It’s taken me a few days to figure out how I feel about the comments made about the Slate article “This is a what a Librarian Looks Like“. I am finally starting to sort it all out. Overall, I’m happy with the results. Sure, I’m thinking about how librarians can better support each other, because, in addition to many kind comments, the participants of this piece were subjected to the vitriol of the Twitterbrarians and others. It’s made me reevaluate how I react to people’s projects of which I am not involved. I need to support other librarians much more enthusiastically (or just not insist on tearing them apart), because I now know what it’s like to feel the scorn of people I’ve never even met.
I will say that I am immensely proud of the article itself for a number of reasons:
- I met the piece’s photographer, Kyle Cassidy, who in a short while has become one of my favorite non-library worker library advocates. It’s all well and good for us to stand around and tell each other how great we are, but if we don’t push past the atmosphere of our library world bubble, we’re doomed. We need the Kyle Cassidys of the world to spread the word about the important work we do.
- “This is what a Librarian Looks Like” is featured on Slate.com, which is not a library/librarian publication. Sure, I love reading American Libraries and School Library Journal and whatnot, but Slate reaches an entirely different audience. Slate’s readers are our patrons, the people we’ve yet to reach, and, hopefully, future library supporters. We get too wrapped up in our own jargon and echo chamber sometimes. This is not healthy.
- The article, at the time I am writing this, has been shared over 32,000 times on Facebook alone. Kyle talked to someone at Slate who said this is far more hits than any photo-essay he can recall. That’s a lot of people talking about librarians.
- I had the pleasure of meeting so many fantastic librarians at the photoshoot. While I was there, recording their mini-interviews, I swear. I had chills. It was Monday night, when many people had already left the conference. I was standing in the dark convention hall, holding a digital recorder, and asking librarians why libraries matter to them and why they should matter to everyone. I thought, “This is why I come to these conferences.” I felt so inspired by everyone’s experiences and convictions. I desperately needed everybody’s positive affirmations about librarianship. This experience is an essential part of why I’m feeling excited about librarianship right now. I feel fortunate to have been involved. I adored every librarian who was kind enough to show up.
- On a personal note, I love the picture Kyle took of me. I do. I can say that, right? It’s not easy to photograph a bigger/fat/curvy/euphemism girl like me. It’s too easy to make me look just terrible. Kyle worked with me until I started to look decent and not awkward and miserable. I can sing songs to 50 toddlers and their parents with no sense of embarrassment or self-doubt, but stick me in front of a camera and I’m an unnatural nightmare. Where the hell do you even put your hands? Where do you look? Kyle was patient and kind. I actually like the way I look and I haven’t in a long time. My family and I have had a hell of a 2013 and it’s started to show on my face (not that my looks are of the utmost concern in bad situations. But you start to notice this stuff). I lost someone very important to me, and sometimes I’d look in the mirror to see a person whose face was red and swollen from constant crying. I just looked wrecked and defeated all the time. Also, I ate everything in sight to make myself feel better and I put on a ton of weight. Despite what seems like every person in the world calling me fat in the Slate comments (NEVER READ THE COMMENTS!), I’m not sorry. I could have done worse things. My body is what it is. I’m trying to take better care of it as well as have a healthier self-image. In any case, when I see this picture, I can’t believe how happy I look. That’s a real smile on my face, and I very much need to think that I can be that kind of person again. Thank you, Kyle.
What I’m writing about today is less about the article itself, and more about the reactions of librarians and others to what I thought was a positive piece about the importance of libraries. There’s a certain crowd of people on Twitter who dislike me very much and I had zero doubt that they wouldn’t appreciate my presence in the photo-essay. I know that no matter what I do, this particular group of librarians is going to vocally proclaim how bad it is, so I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the backlash. I thought though, perhaps foolishly, that everyone would see at least one librarian in the article that they could relate to or be inspired by. For some people, the Slate article should have been a better representation of librarianship as a whole or should have provided a more realistic cross-section of what librarians look like. Others obsessed over our clothes and hair and said that we were all trying too hard or were preoccupied with our appearances. There was the notion that librarians talk too much about librarian stereotypes. Lastly, over and over again, I heard the cry of: “I don’t see myself represented in these pictures!”
I don’t mind criticism, and I don’t think Kyle does either. But when people seemed downright angry about the article, I was disappointed and a bit baffled. Is it just that people on Twitter love to argue (myself included! Hello!) or was the article really so offensive to librarians?
So, I’d like to address the kinds of concerns and complaints I witnessed. I’d like to try to do so without sounding dismissive or uncaring:
- Everyone who showed up to the photoshoot got their picture taken. Absolutely everyone. Some of the participants did not get featured in the Slate article, and for that I’m very sorry. I should have known that could have been an option. Not a single person who got left out of the Slate piece complained or got upset with Kyle or me, and for that I’m grateful. A mess of great librarians got left out of the article, including Dale McNeill (whom I consider a mentor), Courtney Young (ALA President and general awesome person), Coral Sheldon-Hess whom I really like and admire, and my partner/boo/favorite person, Tim Conley. Another librarian that didn’t make the final cut was Gena Peone, a Cultural Collections Manager for the Spokane Tribe. I was fascinated by her job title and the way she talked about librarianship and was surprised that she was not featured in Slate. I’m sorry these people weren’t included. I don’t know if their inclusion would have altered people’s impressions of the diversity in this piece or not. I am generally of the opinion that nothing would have pleased everyone. In any case, you can see some of these left-out portraits here.
- I tweeted, emailed, and Facebooked the crap out of the call for this photoshoot. I contacted people who I thought would be good for the shoot, but many of them were not available, so I just opened up the call to anyone who was following my Twitter account or Librarian Wardrobe. The photoshoot took place on the Monday of the Midwinter conference. Many people had left Philadelphia by this point. Some of the people who had said they could attend had to cancel due to weather-related issues. I ended up begging participants to bring a friend with them. “Bring someone! Anyone!” Kyle was aiming for 20 portraits to be taken. I don’t even know if we had that many. I was grateful for everyone who showed up. Though this photo-essay never aimed to reflect a realistic cross-section of librarianship, you can see why the final selection turned out the way it did. If you were there, you got photographed. Nothing was calculated about the selection, despite my best efforts. I will say, though, that I am proud to be included with such a fine group of professionals.
- Some librarians had mentioned that the Slate piece presented a false sense of diversity within the profession, saying that if this were a realistic sampling of what librarianship is like, more middle-aged, white, female librarians would have been shown. Again, if you were looking to this photo-essay for some sort of statistically-acurate representation of what the average librarian looks like, you were going to be disappointed. Nowhere in the article did it say that’s what the intention was. As I mentioned, the people featured were the people who showed up. I will say, though, that I was aiming for as much diversity (which is, admittedly, a loaded and relative word) as I could muster. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were the token POC or person over 50 or representative of the LGBTQ community, but my biggest fear was that the photoshoot was going to be an all-white, all-female cast. No, no, no, no. Maybe that’s what some people’s libraries look like, but not mine. I work in Brooklyn and I went to grad school in Queens, which is probably the most diverse county in the world. An all-white and all-straight profession is not what I see here at all. And even if I did, I wouldn’t want that portrayed in the media. I feel as if this piece, as well as the work of Librarian Wardrobe, gives a human, relatable face to the large, abstract concept of librarianship. I want people to know that we are real people of various backgrounds. I want people interested in pursuing librarianship to know that there is no cookie-cutter mold you must fit into in order to become part of our community. I want us to look approachable and inclusive and welcoming. The Slate piece needed a variety of faces, experiences, and voices in order to evoke a personal response from the reader. I’m less concerned about the stereotype that librarians are uptight, shushing bunheads in sensible shoes and more worried that the public thinks we’re homogenous and interchangeable. I want them to see themselves and their communities reflected in our faces. I think that’s one of the few ways for non-library users to give a crap about us and the work we do. I see the diversity of the photo-essay as a positive, not a negative. I feel like our participants did as well:
- The word “hipster” was being thrown about quite a bit by Twitter librarians. It was in reference to our glasses and our clothing choices. Just as “fat” is an unimaginative insult from Slate commenters, hipster is just as meaningless and uninspired. I need my glasses to see and clothes to cover my body. I’m not out to please everyone with my appearance and the rest of the participants are not here to tailor their looks to suit your preferences. In NYC, hipsters are thin, young, good looking and have enough money to shop at American Apparel, so I’m just going to say thanks for the compliment and move on.
- I think people thought that the photo-essay was implying that this is what all librarians look like, or should look like. I don’t think that the way I look is how you should look or how all librarians should present themselves. I’m not insisting you dye your hair pink or that you should dress a certain way. This is what a librarian looks like. One. We each showed up as ourselves and represent only ourselves.
- We, the selected subjects, do not somehow speak for all librarians. Not every type of librarian was represented in this photo-essay. If your specific branch of librarianship wasn’t featured, it in no way means that the photographed librarians or Kyle think that you’re not important or that your work isn’t vital and necessary. I had several people tell me that by not including technical services librarians or academic librarians, we were implying that the work of these kind of librarians isn’t legitimate. To be fair, both kinds of the aforementioned librarians were included, though it may not be obvious by the way their titles are displayed. But I understand where people are coming from on this. Most librarians are looking to be properly paid, appreciated, and acknowledged for the work we do. Most of us are passionate about our chosen trades and spend much of our careers jockeying for the few available jobs, a living wage, and government/budget support for our organizations. If you didn’t see yourself reflected in the Slate piece, it wasn’t purposeful or to make a point about the importance of one kind of librarian over another. And you know, if and when Kyle does a project like this again, people will still be left out. Librarianship is too varied and immense to include everyone. This isn’t the only article that will ever be written about librarians. There will be more. And someone will always be excluded. We have to be a little more secure in our self-worth or we’re all going to have meltdowns every time something like this is published.
Overall, what I took away from this article is that some people will hate absolutely anything you do and they’re usually the loudest voices. Beyond that, I’m dismayed at the instinct of some librarians to immediately and publicly voice why certain projects could have been done so much better or why certain librarians are undeserving of praise or attention. I’ve seen this type of behavior when the Movers and Shakers Awards have been announced (the poor treatment of JP Porcaro and Ben Bizzle come to mind) and I just don’t understand it. I think it reflects poorly on librarianship as a whole. There is nothing about the Slate piece that could possibly be considered truly offensive. If you’re this mad or outraged about this article, it is your right to voice your complaints, but is this really the hill you want to go die on? Why not save our outrage for the Michael Rosemblums of the world and the other people that are really out to hurt libraries?
Did librarians really need to contact me and say that I clearly don’t understand that tech services librarians get treated like “trained monkeys”? Did librarians really have to get in touch with Kyle to let him know that instead of A, B, and C librarians he should have photographed X, Y, and Z ones? I even saw one librarian insisting on working with Kyle to write some sort of rebuttal essay to the Slate piece. A rebuttal to what? What in that article could you be that opposed to? There’s room for criticism, but there’s hardly ever room for people being generally jerky.
Kyle Cassidy offered to photograph librarians. For free. He showed up completely sleep-deprived, but ready to work. He was patient with those of us who were less than comfortable in front of the camera. I saw him talk about librarians on his Facebook wall in the following week, asking his friends to recall their childhood librarians. I thought, crap, this guy really cares about libraries. Take a look at his blog. See the kind of dialogue he is creating there. Is this really the kind of person we want to create a Twitter storm over? Good things are happening for librarians! We are all in this together. We can all benefit from someone like Kyle being on our side. This isn’t the last opportunity and this isn’t the last time there will be good press for libraries. Can we just be happy that someone did a nice thing for us? Can we be more welcoming to our advocates?
There’s another option, though, and something I’d like to keep in mind for myself the next time I see a library-related project that I don’t approve of: If you think you can do better, don’t complain. Don’t bitch. Don’t Tweet. Go do better. Go make something better. Go create something you wished you would have seen. There’s room for all of us here. There are going to be plenty of opportunities for more stories and voices and projects. So let’s just stop verbally beating each other down and let’s get shit done. If you don’t like the way I’m doing me, go do you better. I feel like this is my New Year’s Resolution.
If you appreciated what Kyle did here, hit him up on Twitter. Let him know. Say thank you. And if you’re going to criticize, I ask you to be civil about it. I’ve seen some pretty discouraging rants.
Luckily, we haven’t scared off Kyle quite yet. He’s brave enough to follow us all to Vegas for ALA Annual to photograph an even broader spectrum of librarians. So be there, be seen, get photographed, and be the kind of librarian you wish had been included.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid
P.S.: For a more party-positive take on this situation, click here.