The Hipster Librarian


I wanted to be a children?s book author and a librarian.

?Jennifer Garner on her childhood dream.

It’s finally happened: everyone wants to be me.

Well, they don’t want to be me, me.  After all, who wants student loans, an undervalued house and a sweater that looks like I’ve just mugged a red heffalump?  But everyone under thirty with skinny black jeans and artistic facial hair, or Bettie Page bangs and winsome skirts with felted bird appliqu?s (with an influential minority wearing all of the above) want to be what I am: a librarian.  This is a surprise, to put it mildly.

A surprise because when I announced to friends and loved ones that I wanted to become a librarian, reaction was less than enthusiastic, running somewhere along the lines of what I would expect if I’d just announced I was really Joan of Arc but with less restrictive clothing and a high tolerance to heat: pity, bewilderment and resignation.  It was as if I declared my intent of becoming a secular nun. I went to library school–a graduate program, no less, learned unspeakable things (“a festschrift is WHAT?”) and graduated two years later.  I was a librarian, with all its perks (steady income and access to books) and downsides (embarrassingly low steady income and non-existent social life)

But since library school, something odd happened: librarians became hip.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this cultural shift occurred. Perhaps it was when Lisa Loeb shuffled into our musical consciousness, murmuring ever-so-earnestly, wearing black-framed glasses and strumming a Hello Kitty Stratocaster with waifish arms.  (Having a back-up band named “Nine Stories” in honor of a collection of J.D. Salinger short stories didn’t hurt either.)  Or maybe we should point the finger at Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a film introducing a crucial concept: it’s okay to be quirky, self-obsessed and a loser, just as long as you’re wearing great vintage clothing.  Mash up the two phenomenons and what do you get?  Something uncomfortably close to the hipster ideal of a librarian.

Sometimes it’s Better to Look Like a Librarian Than Be a Librarian.

So why have hipsters latched onto librarians?  Because we’re losers, at least in the public’s mind.  Ask anyone with French tip nails and a frappuccino, and they’ll pretty much describe us as the Amy Winehouse of occupations: people with odd hair and odder interests. We’re crazy cat lady of professions, except we don’t smell like cat pee.  Most of the time.  But to those whose idea of the perfect day is having a quote from The Aeneid inked in Latin onto their forearm after scoring the perfect cardigan from Goodwill (preferably one designed for the opposite sex), a librarian is the personification of their post-millennial aspirations: props from friends for being the smarty-pants slacker that they are.   But if you hold such aspirations, you don’t have to go to library school to be a librarian: you can at the very least look and act like a librarian.  Why incur student loan debt and classmates with the demeanor of Dick Cheney without the sparkling repartee when all you need are your English lit books and access to your grandparents’ closet?

That’s why I’ve decided to write this — to save you the time and trouble of actually studying something worthwhile, while I gain notoriety and the opportunity to talk smack about my job and get paid for it.  By the time you’ve finished reading this, you’ll be able to terrify your friends with withering glances over reading glasses with the best of us.

But before we begin, it’s best to gain insight into why someone becomes a librarian by reviewing the themes and events that led to someone becoming a librarian, someone say, like me.  Why?  Because you can’t act like a librarian until you understand the motivations of a librarian.  It also gives me the opportunity to talk about myself without enduring continuous eye rolling.

My Life as a Librarian, or That What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Interesting

After much thought and several glasses of boxed wine, I’ve come up with what I think are the minimum standards one must meet before attempting pseudo-librarianhood.  Keep in mind these are flexible: the longer you ruminate about your past, the more likely you’ve more than met the standards:

Have a tragic childhood: Or at least a childhood you consider tragic.  I was overweight, nearsighted and sported hair one normally sees on tornado survivors, which pretty much ensured I wouldn’t have an actual friend until well into ninth grade.  But if you’re convinced your childhood was tragic because your parents made you eat vegan for two months when you were seven, is that any less of a reason to view the world through Prozac-colored glasses?  With a little mental reframing, your personal history could be as horrific as Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis, but with a 4G iPhone purchased by your non-custodial parent.

Adopt a sedentary lifestyle at an early age. I’ll confess: I was an early adopter of this trend.  While classmates where busily flailing around outside after school in what sociologists have identified as “having fun”, my time was better spent chewing on Garfield pencil-toppers while documenting from memory Christian Slater’s eyebrow formations in Heathers.

The years of fighting the urge to move anything beyond a fork to my mouth led me to cultivate the next essential trait: reading.  Read everything you can humanly get your hands on:   Comic books, Readers Digests, laundry tags, warning labels on bug sprays–anything that distracts you from the unrelenting pain that is your existence.  Or the fact your mom dragged you along to her best friend’s house (the one with no tv) and had absolutely no intention of leaving before Saturday Night Live begins.

Indulge in quirky but benign obsessions:  Do you enjoy pretending you’re the secret love child of Chuck Palahniuk and Amy Sedaris?  Did you spend the entire eighth-grade waiting for your arm to spontaneously combust?  Being slightly obsessive-compulsive is a good thing: it kicks off the impulse to search for self-help books in your mother’s BFF’s house while waiting for her to reenact for umpteenth time the story of your tragic need to spew Spaghetti-O’s on her favorite blouse when you were a toddler.  But if your obsessions keep you awake at night, keep in mind it’s a great start for your forthcoming fake memoirs or impressing the hottie barista at the localvore coffee house and knitting emporium..

Have a popular sibling:  This is extremely important–you need someone in your life as a reminder to your family and socially-inept colleagues that you are in fact a complete loser.  It’s critical they be in the popularity range of head cheerleader, homecoming queen or the Cutest Girl Ever.  They should be so popular their fame reverberates across time and space, so that when you move into your freshman dorm room, the first person you meet will stop and talk because he recognizes the aforementioned sibling, the one who’s frowning as she unpacks fourteen identical pairs of black Dr. Martin’s mary janes, from keggers in the valley.

Become a high achiever in areas so obscure that it will get you absolutely nowhere.  Write haikus about the Johnstown Flood or translate Gilbert & Sullivan arias into a language you imagine swallows speak. Continue to wallow in your anti-social past-times by attending an institution notorious for encouraging generations to tinker with dead-end fixations: college. These majors are particularly useful in honing your pointless bits o’ knowledge, listed in order of greatest potential for unemployability:

Art or Music English Literature Philosophy History

Attempts to salvage career prospects by minoring in business or communication will only announce to the world your awareness of your plight, not to mention enduring the agony of sitting in classes populated with guys wearing backward baseball caps.

Work at marginal jobs until you’re almost 30.  Because during college you decided your time would be best spent building origami recreations of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, you are now about as employable as Courtney Love in a pharmacy.  Don’t panic.  Keep in mind that you have options, namely:

Crashing on friends’ sofas, praying they don’t notice the sleeping bag and the tattered copy of “Me Talk Pretty One Day” shoved in the corner of their kitchenette before they dash off to their temp job. Landing a job at Hot Dog on a Stick: tell yourself you’re doing this for the ironic uniform and ignore the teeny voice in your psyche announcing you?ve officially lost the last shred of your self-esteem. Talking your parents into financing your indie film, the one taking a quirky look at a group of post-college twentysomethings and their devotion to any group with a name incorporating excessive punctuation.  Use the first installment to buy a camcorder, a Panic! At The Disco ticket in Madison and air fare.  Immediately leave the camera at the place where you last crashed and promptly freak out about it in your Facebook status update.  Finding a boyfriend, girlfriend or living biped with a trust fund who will let you move in until they realize you’re the one who’s been stealing their debit card to buy Choco Tacos and clove cigarettes.  Your crime is uncovered when they find fistfuls of mini-mart receipts tucked inside a Hot Dog on a Stick apron shoved in their laundry hamper. Grad school.

Finally, decide you need to work at something professional that will still let you pursue your art.  After years of Top Ramen, Learning Annex classes and three consecutive editions of What Color is My Parachute? you realize that although you are An Artist, your attempts are becoming really annoying.  And expensive. After ruling out paralegal as a career because you of your thing about xeroxing pictures of diseased lungs and neck MRIs as a primary job responsibility, you undergo an epiphany: what’s the one profession where you can skate on your immense knowledge of civil war button lore and shabby wardrobe?  Librarianship.

There you have it: my painful experiences are now your path to employment, or the opportunity of being serially accosted in bookstores by people demanding to know when the next Sara Gruen novel will be published.   But why suffer needlessly when all you need to do is listen to me?

No need to thank me. Just pick up the next round of Pabst for a change?

LINDA UEKI ABSHER is a librarian at Portland State University. She edits the popular Lipstick Librarian site.


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