Tuesday 25 June 2013

Don't Judge a Librarian by its Cover

A customer is approaching the information desk. I am available, as are my colleagues. Who will the person choose to approach? In the slow times of exam periods or late shifts, I often stand wondering why the customer didn’t approach me first. I was definitely sporting the mandatory “I am the happiest person in the world” smile, so really, they should have picked me. But they didn’t. So how do I cope with such rejection? I can either push my colleagues out of the way, or I can solve my problem like a true librarian. So off I went to do some research.

I was in luck. Really, it was fate, serendipity, or maybe just plain old coincidence. An advance view of First Impressions and the Reference Encounter: The Influence of Affect and Clothing on Librarian Approachability was available through The Journal of Academic Librarianship. It was twelve pages, so I skimmed. I only needed the conclusions and I did not have time to waste. My career and my self-esteem depended on me being the most popular person at the reference desk.

So what did I learn?

1.       Smiling consistently increases approachability. But I was already smiling like I’d won gold at the Olympics so moving on…
2.       Don’t look down. Especially if you’re a woman. Unless you are young and looking at a book. Oh the confusion. I’m young, must go find a book. But I’m also a woman, so should I just hold the book up to eye level? Yes, that could work!
3.       Wear a name tag. Especially if you are young. Hmmm, I wonder if I make my name tag bigger, will that help?
4.       Formal clothing – a must for men and older people, and a definite no for women and younger people. Well this is cause for celebration. I’m kicking off my heels and stepping into my Cons. And as for that pencil skirt. It can go to Vinnies. I’ll stick with my jeans.
5.       Last lesson – even clothing colour matters. If you are a woman, don’t wear red. This is funny because red is supposed to enhance attractiveness. So evidently, if you’re pretty, you’re up the creek without a paddle. Ok, off to the shops to stock up on white and blue t-shirts.

So where does all this leave me? I’m smiling, I am reading a book BUT not looking down. I’ve got my name tag on and looking like I’m going to the movies. I’m all set to be inundated with pleas for assistance.

PROBLEM. I’m 25. Told I look around 18. I have been asked if I’m a student on many occasions. I’ve also been asked “Can I speak to someone more senior?” – even when that senior person will give the exact response that I did. Usually, they’re not even more senior, just older. So now I’m standing in my casual wear looking even younger. I just don’t get this research, but how can you argue with evidence?

It’s easy – I’ll argue with the arrogance of youth.

So I think I’ll continue dressing like I’m going to a job interview. Let’s face it, appearance matters. But more than looking approachable, I want people to trust that I know what I am taking about. I’ll wear my jeans on Fridays, and see if I notice a difference.

Dimity Flanagan is an Information Services Librarian at UNSW Library


  1. This is great Dimity! I understand completely, and was often mistaken for a student or my answers not taken as seriously because of my perceived age/experience. So frustrating.
    PS: I'm wearing bright red today..ha!

  2. Fantastic post Dimity! I'd be interested to know if you notice a difference between days when you dress more formally and those when you dress in jeans. I worked in one academic library where we dressed like the students, and now work in one where I'm expected to wear corporate attire - I wonder if I seem less approachable now?

  3. I'm with you, Dimity! I look younger than my age too. It probably doesn't help that I'm 5'4. I worked at an academic library and, although I've been told I'm very approachable, I'm not quite sure *why* I am. I think I wore jeans to that job twice, with nice shoes and tops. Dressing as a professional may not help with the "approachable" problem but it definitely makes a difference to being taken seriously, in my experience. "Don't look down" is interesting.
    And I've definitely had the experience where they ask to speak to someone more senior... only to have the more senior lady tell the patron exactly what I'd just said.

  4. Ignore all rules. Especially those listed in library journals.

    1. Thanks Mal. The "rules" are a bit suspect.

  5. Love it and yes the rule book should go out the window. I've even found vendors treating me differently because of my age. Sometimes they comment on it and other times they seem to speak to everyone in the room but me (which I find especially amusing when I'm the one making the decision).

  6. I've been exactly where you are. The "senior" person (circulation clerk) would refer the patron to the "librarian" (me) and the patron would always end up verifying my answers/info. with the "senior" person. This too shall pass...these days, I'm tickled when someone asks my colleagues if they could speak with the "blonde librarian"--my hair is actually white:)

  7. A very interesting topic of discussion with a number of points to ponder. Now, I actually have the opposite problem age-wise, although I am also 5'4" (well okay 5'3" actually) which probably exacerbates matters :). I have heard it said that students don't want to come into a library and find "grey-haired middle aged librarians" on the Desk. Do they care what colour my hair is (or that it used to be brown before I started working here!!)? Personally, in over 30 years in the profession, I have never been able to put my finger on exactly what combination makes a librarian approachable or not, but my secret feeling is that "the eyes have it". There is something a client senses in the 'smile' or the interest or the intelligence that can be seen in your eyes when you catch their glance that I think may be indefinable but very genuine (or not, as the case may be). I think you all sound like wonderful, helpful and knowledgeable librarians. I think you should all just keep on being yourselves, and in case you might also like it, here is my Librarian's Motto of some 30 years to share with you: "Wear strong shoes, keep kind eyes, and remember how big the sky is". And long live the librarian who cares enough to wonder about these things :) CMB