I Have to Ask: Misconceptions About Libraries

Posted on December 9, 2019

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Hillary Ostlund, Library Services Manager Hillsboro Public Library in Hillsboro, Oregon, takes on common misconceptions about libraries. 

Libraries have been my jam for nearly two decades, and I frequently hear that I’m not what many think of when they think of a traditional librarian. I’d like to unpack that a bit in this post. I am proud to be part of changing the landscape and busting through traditional barriers to improve access and services in what I see as vital community hubs: libraries. And we have many misconceptions to dispel. 

Libraries mean a lot of things to people and people who work in libraries truly believe that we are here for everyone. This belief is both complex and wonderful, as we work to serve — and keep up with — changing community demographics and needs. When your mission is to serve everyone, you must make hard choices along the way and be willing to evolve, ideate, and innovate to set strategic priorities. Because of our commitment to free and open access, libraries are forced to be creative, think strategically, and ask “how can we?” due to often limited budgets and constraints (see the Night Library discussion for an example of this “how can we” way of thinking). It is in our ethos. 

So I asked some friends and family members, who don’t really use their libraries but love libraries, what they thought of libraries to get started on this article about misconceptions. My friends and family know there will be library and/or local gov talk at the table — and I thank and love them for accepting me and my quirks, I mean passion. There are many more I could write about, but I love these crowdsourced thoughts around something I hold so dear.  

The age old: libraries are a repository for books.

Do I love books and reading? Yes, of course I do. Do most people who work in libraries love books and reading? You bet. But more importantly, people who work in libraries love providing access to information (whatever the format), creating transformative and inspirational spaces (physical and virtual), and making connections to and for people: access, creating, and making = library.

We have many industry and research groups tracking library trends and usage (see Pew Research Center, American Library Association’s annual State of America’s Libraries, and OCLC reports), and consistently books are rated as a top service we provide and are absolutely relevant to our brand. It is encouraging to see other services being recognized, but we have a lot of work to do to promote these other services. Because besides providing books, libraries are bustling hubs that offer a little slice of everything, including makerspaces, meeting and study rooms, programs and events for learning and connection, literacy activities, and collections called “Library of Things” where you can join the sharing economy and borrow bakeware, tools, sports equipment, musical instruments, and much more. But when you look up the word library in a dictionary, you get something like this:


We need to spruce up this dusty definition of “library”, a very staid noun, and make “library” feel expressive and full of motion. How about something like this?

–>Libraries are active, living, and evolving hubs, providing access, spaces, and connections; we adapt to meet the needs of our public and a healthy, thriving library is a sign of a healthy, thriving community.

When people only think of us as a building or a room containing or controlling things, we are losing. Thriving libraries are full of movement and life and have been shifting and changing as access to information has changed historically over time (when I started in libraries pre-Google…can you even imagine?) to meet our changing community needs. It’s time for the definition of the word “library” to catch up. 

The stereotype: Librarians are quiet, wear cardigans and glasses, love cats…and are female.

Librarians have a strong stereotype and are widely known for the “shush”, being meek, quiet, and shy, and dressing in a cardigan-and-glasses chic way. Take a look: https://giphy.com/search/librarian.

But in truth, we are extroverts, introverts, all profiles of the DiSC® assessment, brainiacs, crafters, sports lovers, #LocalGov fans, data-nerds, all of it. We are inclusive and welcome all levels of communication and very rarely shush you, are information freedom fighters, and celebrate the uniqueness of our fashion senses

Like much of local government, we have work to do with racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in our profession. Library worker demographics skew very female and very white. Have I personally enjoyed and laughed my way through librarian portrayals (personal faves: Margot Robbie’s librarian on SNL, Parker Posey’s librarian in Party Girl, and, of course, Tammy Swanson from Parks and Rec) in pop culture? Oh sure. But just like I’d love to see the definition of “library” be updated to reflect our dynamic profession and work, I would love to see media depictions shift to where we are not meanly shushing people, are not seen as meek and quiet, and are taken seriously. So while we can laugh along with you and make fun of the classic librarian stereotype, just know we do get tired of the bun-and-cardigan jokes. And the biases these stereotypes permeate. If we are truly working to foster an inclusive and diverse array of services for our communities, we have a lot of work to do to dispel this misconception of personalities and appearances so that this work feels and looks important, necessary, and open to all.

The fear: people think we read books all day.

I can’t tell you how many times (and librarians reading this, you know what I’m talking about) I’ve told people what I do, and I get how nice it must be to work in such a quiet environment where I get to read all day. Nothing could be further from the truth. Libraries are busy. But our business has changed, we are no longer just about books and haven’t been for some time. We’re in the people business and therefore the storytelling business. We know we need to tell better stories through data and show our impact as we navigate and balance resources.

So, local government friends and colleagues: I am asking for your help! Help us change these misconceptions by sharing our stories, getting to know your library colleagues in your city or municipality, and know that we who work in libraries are not reading books in the quiet of our offices all day. We are your agents of change and welcome the opportunity to innovate and collaborate with you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other misconceptions — reach me on Twitter @hillaryostlund or hillary.ostlund@hillsboro-oregon.gov

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