Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Are Librarians Nerds?

Librarians: Rule of Cool or Revenge of the Nerds?

          As a profession, we librarians seem to spend more than the normal amount of time worrying about our image, and the status of our profession. (1) Are we being replaced by computers, the internet, iPhones and Google?  

          We have an even deeper self-image issue. For a long time now our profession has been painfully aware of the negative image we've got. Somewhere along the line, a thought seeped into our collective consciousness – we’re afraid that we’re nerds. 

          But are we?  To determine the truth of this, we must first define our terms, then evaluate how much we match the description. So what is a nerd?

          The word nerd is a relatively new one, appearing first in the 1950’s. Possibly it was introduced to us by Dr. Seuss (a mean turn from one whom librarians have always liked) in the book If I Ran the Circus. (2) But, the book used the word only in passing and did not offer a definition, so no help there. 

          I have consulted a number of definition sources, and find that there is no one accepted definition for nerd, although there is a lot of overlap from one source to the next. 

How to Nerd
  •  The Urban Dictionary defines nerd thus: “one whose IQ exceeds his weight”, and offers this as well: “an individual persecuted for his superior skills or intellect, most often by people who fear or envy him”.
  • Britannica has no entry for nerd. I include this just for completeness.
  • Merriam-Webster, my go-to dictionary says “an unattractive, unstylish or inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.”
  • Wikipedia says nerd  "is a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired."
  •  The Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd ed.) says “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”, and “a single-minded expert in a particular field”.
  •  TV Tropes offers a more descriptive definition. A nerd is “not smooth, not handsome or attractive. Not, above all else, popular outside of a grouping of fellow-nerds. A walking, talking fashion disaster”. Like this:
For his own sake, don't let him out of the house like that!
Not painting a very pretty picture, is it?  
          Women in the profession still have to deal with the "Marian the Librarian"/old maid/spinster stereotype, which implies anti-social attitude and old lady dress sense. Men in the profession get tagged with being in a 'women's field'. Plus sitting around reading all day. (I wish it were like that).

For the last, I offer a visual definition, the Nerd Venn Diagram!

The fact that I've included this, and analyzed it pretty much makes the case, doesn't it?

         As you can see here, to achieve a Nerd score requires a witch's brew of Intelligence, Social Ineptitude and Obsession. This includes all of the aspects of nerdiness brought up in the definitions above.  Do Librarians, as a profession, deserve to be branded with this Trifecta of Fail?

         Having studied the definitions, and reflecting upon myself, I will readily cop to the Intelligent part. Is this a problem?  The other two 'requirements' are another matter. I have my hobbies, and my occasional social faux pas, but on the whole I can, with confidence, conclude that I am not a nerd. I present a short sampling of my reasons why not for your inspection. 
Reasons I am not a Nerd
  • I know how  to wear a hat. My hat of choice is the fedora. While my wardrobe is not super stylish, I understand the basic rules of menswear, i.e. length of pants, to avoid clashing tie with shirt or shirt with pants.
  • I was in the Army Reserve as a hospital corpsman where an infantry officer once described me as a "hardworking son-of-a-**@$%". I have thrown live hand grenades and fired machine-guns. There is an Expert grenade badge and a Sharpshooter rifle badge on my dress greens.
  • I teach fencing, which anyone will tell you is a fast, intense sport requiring focus and whole-body coordination. 
  • I can do 12 pull-ups in one set. 
  • I have been happily married for 15 years now, to the woman I love, and who loves me. Anyone who says my wife is a nerd needs their head examined, and may need their nose straightened. 
  • I have been a librarian for 13 years, and I've lost count of how many times I have stood in front of a room full of students (who know all about being cool, right?) or professional educators to present library research techniques, copyright, and other weighty matters. All without stuttering, stammering or fainting while communicating in an engaging and comprehensible manner.
  • Book currently on my coffee table: How to Be a Gentleman, by John Bridges. I am endeavoring to teach my sons to be gentlemen. 
  • This post should clear up whether I am obsessed with Star Wars or not. Or this one.
  • My favorite TV show these days is the BBC's Top Gear
  • My Pandora channels include 80's Rock radio, Dave Brubeck, Joe Satriani, Taylor Swift, Beethoven, Harry Connick Jr, The Four Freshmen, Kings's X and Straight No Chaser
  • I answer library reference questions in person, by phone, by chat and by email. I work with donors, faculty, staff and students. I have had questions on every subject you can think of.  I have yet to meet a question that has caused me to freeze up and be unable to provide at least some answer. 
  • The only thing that I absolutely, positively will not give up as long as I'm still breathing is my faith. The word for that is devout, not obsessed. 
  • Read the rest of my blog. Do I sound obsessed to you? Merriam Webster defines obsession as "A persistent, disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling."   So no, that's not me. 
 Some non-nerdy activities practiced by my co-workers:

  • reading - fiction & non-fiction
  • crochet & knitting
  • walking and fitness
  • baseball
  • a side business in homemade ice cream
  • gardening
  • running
  • karate (an advanced belt)
  • being parents
  • politics/current events
  • online gaming 
  • motorcycling
  • hosting dinner parties
  • role playing games
  • model trains
  • kayaking & mountain biking
  • cooking
  • ultimate frisbee
  • hiking
           I admit that there may be nerds among us in the library field, but it may be more true to say that the general public thinks of librarians as nerdy, owing to representations in popular media, or the apparent anti-intellectual bias in the background noise of our culture.
          Here's one example of a librarian who's got a lot going on, all of which requires significant social ability:  I do not know how this lady dresses, but I'll bet she doesn't have a pencil through her hair bun.   These folk from my blog roll seem to know how to dress themselves as well:  Hedgehog Librarian & Stephen's Lighthouse. Or how about Steven Bell?

          Will my little blog post make a difference in how Americans view librarians, or how we view ourselves?  I don't know, but I am still convinced that I'm not a nerd, and will continue to act and speak for our profession getting some respect.  

If you know of any cool librarians, please share a pic or web site in the comments.

Footnotes (1) pre-published article in New Library World 115, 7/8 (2014) Identifying the prevailing images in library & information science profession: is the landscape changing?
Authors: Evgenia Vassilakaki, Valentini Moniarou-Papaconstantinou
(2) Dr. Seuss If I Ran the Circus (1956)

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