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Volume 16, No. 8 • Nov/Dec. 2002
Special Report
Librarian Image Study
by Ruth Kneale

"You don't look like a librarian!" I heard that so often while I was in library school in 1997­99 that I set my e-mail signature file to be that quote, and vowed that I wouldn't change it until I went 2 months without hearing it. Well, I was finally able to change my signature file in the spring of 2002!

Do you look like a librarian?

Isn't that an interesting question? What are we supposed to look like? Ask any person on the street what image comes to mind when they think of a librarian, and inevitably they'll say an older woman, with her hair in a tight bun, wearing glasses, a cardigan, and sensible (meaning ugly) shoes. (And she usually says "Shh" a lot.)

The perception of librarians in the world doesn't seem to have changed much since the days of Marian the Librarian. Why is that? Professions that were formerly considered "geeky," "nerdy," and unfashionable—like computer programmers, database administrators, etc.—are now hip, cool, and definitely groovy. But what happened to the librarians? We deal with computers every day, we administer databases, and quite often we're Webmasters. Why do people think that we not only still look like the mid-century's stereotype, but also that we're not the folks to ask about computers, Internet searches, or the World Wide Web?

I decided to do a bit of investigating and find out. With the support of my Special Libraries Association (SLA) division chair, I was given a slot at the SLA Annual Conference to talk about this particular topic. In preparation, in December 2001 I sent out a survey via several e-mail discussion lists. I wanted to find out what librarians felt their patrons thought of them. I received 337 responses (a 14-percent response rate), and this article is a brief summary of the results that I presented at the conference in June 2002. For the full results, comments, responses, images, and a whole lot more, see my talk's Web site at I also researched how the media present images of librarians nowadays, and you won't want to miss that section!

Overview of Questions and Answers

Some of my basic survey questions asked about things like gender, age, location, etc. Respondents came from a wide range of age brackets, library types, educational degrees, and salary ranges. Here's a quick overview of the responses.

All of this led up to the big question—actually, two questions:

1. Do you think that your patrons' view of your profession has changed in the last 10 years?

2. If so, has it changed for the better?

Now, I have to admit that, based on my own experience (outside my workplace), I expected the majority of the replies would be "Not really." Boy, was I wrong! By a 3-2 ratio, the response was "Yes" to the first question, and of those 186 positive people, 87 percent of them said "Yes" to the second question as well! But there were quite a few less-than-positive comments too, among them the infamous "Why do we need librarians now that we have the Internet?" It was a bit disheartening.

We Still Need More Answers

In some arenas we are changing how patrons view us, but only in a few ... and it's happening very slowly. Do we ourselves feed and reinforce the negative image of librarians today, by not being more "in your face" about who we are and what skills we bring to the party? How can we encourage people to see us as technologically savvy, while at the same time keeping our traditional skills? I wish I had some answers to these questions.

I was pleasantly surprised by the results of my survey, which would indicate that yes, folks think better of our image than they did a decade ago, and that the business world is starting to appreciate us more. However, so much seems to depend on the labels we have—organizations seem to value our skills more if we don't have the word "librarian" attached to us.

I worked hard for my degree, and am proud to call myself a librarian. I hope the rest of you are, too.

Ruth Kneale is the systems librarian for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope in Tucson, Arizona. She holds an M.L.S. from the University of Arizona, and feels very strongly about how librarians are portrayed. Her e-mail address is

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