stop creepin’ at the reference desk, for the sake of Pete.)

Recently, eHarmony put out a seemingly lighthearted list of “15 Reasons To Date A Librarian,” which, admittedly, wasn’t the WORST thing on librarians I’ve ever seen. However, the more I read it, the more annoyed with it I became because while it purported to smash librarian stereotypes, it actually did the opposite and promoted some of them.

Reason #9: “Some people have a “thing” for librarian types. If that’s you, date one.”

Huh. Okay. What is a “librarian type” anyway?

Reason #15: “Bedtime stories.”

What? No. Stop it. (And don’t even get me started on the part where they say a librarian’s work environment is a calm, quiet one, because LOLZ.)

Yes, the jobs of librarians are often misunderstood. And even when there is an effort to portray us accurately and realistically, there can be backlash. Kyle Cassidy’s “This Is What a Librarian Looks Like” piece on Slate featured real librarians from diverse circumstances talking about their jobs and trying to advocate for libraries, and it STILL spawned a whole lot of nasty conversation about image and the perception of librarians and people asking why is this such a big deal in the first place? (And, I shouldn’t even have to tell you, it got really ugly in the comments. Why can’t internet commenters ever play nice?) Well, it’s a big deal because people – librarians and non-librarians alike – MAKE it a big deal. We are constantly defending ourselves in both the way we look and about the importance of our very jobs. It gets tiresome.

As I write this, it’s nearing the end of National Library Week. I’ve seen many things online featuring the hard work of librarians in an attempt to give us a positive signal boost. This is all great. But even people with the best of intentions can miss the mark. A few days ago, the respected and well-followed blog Humans of New York posted one of its famous (and usually delightful) mini-interviews. I was excited to see that this time it was with a library school student. Yay! Future librarians! They will take over the world! This is gonna be great! Then I saw the question Brandon, the site’s creator, asked the female student:

“What’s the sexiest part of being a librarian?”

Come on. COME OOOOON. Et tu, Brandon? I like you. I like the work you’re doing. You seem to get people. There wasn’t ANY better way to ask this kind of question? Luckily, the library student effectively ignored the problematic “sexiness” nonsense and gave a smart, informative answer. Because that’s what librarians do.

A bit later, HONY posted an interview with a male library staff member, asking the same question. I kind of saw this as backpedaling (although, who knows, maybe he originally meant to ask the question of two people), but either way, whether asked of man or woman, the phrasing of the question just isn’t cool. It’s not just about sexism, it’s about respect. (Side note: I realize that “sexy” can have other connotations and definitions than purely about sex appeal. But when paired with the issue of librarianship, I don’t think it was an accident that this particular term was used.)

So, here are some of my quick thoughts about the whole sexualization of librarianship thing (and a few ways to maybe combat this going forward):

* I’m sure Brandon wasn’t intentionally trying to be demeaning or objectifying. I’m not trying to call him out on the carpet or demand an apology. But he has a huuuuuuge audience, and asking these kinds of questions makes it seem like they are acceptable or welcome…when, really, they are not. (Another side note: there very well could be a larger context for the question as it’s probably only a snippet of the entire interview, but I have not yet seen any larger context given. And maybe he was trying to poke fun at the old “sexy librarian” stereotype, and my apologies to Brandon if that was the case, but I just didn’t get that vibe.)

* Sexual harassment is an issue with any profession, and librarianship is no different. All of us – women, men, transgender, everyone – deserve to feel safe and secure in our places of work. These playful little comments alluding to our sexuality or what we do behind closed doors or what we wear when we’re not in the library? They can turn out to be not so playful. At the very least, they are awkward and uncomfortable. At their worst, they are dangerous. It’s harmless until it isn’t (again, see Dear Book Nerd for examples of when “flirting” goes too far), and the line is just too easy to cross.

* My librarian Twitter friend Angie Manfredi made a very good point here:

I work with kids every day. I get sneezed on and sometimes have to throw out dirty diapers parents leave behind. I also get to talk to kids about books and how library cards work and read stories to them and show them how to do research and how to use the computer. I love my job, but in no way did I go into it because of the “sexiness” aspect of it. To say so minimizes my hard work and dedication (and is also a little creepy when you think about it in the context of being a children’s librarian, amiright?) I’m going to make a leap and say that most librarians didn’t go into the field to titillate people, we did it to help them. So stop making it weird, bros.

* If you find yourself thinking “GEEZ, LIBRARIAN LADY, LIGHTEN UP.” Fair enough. A lot of the comments on the HONY posts were about how funny and cute the interview was and how librarians ARE sexy and how we should all just laugh and move on. But a lot of the comments were also from library professionals (or other people) who are plain tired of not being treated professionally. (And some of the comments were just plain ignorant, but again, that can’t be helped. INTERNET COMMENTERS, MAN.) So if you find yourself in the “it’s all in good fun” camp, maybe try putting yourself in in a librarian’s shoes before making a potentially demeaning comment about how you perceive our jobs or our appearances. We ARE humans, after all. Not objects.

I realize that I might just be shouting into the wind. And maybe I do need to stop being oversensitive. But I’ve found that nothing ever changes by NOT saying something, so I am going to continue to do so even at the risk of getting some of those fun nasty internet comments. My simple plea is this: let’s all try to shift the conversation. Let’s let a sense of respect overcome the urge to be cutesy (or insulting) about someone’s profession and passion, no matter WHAT it is. It’s true, librarians love to be asked questions. That’s our job. My hope, however, is that people will start asking us better ones.

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