Over the summer, I presented at a Career Fair a for high school and middle school students at a local museum. The aim of the fair was to encourage kids to get involved with STEM careers and since I work a lot with technology I got picked to participate. I started by highlighting the fact that libraries don’t seem super STEM-related and when I asked my audience to play a word association game with the term “library” they all yelled out “books” and “shhhh.” Seriously. The “shh” made me laugh, but it also got me thinking a good bit about a question I ponder fairly frequently: who librarians are, what it is we do, and how do we, and can we, effectively communicate that to a broad audience.
For some reason I’ve spent my post-college years working at jobs where I have to explain what it is I do, or at least clarify what I do. When I started library school a friend of mine said it was good that I now had a “Fisher Price job,” something that everyone could understand, like a teacher or a surgeon or a firefighter. In reality, and perhaps unfortunately, I ended up having to explain what it is I do to people who are convinced they already know what librarians do.
It’s this issue of having people think they know what you do, when they really don’t, that presents some challenges and difficulties for people who consider themselves librarians. I had to emphasize the technology and teaching aspects of my job to secure my slot on the Career Fair panel, and that conversation is one I have on at least a weekly basis with people I’m trying to work with. While people might think of books and quiet when they think of libraries, my actual day-to-day job is about 90% teaching and other educator related activities (like curriculum and outreach events) and I can go days on end without seeing a single book. And this is true for a lot of librarians out there.
Libraries, and other cultural institutions like museums, have changed a huge amount in recent years, which I think accounts in large part for public misconceptions regarding what they do. And media portrayals and stereotypes don’t help all that much. Case in point: Ghostbusters, The Mummy, The Music Man, and Buffy.
While I wouldn’t mind dancing at work or going on Mummy or vampire fighting adventures, none of those things are true.
As much as I roll my eyes and laugh at silly media portrayals (a bit redundant as most media portrayals of most professions qualify as silly to some degree) and stereotypes, libraries actually have a huge problem in marketing which impacts how librarians work with others (as a personal anecdote, a lot of faculty at the college where I work are completely clueless about what I do), how librarians get funding and collaborators for projects, and how to attract people to library services. And it doesn’t help that libraries themselves are so incredibly diverse – the strengths and needs of public libraries often differ wildly from those of academic libraries.
In thinking of some ways, for myself at least, to develop and deliver a strong narrative to potential partners and collaborators and users, I thought of master storyteller Peggy Olson. Really.
In the Burger Chef storyline on Mad Men (stay with me), Peggy and co. realize that they can’t get around the reality that Burger Chef is a fast food restaurant, and can’t escape everything that fast food entails. So, Peggy opts to draw people’s focus to something else instead, something that has positive connotations for people.
If people tend to associate libraries with books and shushing, then perhaps there are ways to tweak that narrative and shift their focus elsewhere. It’s something I learned in a writing class in grad school – start with the familiar and guide people to unfamiliar ideas; use the familiar as a building block and a transition.
There are definitely initiatives out there trying to tell a more up-to-date story about libraries, including Every Library, a nonprofit that works on library ballot issues, and SXSW Libraries Archives and Museums, a library advocacy group. And for my own part, I’m using the start of the school year to tweak my own personal narrative and think of new ways to let people know what I do and how I can work with them.