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Combating Ageism: Lessons Learned by "Baby" Librarians 
by Amanda Roberts 
[reprinted with permission from NMRT Footnotes, Vol. 33, No. 2, Nov 2003]

In my previous profession in which I worked as a copy editor in an advertising firm, I dealt with an assortment of interesting attitudes. I was left speechless one day when a senior copy editor on staff told me that my superior copy editing abilities were due to the fact that I was closer in age to grammar school. Offended, I defended my abilities by explaining that I continually updated my skills through reading style guides and good literature, and in fact, I was a mere 12 years younger and probably diagrammed the very same sentences in school!

When I entered the library profession two and half years ago, I thought that my baby-faced woes had come to an end. Here was a group of enlightened individuals, I thought naively, tugging at a crystalline pink barrette in my hair, who dedicated their lives to providing unfettered information access to people of all creeds, colors, and ages.  

Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed by my unrealistic expectations. I smiled (but cringed inward) as I was introduced to more experienced library professionals as a "baby librarian." At the reference desk, students would ask to speak to the librarian or ask me what classes I was taking. As it turns out, I discovered that library patrons, as well as my colleagues, are only human. 

How do I deal with this issue? 

After accepting that people are people and that I, too, am guilty of drawing similar assumptions based on others' appearances, I planned a success-oriented, surface-based attack: a complete overhaul of my outward appearance. Like any good researcher, I consulted the world of fashion and image consulting to determine how I could change to "fool" everyone into thinking I was really thirty-one and deserved respect! Here's a laundry list of appearance don'ts (disclaimer: some of these may not be gender-neutral): 

  • Don't slump at the reference desk.
  • Don't wear butterfly, cat, or heart earrings, or any type of jewelry or accessories that may make you appear puerile. (Yes, that means no more Hello Kitty if you want to be taken seriously!)
  • No Ally McBeal miniskirts, no open-toed shoes or trend setting platforms or highlights.
  • No frosty-pink lipstick or deep, colorful makeup, Capri pants, cargo pants or sandals.
  • No shiny or translucent shirts.

Here's a list of do's:

  • Do wear hose or socks.
  • Buy some suits and wear them. Blue is the color that makes you appear the most professional. After that, go with gray, black, khaki, or olive (keep it dark!). (Tip: JCPenney is a good place to buy cheap suits.)
  • Wear comfortable, elevated shoes if you are "directionally challenged." Try to avoid flats, and purchase heels that range from one to two and a half inches high.
  • Add a scarf, belt, or nice jewelry (gold, silver, or pearls) to a simple skirt (or pants) and an ironed shirt to look more "professional" and "together."
  • Wear makeup and get manicures regularly. Keep the makeup shades in the same color family.
  • Tuck in shirts and wear a belt that matches shoes and handbag whenever possible.  

Testimonials: Real-life Situations of Your NMRT Colleagues 

Of course, not everyone has the time or desire to change his or her appearance. Others may think it is downright phony to do so. Below are some real-life situations that NMRT members encountered, and what they did to "combat" the situation. 

"As someone who entered library school right after undergrad, I've always been getting the 'Oh, are you a student?' comment. The fact that I also happen to look younger than my age and am rather short does not help. When I changed from a special library to an academic library several months ago, I knew I would run into some of the same comments. One in particular was hard to handle - I was observing an instruction session with one of the other librarians, and before the class she introduced me to the instructor as the 'new Access Services Librarian.' All seemed to be going well until the instructor introduced us to the class. She introduced my colleague as a librarian from the library, and me as a ' student librarian observing the session for her classes.' My colleague and I were quite surprised, and not sure how to respond. We let it slide until later in the session, where my colleague tactfully asked me a question, specifically commenting 'Since you run Access Services at this university, how is this handled?' I thought it was one of the subtlest and tactful responses to an ageist comment yet."
--Gretel Stock-Kupperman, Access Services Librarian  

"Most of my experience with this sort of thing was when I was working as a support staff (because I waited so many years to go back for my Masters degree). The one big thing that I recall, though, was an incident in my first library position in Tazewell County, VA, in a public library. I was responsible for several different things, including children's programming, shelving periodicals, maintaining the children's/YA areas on the second floor of the library, and working the reference area (also located on the second floor). One day, I saw a lady looking through the reference materials, apparently lost and confused. When I approached her to ask if she needed assistance, I was met with, 'Um, no, I don't think that you can help me.' I just looked at her with a questioning glance, then she went on to explain in a whisper, 'I'm sorry, but I'm working on a research paper about sexual addiction -- and I don't think that you're old enough to help me!' Ignoring my initial impulse to explain that I'd had a friend who was addicted to sex when I was in high school, I calmly explained that I had been trained to help all of our patrons with basic research in our branch library, assured her that I was an adult (even telling her where I had attended college), and proceeded to help her find several materials to help her with her research."
--Chrissie Anderson Peters, NMRT Secretary 

"I started a job at a large, very prestigious university. The librarian that was supposed to train me never did, so I finally asked her when she was going to train me. She replied that all the new librarians just wanted all the knowledge of the experienced librarians without working for it. I replied that maybe the new people had knowledge that the older people didn't have and that perhaps we should work together, and walked away!"
--Name withheld 

"Being a children's librarian who doesn't look a day over 20 (I'm actually 30 this year), I am so used to being told that I look very young, sometimes I even get mistaken for a student. In my previous job, a grandmother came up to the Children's Reference Desk and asked for a 'Senior' librarian. I asked if I could try to help her, since I was the most senior librarian available. She said, 'Dear, you wouldn't know anything about the books I'm looking for, they were written before you were born!' To this I replied, 'I might not be old enough to have been living when the classics were written, but I am certainly old enough to know quality literature and be able to find it!' She finally let down her guard and asked me to find several classic children's books - all of which I was able to locate for her. After she left, I smiled, another age stereotype bubble busted!"
--Zahra M. Baird, Children's Librarian, Chappaqua Library 

Advice and Commentary from Your NMRT Colleagues 

"Recently, we interviewed for a new Library Assistant in our Circulation Department here at Northeast State and the interviewee who ended up getting the position thought that I was a student when she interviewed because I was at the Circulation desk and 'seemed so laid-back' when she came in for her interview. I didn't take it offensively at all now -- being 32-years-old and mistaken for someone 8-10 years younger than that made my day! But being taken less seriously when I first entered the profession because people DID think I was younger (and therefore less experienced/capable), annoyed me to no end. Maybe part of the 'trick,' then, is perspective..."
--Chrissie Anderson Peters, NMRT Secretary 

"Fortunately, ageism works in my favor, especially in my current job. As a Young Adult Services librarian, half the selling point of being able to work in an environment of teenagers and young adults is being able to relate to them. In my case, my selling point is the fact I look like a teenager -- and act like one too. When teenagers and teen volunteers/workers see me, they don't see a librarian. They see someone who is young and acts young, and probably someone who they feel comfortable talking to and asking questions. At least I hope that's what they're feeling ... but you can never really tell with teenagers these days... (smile)!"
--Dante Tang, NSU Alvin Sherman Library, Research, and Information Technology Center 

"I've been called the baby and people have said, 'she's too young to appreciate that,' or made references to my inexperience. More often than not, I have taken the young and baby comments as compliments. Why? Well, because I think there are many advantages to be young. Most of my colleagues have, in fact, been very supportive and work with me in a mentoring capacity, when I need it. I also think that I relate well to the students, sometimes better than my colleagues. Most of the time, when I've been called the baby, it is in reference to a compliment about my 'high energy' or my 'passion' for my profession.

"New librarians can use their young status to their advantage--ask a lot of questions and take advantage of your supposed naiveté. You may also be able to get away with trying out new ideas in a workplace when you're the 'young' one."
--Michelle Millet, Trinity University  

"Even when I am wearing a navy suit and pearls, people will sometimes still say to me, 'Oh, I thought you were just a student' when I'm at the reference desk or meeting a faculty member or even a library colleague. My internal instant reaction is defensiveness, because I am interpreting this comment as 'Oh, I thought you were not a real professional'! This defensiveness usually drives me to go the extra mile for the patron or to give an outstanding BI, just to prove the person wrong! What starts out as being a negative feeling always ends up being a positive experience for the patron (and an ego-boost for me!)."
--Amanda J. Roberts, Florida Atlantic University

One Final Note 

Library Literature has a lot to say about the emotive life of librarians. In an interesting 1984 book entitled The Assertive Librarian, author Janette S. Caputo presents the following basic ideas about one's behavior and attitude:

Avoid making comments about others' physical appearance

Librarians can benefit from "active listening," which requires "undivided attention … and the ability to keep in touch with your own feelings so you will not respond defensively" (Caputo 90).  

And don't forget: Librarians deserve respect!

Works Cited 

·        Caputo, Janette S. "Verbal Assertion." The Assertive Librarian. Phoenix: Oryx, 1984. 73-119

·        Maysonave, Sherry. "Ask the Image Expert: I Look Like a Kid!" BlueSuitMom.com. 16 October 2003

·        Seitz, Victoria A. Your Executive Image. Holbrook: Bob Adams, 1992

About the Author: 

Amanda Roberts is the Assistant Editor of NMRT Footnotes, a publication of the American Library Association New Members Round Table.

Article published Dec 2003

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.

Page last updated 10/03/2005
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