Cultural Mirror or Traditional Standards

How Should Libraries Regulate Tattoos, Piercing and Other Creative Body Expressions?

The tattooed librarian, arguably, has become a new cliché. To beat back the specter of the spectacled Marian, many library workers have consciously adopted appearances that defy “meek and mild” stereotypes. But whatever the reason an individual chooses a tattoo, tattooing is part of a growing trend that includes other forms of body modification as well as non-traditional hair styles.

In her January 2007 Library Worklife article, “The Basics of Tattoos in the Workplace,”1 Lisa Callaway outlined the laws affecting regulation of tattoos in the workplace: what aspects can be regulated and what aspects should be left alone. Callaway ends her examination with a checklist of questions to consider when determining whether a tattoo or other creative bodily expression (body piercing, hair style or color, etc) could be cause for accommodation due to religious beliefs. Her final line regarding handling tricky employee situations is: “An employee’s perception is, after all, his reality.”

In this article, let’s expand this discussion from the seemingly straightforward question of religious accommodation and legality into the broader perceptions that employee creative expression brings to the minds of library colleagues and users. In other words: are library staff tattoos, body piercing or hair styles important factors in the image a library portrays to its users? Does dress code extend to the body itself (do you “wear” a tattoo as you do clothing?) and cover a person’s total appearance? Do library users hesitate to approach someone displaying body art? Do colleagues treat those with facial piercing differently, or are we too “nice” or “aware” as a profession to let pink hair get in the way of collegiality? In this article, the “expert” advice will be first examined. Then, first-hand opinions from those working in libraries will be explored. Finally, what about the opinions of library users: students and the public? The approval or disapproval of library patrons is, after all, the most easily measured: does non-traditional appearance of staff discourage them from visiting the library or fully utilizing its resources?

Expert Input

First, let’s define who the “experts” are for this article. Of course, there are the legal experts. In addition to Lisa Callaway’s article mentioned above, there is a good list of legal decisions and administrative rules changes (including a link to how the military changed their dress code policies) at the “AELE Law Library of Case Summaries: Employment & Labor Law for Public Safety Agencies: Hairstyle and Appearance Regulations & Discrimination.”2 For a discussion of how appearance is affecting discrimination law, see “Piercings, Makeup, and Appearance: The Changing Face of Discrimination Law” by Michael W. Fox in the June 2006 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.3

Much has been written and debated and opined by Human Resources staff, professors and other leaders in the profession. For the sake of this article, they are the “experts” at deciding what is employee religious expression or creative expression, and how that decision practically plays out in the workplace. The most relevant “experts” for this article are the HR Professionals, and the supervisors they advise, working in libraries or library system settings. These professionals address such issues daily. Here is a summary of relevant “expert” findings on the topic.

In October 2005, Elisa Topper answered the question about tattoos in the workplace in her column “Working Knowledge” in American Libraries.4 In it, she features librarian perspectives on the topic, covers the basics of drafting a dress code, and lists statistics about tattoos and employer attitudes about tattoos. The librarians quoted in the article generally reflect the findings that are discussed under “Colleague Clash?” below. In a February 2007 article “Library Dress Codes: Keeping Up Appearances,” in the Newsletter (North Suburban Library System, Wheeling, IL) authors Gerard Dempsey and Janet Petsche cover Illinois law on tattoos, body piercing and general physical appearance in the workplace. They conclude that a library “should impose only standards that have some objective, legitimate business justification.”5

Another interesting piece on the NSLS website is their “Fast Facts #448: Library Dress Code.”6 In it, NSLS compiled a chart in 2004 listing the answer that each library in the system gave to questions about dress codes, including “Does your library have any dress code restriction, for example tattoos or piercings?” At the time of compilation, none of the 16 libraries listed any restrictions specifically regarding tattoos, although piercing was mentioned. Library managers wanting to gain a perspective on how other libraries regulate these areas of dress codes may want to poll their own area libraries and compile a similar chart for comparison.

HR professionals and employment attorneys have similarly faced the question of tattoos, piercing and how they fit into or are regulated by dress code policies. In 2002 the Queens Borough Public Library in Jamaica, New York, changed their dress code policy to include no visible tattoos or body piercing. The unionized staff of the library staged a rally in protest. Library Journal reported on the “wide divergence” of such rules in a September 2002 article “Union Protests Queens Dress Code.”7 Again, the issue of enforcement makes a strong appearance. As supervisors know, policies that are not being enforced or reflective of current practice can be difficult to justify.

In the July 16, 2007 article “Inked at Work” in Human Resources Executive Online,8 labor and employment attorney David Barron recommends that tattoos, piercing and hair styles should be included in written policies. But the policies themselves are of less importance, Barron argues, than the consistency with which those policies are enforced. Employers must not enforce dress codes selectively. “Inked at Work” also explores the deeper tension between “individual and institution,” a conflict at the very heart of this discussion. Two similar articles discuss how best to draft dress code policies for tattoos, piercing and hair styles, as well as how to handle employee criticism or violations of these policies: “But It’s My Body Art, and I Like It!,” an April 9, 2007 White Paper published on the HR section of the Business and Legal Reports (BLR) website,9 and the article on “Dress Code: Body Art in the Workplace.”10

Colleague Clash?

In addition to enforcement, another consideration is the image that tattoos, body piercing or hair styles can have among colleagues. For a first-hand look at this, I polled the staff at a few local libraries in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN, to find out the following:

  • Is it ok for circulation staff to display tattoos, piercing or unique hair styles on the job? How about reference staff or other public service staff?
  • Does your opinion change if it is a public library vs. academic or special library?
  • Does your opinion change if it is a different type of staff position?
  • Should tattoos be allowed as “freedom of expression” or be regulated by a dress code?

The majority of respondents thought tattoos were fine in general, unless the image on the tattoo included vulgar or insensitive content. However, some people did suggest that professional staff at public service desks should only be dressed in professional attire at all times and that tattoos, body piercing, and hair were part of the attire.

Most agreed that their opinion varies by type of library. For example, law firm libraries or other corporate or private libraries would probably have a stricter dress code than a public or even academic library. Most people thought piercing on the face and unique hair styles may be too distracting or even upsetting for colleagues and patrons to handle. Many respondents noted that they found low-cut pants or stomach exposure at the circulation desk equally, if not more, distasteful, and would object if a piercing or other body modification interfered with the person’s ability to work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this brief poll revealed that library workers over the age of 50 and/or who had worked at the library for 15 years or more were least receptive to trends like tattooing, body modification and non-traditional hairstyles. These workers were significantly more likely to argue that tattoos should not be seen and were damaging to the professional image of the library. They also associated tattoos with people who were “less educated.” In contrast, younger, less experienced staff insisted that seeing library staff with tattoos lends itself to the image that a library is a hip place, no longer stuffy and boring. For a further discussion of this topic among library colleagues, see the August 8, 2007, post and comments at the library_mofo blog.11

User Perceptions

The culture of the workplace, and the appearance of the workers, also impact the people who use the library’s services. This article defines “users” as the general public and students. After a brief poll, the overwhelming response from undergraduate students is that tattoos, piercing and hair styles are welcome and appreciated as a way to identify with the library staff. Students appreciate the cultural mirror they see when approaching a service desk. One student says, “A tattoo does not define a person, and I believe that most clients will not judge the capability of a worker or library by seeing someone with a tattoo. If anything, it will help to debunk the myth that libraries are boring.” Just as with older library workers, however, older library patrons were less likely to find tattoos, piercing or non-traditional hair styles as part of professional dress. But most respondents of all ages insisted that an employee’s pink hair or tattoos would not prevent them from using the library or approaching the staff member for assistance.


It is interesting that the majority of articles on this topic are covered from the employer’s point of view. In other words, distressed bosses and coworkers are behind the push to incorporate tattoos, piercing and hair styles into dress code policies. In libraries, I believe that the users should drive policy-creation or modification, especially with regard to public services. If the patron doesn’t mind seeing a tattoo or pink hair, why should a colleague? How should libraries regulate tattoos, piercing and other creative body expressions? The answer is “carefully.” Any policies written should reflect actual practice and contain the intent to enforce in a way that is fair to all employees. Employees who feel supported in their choice of lifestyle and cultural expression are apt to reflect that respect to library users at service points. Library users look for a cultural mirror at their library and are starting to find one in many ways.

Works Cited

  1. Callaway, Lisa. 2007. The Basics of Tattoos in the Workplace. Library Worklife. January.  Accessible at

  2. AELE Law Library of Case Summaries: Employment and Labor Law for Public Safety Agencies.  Hairstyle and Appearance Regulations and Discrimination. 2007. Accessible at

  3. Fox, Michael W. 2006. Piercings, Makeup, and Appearance: The Changing Face of Discrimination Law. Texas Bar Journal. June. 564-569.  Accessible at

  4. Topper, Elisa F. 2005. Working Knowledge: Designing Dress Codes. American Libraries. October. 80. Accessible at

  5. Dempsey, Gerard E. and Janet N. Petsche. Library Law: Library Dress Codes: Keeping Up Appearances. Newsletter. February 8, 2007. Accessible at

  6. North Suburban Library System. Fast Facts #448: Library Dress Code. 2004. Accessible at

  7. Rogers, Michael and Susan DiMattia. Union Protests Queens Dress Code. Library Journal. September 1, 2002. Accessible at

  8. Felton-O’Brien, Michael. Inked at Work. Human Resource Executive Online. July 16, 2007. Accessible at

  9. But It’s My Body Art, and I Like It! White Paper. HR section of the Business and Legal Reports (BLR) website. April 9, 2007. Accessible at

  10. Robo, Regina M. Dress Code: Body Art in the Workplace. Workforce Productivity Article. No date. Accessible at

  11. Ms. Meghan (tangeryne). library_mofo blog post on August 8, 2007. Accessible at