The Image - and What You Can Do about It in the Year of the Librarian

Article excerpt

ALA's public relations professional confronts the stereotype and tells how librarians can work to change it

WAY BACK WHEN PUBlic relations was a young profession, President Calvin Coolidge hired a press agent. Before long, to "warm up" the president's image, the press agent arranged for Coolidge to have breakfast with a group of celebrities from the entertainment world.

It worked, sort of. The breakfast made page one of the New York Times with the headline: PRESIDENT NEARLY LAUGHS.

Image is a sensitive subject for presidents and-as we've been reminded lately-for presidential candidates. And certainly for the rest of us.

Surveys done a part of ALA's strategic long range planning process show that the image of the librarian rank among the top five concerns of the profession-right up there with library finances, access to information, intellectual freedom, and library personnel resources.

When I approached a consultant on marketing about doing a workshop for librarians and told him some of our concerns, he laughed and said, "Every profession think it's the only one with an image problem."

American Libraries runs an "Image" column on how others see us laying on examples of how the media takes the image of the librarian in vain (the art accompanying this article is drawn from the column). I really don't know whether librarians are more sensitive than other professionals, but sometimes it seems that way to us in the ALA Public Information Office - probably because we're the ones that get the letters and phone calls wanting ALA to "do something."

If the shoe fits...

A while back, a newspaper story about an ALA Conference upset a lot of librarians. The headline was, CAN'T JUDGE LIBRARIANS BY COVER - JUST SHOES. It referred to an actual quote by a librarian that most of her colleagues wear sensible shoes and aren't very fashionable. The rest of the article was positive, but the "damage" was done.

One librarian wrote in response to a "For Better or Worse" comic strip: "Will this stereotype ever die? The cartoon is innocent; the joke is even cute; but it perpetuates the nasty image. I sometimes wonder if I would have chosen to become a librarian if I had realized how frequently I would be subjected to cracks, comments and, worse, the unspoken prejudices. As I'm sure you realize, librarians must work harder than most professionals to win the respect they deserve."

A professional hazard

As a self-proclaimed "librarian" (coming from a journalism background), I sympathize. As a public relations professional, I have to remind you to put this in perspective. Can anyone name a profession that they haven't seen portrayed negatively on television or caricatured in a disrespectful way?

It's small comfort but true that almost every profession has its negative stereo-types. Lawyers are accused of being ambulance-chasing shysters out to make a buck. Doctors are fat cats who get rich off sick people. Reporters are obnoxious jerks who'd sell their own child for a good story. PR types have no ethics and are more concerned about style than substance. And we all know about used car salesmen.

As a former journalist turned public relations pro who has adopted the librarian's cause as my own, I suffer triple jeopardy.

Interestingly enough, I look back on eight years of doing community relations for a library system in Michigan and don't remember anyone ever raising the image issue. When I came to ALA four years ago, it was one of the first issues brought to my attention. Dismayed and somewhat discouraged by some of the alleged abuses, I determined to maintain my "objectivity."

Image, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. So, what is the librarian's image? Is it as bad a some would think? And what is the media's role? I decided to do my own market research. And anyone who sat next to me on a bus, plane, or in the doctor's office - not to mention friends and relatives - was fair game. …